Wilmore's rise has been more dramatic than any other Charlotte neighborhood's, according to a new city study.
Drug dealers have diminished and nighttime gunfire has quieted, residents say. Half-million-dollar homes have replaced dilapidated buildings in this community of 1920s bungalows and tree-lined avenues southwest of downtown.
But amid the improvements, longtime residents are uneasy. Many of them are African American, and they wonder if they will be pushed out as wealthier, young white residents move in.
Skyrocketing house prices have also brought aggressive real estate practices, including persistent phone calls, letters and visits from prospective homebuyers. “There should be a law against this stuff because we're senior citizens,” said Eula McCain, 75, who has gotten countless offers on her home of 30 years. “They try to scare you up.”
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The newcomers sense their delicate role in a changing neighborhood.
“It's very unusual to live in a neighborhood that's so diverse,” said Missy Eppes, president of the Wilmore Neighborhood Association and a resident since 2003. “And to me that's a privilege.”
Friction between old and new has impacted the association board. Councilman Warren Turner, who represents the area, said he's heard complaints that newer white residents “basically came in and overtook the board.”
Eppes said the organization is trying to gain back the trust of the neighborhood after missteps by previous leaders. In 2005, a former president – who was relatively new to Wilmore – pocketed $12,500 in a secret, unauthorized sale of community land, according to a lawsuit the association settled this year. The group is still trying to recover the property.
Getting pushed out?
The real estate boom has fueled renovations across Wilmore, population 2,200. Brightly painted bungalows sit amid boarded-up homes and vacant lots. New, two-story buildings tower over boxy houses with peeling siding.
“The houses went twice as big, like you're in Myers Park or something,” said Martrei Turner, 31, who grew up in the neighborhood and whose mother still lives there. City services such as street-cleaning have improved, she said. But her grandmother once had a police officer come by asking if she wanted to sell her house, Turner said.
She sees the neighborhood's value to downtown professionals but wonders if there's a cost.
“They can save gas while we're out here struggling,” she said. “All the black residents are going to be pushed back. … They're just going to be removed from here.”
For Eula McCain, the letters and phone calls are a constant reminder that people want her home. She gets regular offers – a call from someone in Ballantyne seeking a shorter commute, visits from neighborhood investors and dozens of letters.
“While checking the public records for the neighborhood…” one letter reads. “I found you are the owner.”
Some take a sympathetic approach. “Has the house gotten to be too much for you?” asks a representative of “Goode Deed Properties” who promises not to charge realtor fees. “I can pay cash and close quickly.”
Other attempts are more frightening. Earlier this year, McCain was late in paying her real estate taxes, and she got a call from someone who said he was a lawyer.
“He said, ‘You're going to have to give me your house,'” she recalled.
James Smith felt like the victim of an unscrupulous real estate deal when he sold his mother's home on West Park Avenue. He said he was held to an unreasonable contract and bilked out of realtor fees.
“I feel like I was just cheated,” he said.
But the buyers, a young white couple with children, say they were also traumatized by the experience. Dennis and Deborah Hopkins resent the accusations of dishonesty. They worked to build a relationship with Smith's family before the sale, they said. They helped the tenants move out and even took one renter under their wing, they said – he now lives in their garage.
“I know in my heart we did nothing wrong,” Dennis Hopkins said.
Smith's mother had a large house, more than 3,000 square feet and five bedrooms – big enough for the whole family to gather, Smith said. When she died, the family rented it. And as the neighborhood started to attract white investors, people would come by to ask if the house was for sale, including Dennis Hopkins.
“Him and his wife would just keep coming in, they'd keep looking at the house,” Smith said.
Hopkins and his wife lived down the street, in a renovated bungalow.
“We came to this neighborhood really with a goal toward seeing interracial reconciliation,” Hopkins said. “We really like the diversity. We really like the fact that we are raising our children where people don't look the same.”
Smith remembers liking the couple.
“They came and talked about the church, and I'm involved in the church and all that,” he said. “Their church had interaction with my sister's church. … I felt like I had a little connection with him.”
In October 2005, the two parties signed a contract on the house. After that, Smith said, he didn't hear from Hopkins for about six months, so he put the house on the market.
That's when things got contentious, by all accounts.
Smith accuses Hopkins of threatening a lawsuit if he didn't sell the house to him, something Hopkins denies. Smith says Hopkins altered the contract price to say $225,000 – lower than the $250,000 he said the two had agreed on – and reneged on a written promise to pay Realtor fees. Hopkins said he didn't do either.
Hopkins said Smith shouldn't have finalized the sale if he felt cheated.
“We felt like we were giving. He obviously felt, at some point, like he was giving,” Hopkins said.
He and his wife say they still love the neighborhood, where they have lived since 1999. They renovated and sold two homes there. But the last, an emotional purchase that left them in tears at the closing table, turned them off to real estate investment.
“We haven't bought or sold anything since then,” Hopkins said. “We needed a break from it.”