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12/9/07: New suburbs in fast decay

A band of new suburban neighborhoods that held promise for thousands of Charlotte families is now struggling with crime, blight and falling home values.

These neighborhoods were hit hard by the wave of foreclosures rattling the nation. Damage is most visible in starter-home subdivisions across northern Charlotte, and in pockets in the east and southwest.

The best of them show subtle signs: Vacant houses. Overgrown weeds. Trash piled at the curb.

The worst of them already resemble decaying urban neighborhoods that keep police and housing inspectors busy - and cost Charlotte millions to repair.

While the crime rate citywide held steady, the rate in the heart of Charlotte's 10 highest-foreclosure areas rose 33 percent between 2003 and 2006, an Observer analysis found. All of them are suburban areas filled with starter-home subdivisions. They were built since 1997 with homes valued at $150,000 or less.

Windy Ridge is 5 years old, but already 81 of its 132 homes have lapsed into foreclosure. Dozens stand boarded up or vacant, with windows smashed and doors kicked in. Vandals have ripped copper wire from walls. Vagrants and drug users frequent the empty houses - next door to families who thought they'd invested wisely in their northwest Charlotte suburb.

In east Charlotte, Laurie Talbot was recently awakened by gunfire in her 7-year-old subdivision. One bullet crashed into her house, through her son's bedroom, then landed on her bedroom floor.

"I thought I'd bought a home in Pleasantville," says Talbot, who moved from New York last year. "I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen."

She can't get out, she says. "With all the foreclosures there's no way I could sell my house for what I have in it."

Overall, the Observer found more than 50 neighborhoods with elevated foreclosure rates of 15 percent to 61 percent. Virtually all of them are new starter-home subdivisions.

Loose lending standards and the lure of easy credit inspired families across the country to buy homes they couldn't afford.

Foreclosures followed as interest rates adjusted upward and put monthly payments out of reach.

More people could lose their homes next year, experts predict, when more loans adjust.

"Pay attention to this," Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Darrel Stephens told his commanders in November, as they examined a map of Charlotte's highest foreclosure areas.

"If these are not hot spots already, they will be. There are going to be a lot of challenges as we try to deal with families in crisis."

The suburban decline costs all of Charlotte.

Taxpayers must cover the increased cost for police, housing inspectors and other government services in these neighborhoods. Sinking home values mean less tax revenue. More students from lower-income families are moving to schools near these neighborhoods that are increasingly becoming rental communities.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, planners and politicians are searching for solutions.

The suburban decline went largely undetected as Charlotte focused on reviving its distressed urban core.

The new trouble spots are spiraling far faster than the inner city did.

"Within five years we're reaching the need for revitalization strategies that used to take a neighborhood 25 years to reach," says planning director Debra Campbell.

It's a new quandary: The suburban hot spots face similar corrosive forces of crime, decay and absentee landlords.

Yet they're more isolated, away from social services and high-frequency bus lines.

While the city knows how to rebuild and clean up neighborhoods, Campbell says, it's harder to deliver complex human services aimed at helping families keep their homes, and at strengthening neighborhood groups to enforce standards.

"We can build hard core infrastructure," Campbell says. "What happens inside the house - that's where the public sector falls short."

Fast pace to trouble

Starter homes went up at a dizzying pace in the last decade, particularly across northern Charlotte.

Land was available and demand was high, as newcomers poured into the city and investors bought homes to rent. Relaxed lending standards also created a new pool of buyers with moderate incomes and shaky credit histories.

Planners approved subdivision after subdivision of starter homes - from Catawba River Plantation in the west to Stewarts Crossing in the east. The houses are close together and look similar, with vinyl siding in neutral colors. The neighborhoods are tucked between established communities and more affluent subdivisions. Some adjoin industrial plants, interstates and power lines.

Since 1997, starter homes accounted for one-third of all single-family homes built south of I-85 in Charlotte - and more than half of those built north of the highway to the city line.

Now, many of these subdivisions face record foreclosures.

Just one default can hurt a neighborhood, but damage is profound when they're concentrated.

Foreclosures leave houses vacant, creating crime magnets. They also lure bargain-hunting buyers who convert houses to rentals.

Violent crime at rental homes in single-family neighborhoods happens at three times the rate of crime at owner-occupied homes, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police. The property crime rate is 1.6 times higher.

"When you have vacant houses, people can do all kinds of things," says police chief Stephens. "We're even seeing spillover to neighborhoods around them."

In Peachtree Hills, police are summoned nearly 300 times a year, mostly for property crimes in the 147 homes. But the 4-year-old neighborhood, near Sunset Road, has also seen robberies, shootings and gang displays more commonly associated with violent urban areas - not new subdivisions.

Fourteen-year-old Devon Smith was shot dead there in July. Graffiti memorializes his name on the sidewalks and benches. Spray paint also proclaims "Bloods 4 Life" and "PT Blood."

"All I wanted was a safe place with some backyard space for my son to run around, but that's not what we got," says Stacy Hall, 36, a medical claims processor and single mom, whose Peachtree home was burglarized last year. They got away with $110 in day care money. And in November, she arrived home to find a police helicopter hovering and officers chasing men through her yard.

"I was like, `Where am I? L.A. or something?' "

A Chicago study found that when the foreclosure rate increases 1 percentage point in a neighborhood, its violent crime rate jumps 2.3 percent.

Near UNCC, Charlotte's Northridge Village, saw violence spike last year, as a neighborhood gang took on rivals in nearby Hidden Valley. Police made arrests and violence has dropped, but now property crime is climbing again in the neighborhood where one in three homes lapsed into foreclosure.

In 13 neighborhoods at the heart of Charlotte's most concentrated foreclosure areas, police recorded 52 violent crimes and 395 property crimes last year. That's not as high as troubled inner-city areas, but it's up 33 percent in three years and it's surprising in new suburbs.

Calls for police assistance in these areas jumped 28 percent in three years, while calls citywide dropped 11 percent.

Housing complaints and nuisance calls are climbing in some neighborhoods, too.

In Hemby Woods, inspectors last year had 256 cases of overgrown grass, junked cars and heaping trash piles - unusually high for one suburban neighborhood.

In Sinclair Place, Thomas Bautista says he's repeatedly called for code enforcement in his northern Charlotte subdivision.

The house next door is dark and vacant - in foreclosure and scheduled for sale Tuesday.

"This house has been a real pain," says Bautista, 23, a Huntersville police officer who parks his patrol car on the street when he's off duty.

Still, thieves broke in twice next door. Over the summer, Bautista finally paid a yard man $110 to cut the four-foot-tall grass because he kept seeing snakes, near where his children play.

He tried to sell in 2005 but learned from Realtors that his $112,000 home would command only $97,000.

"It's bad, especially if you have people over for family reunions or birthday parties and the house next door looks so bad," he says. "You never know, with vacant houses like that, they could become a drug house or homeless people will break into them in a heartbeat."

Police saw warning signs

Jason Helton knew something was wrong in Brookmere in 2005. He had recently joined Charlotte's police department and was assigned to patrol the recently built subdivision.

"I kept seeing a lot of juvenile delinquency, curfew violations, vandalism and hanging out at vacant homes," Helton recalls. "I'd meet a family one week and the next week, they'd be gone. You don't expect that in a suburban neighborhood."

He reported the phenomenon to superiors but didn't know then what was driving the chaos.

Capt. Andy Leonard dug into foreclosures this year as his officers noticed trouble in starter homes across the North patrol district.

"A lot of these neighborhoods have basically become giant apartment complexes without any management to maintain the property and keep tenants in line," Leonard says.

Inside these communities, homeowners who kept up with their obligations have grown beleaguered as moving trucks come and go. Some owners got out before prices fell; others sold for losses. Then, there are those who are riding things out.

Like Stacy Hall.

She bought a home in Peachtree Hills for $129,000 early last year, and moved in with her 3-year-old son. Houses were still being built and her street looked good. She didn't know builders were selling homes to investors from California and New York and New Jersey, or that a handful of homeowners had defaulted on their loans.

Hall also didn't know crime was rising, or that gunshots would sometimes wake her.

"I was born and raised in Queens, in the middle class, and I never had these problems," Hall says.

But Hall's fighting to change things.

After months of trying, she finally revived Peachtree's homeowners' association.

Its first move was to persuade Duke Power not to cut off the street lights. Peachtree was $4,000 behind on its electric bill.

Next, a letter went out to all property owners: Pay your dues or we'll put a lien on your home.

Now, Hall and her colleagues want to spruce things up.

"I'm not giving up," she says. "I love my home I just want things to get better."