Community groups ask how to keep immigrant businesses rooted in east Charlotte
Manolo’s Bakery on Central Avenue buzzed with activity on Saturday morning. More than two dozen community members crowded into the space, not just for pastries, but to discuss development policy.
Charlotte Urbanists, a community activist group, set up the grassroots forum with support from Carolina Migrant Network and Action NC. The day’s agenda centered on how to keep immigrant-run businesses like Manolo’s in east Charlotte, explained Charlotte Urbanists organizer John Holmes.
Central Avenue has grown into a hub for immigrant-run businesses in recent decades. As rental costs increase, residents are asking how to avoid gentrification and displacement of the international communities that have come to characterize the corridor.
“I think we're also seeing some of the anxiety from local business owners trying to make sure they don't get pushed out,” Holmes said.
“You start to see that the growth happens in the inner core of the city and then it just ripples outwards. You have Plaza Midwood, which became super expensive, and a lot of businesses had to uproot and moved to Eastway Crossing. Then it happened again where more immigrant [business] owners had to uproot and move outwards and outwards.”
This isn’t a pattern unique to Charlotte, Holmes explained. It’s happened in other cities and to other immigrant communities.
“You had Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston. Those were the hotspots if you were Hispanic and you wanted to move to the United States. But then what happened is that their housing supply didn't keep up. And it started to push people out gradually, further and further,” he said.
That’s what residents hope to avoid, as the city plans increased investments along Central Avenue, one of six regions identified in its Corridors of Opportunity initiative. Holmes said that investment is needed, but he wants to see it done thoughtfully.
“I think Central Avenue is probably one of the most [overlooked] and underinvested corridors that should be invested in and should be done so equitably,” he said. “When we look at some of the issues that affect the immigrant community, we see that lack of transportation is a huge issue and also housing and affordable housing, at that.”
Bakery owner Manolo Betancur said his employees have benefited from an affordable rental agreement with the nearby Peppertree Apartments, which allows them to live within walking distance of their work. While accessible housing has helped them stay in the neighborhood, the bakery faces other barriers.
“We have been 25 years in this building, and nobody wants to sell this building,” Betancur said. “All our politicians, our leaders [say] we want to help small businesses. We want to support small businesses, but nobody says, OK, small businesses deserve to own their own place.”
Betancur said that as an immigrant, he’s faced increased scrutiny on the rental market. He recently stepped away from a rental agreement because the stipulations were too steep.
“[They] wanted me to sign a document where I put my house as a guarantee just to rent that space. That's when my attorney told him, look, if I were an American company, you wouldn't be asking for that,” Betancur said.
Holmes highlighted a city of Charlotte pilot program, announced earlier this month, that could help renters become homeowners in the area and in other Corridors of Opportunity.
“What they're doing with the housing item is that they're giving up to 80 grand if you meet certain requirements and you have to stay in the Charlotte community for 30 years until your loan is paid off or until your loan is forgiven at the 31-year mark,” Holmes said.
The mortgage program can be used towards properties worth up to $315,000 but it doesn’t include business establishments. Betancur said if it did, it’s an option he’d be interested in exploring.
“Everybody wants to sell houses, but nobody wants to sell a place for a small business to own their own place,” Betancur said.
Community member Keith Witherspoon said it will only benefit Charlotte to keep small immigrant businesses like Manolo’s in the neighborhood.
“Allowing the Hispanic community here to actually grow independently on their own actually allows them to bring a sense of their own flavor to Charlotte,” Witherspoon said during the meeting. “Then people come here for that, which also provides economic opportunities for the people in the community.”
The community meeting was part of a regular series by Charlotte Urbanists called Policy Power Hour. Holmes said they plan to host future policy discussions at other small local businesses.
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