A new way to fight homelessness: Charlotte charity buys entire apartment community

The struggle to house Charlotte’s chronically homeless took a different turn this month when one of the city’s leading housing charities purchased an entire apartment community for people struggling with life on the streets.

Supportive Housing Communities paid $850,000 last week for the St. John’s Place apartments, near the intersection of East W.T. Harris Boulevard and The Plaza Extension. The charity intends all 32 units to eventually be filled by people who have lived on Charlotte’s streets or in local shelters for extended periods.

It’s a bold plan that would have ignited howls of protest from many Charlotte neighborhoods, which have fought to keep out affordable housing projects.

But Supportive Housing Communities dodged opposition with a unique approach that community leaders are calling a model for other charities: It bought one of the least attractive sites in an east Charlotte neighborhood, and promised to spend nearly a half million dollars on renovation, beautification and stabilization.

That will bring the total cost of the project to $1.3 million.

Mimi Davis, president of the Grove Park Neighborhood Association, says the community of 510 homes has a history of fighting other affordable housing projects, but not this one. Grove Park is about a mile from the site.

“I don’t want it to sound like we’re against needy or disadvantaged people, because we’re not. It’s just because east Charlotte is packed with low-income housing, and has more than its fair share,” said Davis, who is also the main coordinator of a group called the Harris Coalition of Neighborhood Associations.

“But this was an apartment building going downhill. The owner couldn’t cope with it and there was some drug involvement (in the area). The facility needed repairs and it needed supervision on site. … This plan is changing the whole facility, refurbishing it, putting social workers in it, and putting in programs for supervision. We think it’s great.”

Two nearby churches have even offered to help the formerly homeless settle into the building.

Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, has taken notice of the purchase and hopes other nonprofits might follow the example. He sees it as a chance not only to house the homeless, but to create affordable housing for people struggling with low-paying jobs.

“The idea of re-investing in existing housing stock and strengthening it … for affordable or supportive housing is a great move,” Smith says.

“We know that there are more (apartments) out there like this. … You can take neighborhood housing stock that is maybe less than an asset for the neighborhood, and with thoughtful reinvestment, it can become an asset for the neighborhood and for the broader community.”

Center City Partners is part of the Housing First Charlotte-Mecklenburg initiative that is working to get the city’s chronically homeless population into housing by Dec. 31. As of May 31, the effort had housed 515 people, leaving 308 still in need of homes.

The chronically homeless is a segment of the homeless population that is most at risk of dying on the streets. Many are disabled or suffer from addictions that keep them from living stable lives. Housing First has found its greatest success in taking such homeless people and surrounding them with social workers and supportive programs that offer stability and a chance at sobriety.

Smith also believes the St. John’s Place project is “ingenious” for the way Supportive Housing Communities found its money.

Rather than launching a campaign to raise $1.3 million from donors, Supportive Housing Communities got nearly all the money from public sources, including the Housing Trust Fund and the N.C. Housing Finance Agency. Only $100,000 of the money is from private donors, said Pamela Jefsen, head of Supportive Housing Communities.

She says the St. John’s Place apartments became a good candidate for purchase because the agency already had clients renting there. The agency intends to renovate one or two units at a time, allowing it to avoid forcing tenants to move. Among the current tenants are some renting apartments at market rate, and they will be allowed to stay. However, if any want to move, Supportive Housing Communities will help them find new homes, Jefsen said.

Her plan calls for both exterior and interior renovations, and she says the neighborhood will start seeing a difference in the site’s appearance in the next few weeks.

“So much of our older housing stock is being torn down to build things that are more expensive. I think purchasing older apartment communities should be an option (for charities) because it’s cost-effective,” said Jefsen.

“Plus, communities are resistant to new apartments going up in their neighborhood for the formerly homeless. We’ve seen that opposition to virtually every project. But communities feel quite different about an organization like ours taking existing buildings and pledging to be good neighbors by keeping them clean and orderly.”