The sign posted in Martha McAfee’s yard sends a message to real-estate investors who comb the Enderly Park neighborhood looking for houses:
“We can’t be bought.”
But resistance from McAfee and some other residents is unlikely to stop the changes that are remaking one neighborhood after another in Charlotte. As new development spreads from uptown, luxury homes and trendy restaurants are edging closer to Enderly Park, a predominantly African-American neighborhood west of Bank of America Stadium.
Like homeowners in other historically black areas across west Charlotte, McAfee and some residents now face a difficult choice: Take an immediate lucrative payoff from a real-estate investor or forego the money to help keep the neighborhood affordable for future generations.
A fledgling nonprofit, The West Side Community Land Trust, is working to make homes in predominately minority zip codes permanently affordable for people with lower incomes. Organizers are raising money to buy property that is for sale in west Charlotte before it falls into the hands of investors.
The group’s plan is to bank land before prices rise even farther and to later work with nonprofit real-estate developers to build affordable housing.
In some cases, a leader in the West Side land trust says he is encouraging homeowners to refuse all offers to sell their homes.
While land trusts have operated across the country for decades, a local historian said he believes the west side initiative is the first of its kind in Charlotte.
McAfee, 86, said she has seen the mailings and fliers offering cash for homes, but already has her mind made up. She lives in a three-bedroom, one-story house that once sold for $30,000, according to tax records. The house would now sell for about $101,000, roughly $3,700 increase in the last 30 days, says Zillow, a real-estate website.
A former cook at multiple local hospitals before retiring a few years ago, she said she understands her neighborhood is changing and that some people need the money they could get for their homes. But she wants to leave the house as an inheritance to her children.
“Why would I would I want to (sell)?” McAfee asked, saying she built roots in Enderly Park, where she is well known by neighborhood children. “When I die, my kids can do with it what they want to.”
As the neighborhoods surrounding uptown Charlotte have become a preferred choice for well-off homebuyers and millenials, real-estate speculators and developers have increasingly targeted neighborhoods that for decades have been home to African-Americans, immigrants and the poor.
The trend has spread fear that new investment will bring higher rents and taxes and eliminate some of the last remaining areas for inexpensive housing close to uptown.
“We have been telling people ‘Don’t sell your homes’” to real-estate investors, said Frank Byers, 61, who has lived in Enderly Park for 17 years and is president of the West Side Community Land Trust.
“I watched how Wilmore changed. I saw what happened in NoDa, ” Byers said, ticking off neighborhoods where gentrification brought higher home prices and altered the demographics of neighorhoods that were once populated by minorities, who mostly had lower incomes than the newcomers.
In Enderly Park, Byers acknowledges some neighbors are skeptical. They worry the land trust won’t work or they simply don’t understand the concept.
Roughly 200 nonprofit community land trusts around the country buy land and build new homes or repair old ones. In a typical arrangement, the buyer owns the house, but the land trust retains the land underneath.
The arrangement holds down property values in gentrifying neighborhoods and tries to keep homes affordable for future buyers. With the land trust, the homeowner effectively agrees to build less equity over time and often grants the nonprofit the first rights to buy the house.
The idea is to keep property values from rising rapidly and to blunt the worst effects of gentrification.
When Byers pitches the idea in Charlotte, he said some people are supportive, but others “they tell me ‘You’re not going to take my property. I’m not going to put my property on the line.’”
‘Pushing us out’
The pros and cons of gentrification — the process that displaces the poor to make room for new, more wealthy residents — have long been debated. It is changing the demographics in parts of west Charlotte. Defunct warehouses and vacant lots adjacent to uptown are making way for trendy restaurants and pricey homes that rent for as much as $2,600 a month.
But rough edges remain in Enderly Park, where the average household income is about $24,000 a year, less than half the the Mecklenburg County average. On a recent day, a yard sign near the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare advertised a one bedroom apartment for $595 a month.
More than one in three residents lack a high school diploma and the violent crime rate is nearly five times the county average.
Still, residents say their mailboxes are filled with advertisements offering cash for homes.
Real-estate investors said they are drawn to such neighborhoods near uptown because they can buy homes cheaply — often for less than $100,000 — renovate them and sell, a practice commonly called house flipping. Many of the homes, built in the early to mid-20th century, need expensive repairs or the owner is in danger of foreclosure, which can motivate a quick sale.
Cornelia Hagens, 42, has lived in the Enderly Park since she was a child, but is now considering moving to Rock Hill. She said with gentrification threatening to raise property values it is unlikely she will ever achieve her goal of homeownership in the neighborhood where she raised her four children.
She rents a home near the corner of Tuckaseegee Road and Parkway Avenue. The Bank of America corporate headquarters building uptown is visible from the street, which Hagens believes attracts real-estate investors.
“I don’t want to leave Enderly Park but they are pushing us out,” said Hagens, who works in the kitchen at Myers Park Baptist Church. “This is a trend. You can see what’s going to happen.”
She said opinion is divided about the coming change. While she and some others support the concept behind the land trust, others are opposed and would welcome new investment.
Jeff Johnson, owner of NewPath Properties, said he believes Enderly Park is at least three to five years away from seeing gentrification take hold. Crime is a problem and other nearby neighborhoods are more popular for now, Johnson said.
In the end, he said, he believes most homeowners would sell their property to investors for the right price. Investors often help the area improve because some of the homes need expensive repairs or the owner is in danger of foreclosure.
A new strategy
On a recent night, Enderly Park residents and others gathered in the basement of a church to learn more about land trusts.
Rickey Hall, a longtime community activist, told the gathering he has grown frustrated by failed past efforts to preserve affordable housing. While a lack of affordable housing has been a longstanding problem in Charlotte, Hall said the situation appears to be worsening.
Average rent in Charlotte is $1,082, a 35 percent jump over five years ago, according to Real Data, which tracks apartment markets throughout the Southeast.
A city report says Charlotte needs about 34,000 affordable housing units to meet the need, more than double a decade ago, despite assurances from city leaders to fix the problem. Nearly half of renters in the city put more than 30 percent of their income toward housing and utilities, an amount the federal government considers unacceptably high because it often means people are left to scrimp on medicine, food, clothing and other necessities.
“We would be kidding ourselves if we thought we could keep everybody out,” Hall said in an interview. “Every day, neighbors get leaflets saying, ‘We’ll buy your house no questions asked, any condition.’ Investors believe this a gold mine. Now, we need a strategy for inclusion and uplift.”
About a mile from the central campus of Duke University, for example, Durham Community Land Trustees is renovating a house on South Buchanan Boulevard that it plans to sell for $140,000. Across the street, a house on the open market recently sold for nearly $500,000, said Selina Mack, the land trust’s executive director.
Mack’s group has used donations and government grants to preserve 200 affordable units in an area in the city’s west end that borders the Duke campus and downtown Durham, which is bustling with new restaurants and bars.
“This is very difficult to do when the area has gentrified or on the brink of gentrification,” said Mack, whose organization started in 1987. “You can’t stop gentrification. You can only hope to stabilize what you have. We literally have investors going door to door. They are willing to give you $200,000.”
Mack and other supporters acknowledge that land trusts often ask homeowners with little wealth to sacrifice. On the other hand, she said, selling to a land trust allows residents to control what happens in their neighborhoods.
Local historian Thomas Hanchett, who attended a community meeting about the land trust, said he could not recall any previous such grassroots attempts to form a land trust in Charlotte. He said he was impressed with the concept.
“They face two major hurdles,” Hanchett said. “It requires raising a pot of money and that’s hard anytime. The other thing is that they are in a race against time.”
Rev. Greg Jarrell and his wife, Rev. Jennifer “Helms” Jarrell, moved to Enderly Park about 13 years ago to start QC Family Tree, a nonprofit that promotes social justice and outreach to neighbors.
Now, the land trust’s board of directors meets regularly in the couple’s home to set strategy. Organizers are planning to seek private donations, apply for grants and partner with local government to obtain money and land.
Jarrell said he wants to protect the area from the worst effects of gentrification. He said residents need to embrace new strategies since traditional means have failed to protect historically African-American neighborhoods from displacement.
“There’s a history in Charlotte where change always displaces communities of color,” said Jarrell, who is white. “I am not willing to just sit by and let that happen again. We don’t want to stop development, but we want to make sure the people who are here during the lean times are here for the good times.”