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Affordable housing leader leaves legacy of change in Charlotte

There are people in Charlotte who don’t like to see affordable housing advocate Pat Garrett coming in their direction.

Pastor Darryl Gaston of Charlotte says he was among them. He remembers being defensive and ready for a fight when Garrett’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership proposed putting an affordable housing project in his Druid Hills neighborhood just north of uptown.

“I thought it was a group of people with money who were coming in to try and take over my neighborhood and displace my people,” he says.

A decade later, the small church pastor who grilled Garrett’s team mercilessly at a public forum is now among her biggest fans.

And he’s saddened at the news that Garrett – one of the state’s champions of affordable housing – is retiring this month from the organization she helped build.

Garrett will be replaced April 22 by Julie Porter, executive director of the Greater Kansas City (Missouri) Local Initiatives Support Corp., a neighborhood revitalization effort.

“Pat is a visionary. She has the ability to look at junk and see a diamond in the rough,” Gaston says. “I’m not just talking about what she did in Druid Hills. I’m talking about what she’s done all over Charlotte: Historic Double Oaks, Park at Oaklawn and Genesis Park.”

All are the names of projects backed by the nonprofit Housing Partnership over the past 24 years, when it helped create homes for 4,500 families throughout Mecklenburg County.

Genesis Park is perhaps the best example of her ability to see “a diamond in the rough.” The area was infamous as an open-air drug market, including a gate into the neighborhood someone installed along Interstate 77, so motorists could have access to buy drugs.

The Housing Partnership began buying properties in that community in 1991, a period when it was ranked as having the highest violent crime rate in the city.

Garrett’s organization eventually placed new homeowners in 93 of the community’s 200 properties, and Habitat for Humanity placed 12.

The result: Violent crime has decreased by 77 percent since 1992, the partnership says.

Stabilizing neighborhoods

The collective impact of Housing Partnership’s various projects represents a $385 million investment in the county, says David Howard, a senior vice president with the Housing Partnership.

However, he insists that’s small compared with the ripple effect of lower crime rates, higher property values and increased economic development in the communities hosting those projects.

“It stabilized those neighborhoods and that’s why people love Pat Garrett,” Howard says. “The partnership’s real strength is helping to develop a nucleus that can grow on its own.”

This includes mixing affordable housing with market rate homes in areas ripe for gentrification.

The Housing Partnership has also tackled bringing affordable housing to outlying areas of the city, which remains a hot-button issue.

One of Garrett’s few defeats came in 2010, when neighborhood protests and a City Council vote stopped construction of 90 low-income apartments near the Ayrsley area of southwest Charlotte.

Garrett blames it on bad timing, because it happened at the same time another group’s proposal to build low-income apartments near Ballantyne stirred up weeks of protests and accusations by neighbors.

“It was a crazy time. We never lost one, but it’s our fault for not thinking it through,” Garrett says. “We backed up and started again.”

The result was the creation of 83 affordable units for low-income seniors on the same property, a cause that seems more palatable to middle-income neighborhoods.

Helping build a nonprofit

Garrett is 69, which some see as past retirement age.

But she says the reason she’s stepping down has more to do with guilt over not spending enough time with her grandchildren in the Wilmington area.

However, even they will have to wait until after she and her husband, Dan, return from a two-week vacation in China.

Garrett was born and raised in Macon County, in western North Carolina, the daughter of a rural mail carrier and a dairy farmer. After graduating from UNC Greensboro, she worked as a high school teacher.

Her interest in affordable housing came later, when Garrett took a job with the Macon Program for Progress in Franklin in Macon County.

The program is an agency that helps struggling families and workers get financial aid and job training.

It was a small organization in a small town, Garrett says, but coming to the Housing Partnership in 1989 was a bigger leap of faith.

“It still wasn’t off the ground yet then. They didn’t have enough money to pay me for a whole year, but they committed to do it,” she says. “At that time, we were using donated space, with donated telephone lines and the treasurer was a guy from First Union (now Wells Fargo) who agreed to come in and sign checks.”

She got lost in Charlotte on her first day driving in to the office. Twenty-four years later, Garrett is considered one of the nation’s experts in affordable housing and a force to be reckoned with among local politicians. The agency is a financial partner with the city, receiving about $1.5 million annually, which it uses to leverage additional dollars from banks and other financial institutions.

“Pat is not afraid to ask for what she wants,” says Pam Wideman, the city’s housing services manager.

Eileen Stenerson, board chair of the Housing Partnership, adds that Garrett has a “no-nonsense manner of getting things done” that includes asking government officials to think differently.

The result is projects like the 70-acre Double Oaks Apartments redevelopment, off Statesville Avenue. The deteriorated apartments were bulldozed to be replaced by a combination of affordable rental properties and market-rate homes for sale. Land also has been reserved for retail and commercial uses, such as a grocery store and hotel.

So far, about 50 homes have been sold in the project and the owners are mixed-income people of different races, noted Garrett.

“It’s really a typical neighborhood, which is what we were trying to do,” Garrett says. “What that tells me is, we are on our way to winning. We are winning the redevelopment of that area.”

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