Thieves, squatters threaten residents in tear-down zone

The note taped to the back door sends a message to looters who prowl Double Oaks Apartments.

“Don't touch this house. Harlem lives here.”

But warnings from tenants, police and property managers have failed to keep out criminals. For months, neighbors say, thieves have kicked in doors, smashed windows and broken into cars almost nightly at the sprawling complex just north of the Interstate 277 loop.

A city-backed developer is relocating tenants as it demolishes the apartments and lays plans to replace them with new houses, condominiums and townhouses.

But for now, the very program designed to help Double Oaks appears to be hurting the tenants still there. Vacant apartments invite looters trying to steal copper wiring, air conditioners, fixtures or anything they can sell for scrap metal. In other cases, vagrants are using drugs or sleeping in empty units, tenants said.

“I had to send my 2-month-old to live with (relatives) because it's too hot in there,” Richard Mbroh said, pointing to where someone stole his air conditioner.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, a nonprofit developer funded largely with public money, bought the apartments last year. The Housing Partnership paid the previous owners, a locally owned investment group, roughly $11 million. Tenants typically pay monthly rents between $300 and $450.

Now, Housing Partnership executives are considering hiring off-duty police officers to patrol the property.

They said the looting has slowed since they asked workers to look out for suspicious people and call police for help.

“People were feeling like it was a free-for-all,” recalled David Howard, vice president for community affairs and special projects for the Housing Partnership.

City Council members Susan Burgess and Nancy Carter said the situation likely calls for an increased police presence.

“This is not acceptable,” Carter said. “People cannot live in a situation like this.”

‘Mixed-income' future

The Charlotte City Council is giving the Housing Partnership $25million in grants and low-interest loans to remake Double Oaks.

The Housing Partnership promises to replace the barracks-style buildings with nearly 1,000 condominiums, townhouses, apartments and single-family houses. The developer would build pricey homes for young professionals next to affordable housing to create a “mixed-income” neighborhood.

Officials have moved more than 200 tenants from Double Oaks to other homes. Bulldozers have razed about 40 buildings so far.

But for the 100 or so remaining tenants, life in Double Oaks can be hard.

The 70-acre campus of tiny, single-story apartments has housed the poor since it was built in the late 1940s. Longtime residents recalled the neighborhood as relatively peaceful until it slowly declined in the 1990s.

Now, they say, trouble is common. Since January, tenants have reported 12 stolen cars, 10 burglaries and 14 larcenies from vehicles, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Sgt. Spencer Cochran said.

Vandalism and other problems plague the complex, but residents are unlikely to report many incidents because the buildings are slated for demolition, he said.

“Whenever you have buildings sitting vacant you have squatters,” Cochran said. “Also the economy is down so people are looking for scrap metal. Everything people can take out, they will.”

On a recent day, shattered windows dotted the buildings and shards of glass covered the ground a short distance from where children played.

Some tenants had put notes on their doors to ward off looters. They said management is unresponsive to complaints.

One tenant complained to apartment manager Tom Stack that his air conditioner had been stolen and someone had smashed the windows and smoked crack inside the vacant apartment next door.

Although Stack insists the property is well-maintained, he said it is hard for the complex's one maintenance employee to keep up with so many problems.

“It's difficult to keep it under control,” he said, when asked why a yard remained strewn with shattered glass a week after an apartment was broken into.

Tenants' problems mount

Thaddeus Knight and relatives were packing to move because they had been evicted. Knight said they stopped paying rent a few months ago after management refused to address problems.

Someone stole the apartment's air conditioning unit and managers broke a promise to provide a substitute, he said. Soon after, Knight said his niece and nephew who lived there both had to go to the hospital because the heat aggravated their asthma.

Howard, the administrator with the Housing Partnership, said workers give tenants replacement air conditioners “right away” when units are stolen.

Bernardo Lopez is looking forward to moving out of Double Oaks. The Housing Partnership is providing rental assistance so his family can rent a nearby house.

Lopez's vehicle has been broken into three times. He's hoping his new neighborhood is safer.