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‘There is nowhere to go.’ Ousted Charlotte renters don’t know what will happen next

Soon-to-be displaced Lake Arbor tenants, who have long endured rats, mold and other substandard conditions, are now facing another challenge: finding somewhere to live on a budget and a deadline.

A week after residents of the west Charlotte complex were told that they must leave within months or even weeks, tenants and housing advocates are raising concerns that without adequate time and resources, people will end up homeless.

“A lot of people are going to be living in hotels and motels,” said Jessica Moreno of the Tenant Organizing Resource Center. “A lot of people are going to be stranded and not have options, especially with that short of a time frame.”

Signs in some of the windows of Lake Arbor’s nearly 300 units indicate they are already vacant, but a letter from Charlotte city staff last week stated 177 units are occupied with residents, many families with children. They’re now forced to move — some as soon as the end of August.

Rents at the complex on Tuckaseegee Road near Interstate 85 are typically below $900 and represent some of the lowest in Charlotte, but came with numerous cleanliness and safety concerns, including rats, unsafe wiring, out-of-order appliances and water damage.

City code enforcement had ordered remedies, some since completed, but the property owner’s attorney told the Observer last week it was too expensive to do work in phases, prompting the decision to remove all residents by Dec. 31. City housing officials previously deferred comments to the property owner, Lake Arbor Dean TIC LLC.

“People asked for the apartments to be fixed, not for everyone to be evicted,” Moreno said. Many tenants don’t have enough savings for a security deposit, to switch utility service, and pay application fees, she said.

Letters sent by management last week notified residents that various housing and social services groups would be on site to assess eligibility for relocation or other financial assistance.

John Dickerson and his wife, Claudette, were living in a motel before moving to Lake Arbor two years ago. Dickerson, 56, said he is waiting to start a housing search until after the couple’s scheduled assessment. The couple had not received a move-out date as of Tuesday evening, he said.

His $750 per month Social Security check just covers the rent on their $625 one-bedroom apartment, leaving just enough for their electricity bill and basic necessities.

Moving quickly will be difficult without a car. His wife will have to do all of the packing, he said, gesturing to his right hand, rendered limp after a stroke.

“I’ve gotta have time (to make arrangements), because I don’t have any transportation,” he said.

Few vacancies at similar prices

Finding units priced similarly to Lake Arbor may be a challenge, according to a report from Real Data, which tracks apartment construction and vacancy rates in the Southeast.

“Class C” apartments, which are the cheapest and typically include the fewest amenities, have an average rent between $701 and $986 for one to four bedroom units, and have a 2.5% vacancy rate, the lowest in Charlotte, according to the March 2019 analysis of buildings with at least 50 units.

It shows fewer than 550 available units in that classification.

“Five percent is a considered a healthy vacancy rate,” said Kelly Reddecliff, a market analyst with Real Data. “Most units are full but people have room to move around.” A vacancy rate below 5% indicates there is not enough supply, she said.

In contrast “Class A” apartments, typically the newest with the most amenities and highest rents, have an average vacancy rate of 10.5% in Charlotte, the same report shows.

Housing and social service providers screening tenants for financial assistance eligibility said low-wage jobs, previous evictions, and outstanding bills can limit families’ options. Apartment management offered residents forgiveness of past due charges and other “incentives.”

The Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy and the North Carolina Justice Center have set up a free legal advice hotline at 919-856-2169. Advocates cautioned residents not to sign any documents from apartment management that might limit their rights until speaking to an attorney.

“Everyone is wondering where are they going to go and the reality is we don’t know that yet,” said Liana Humphrey, spokeswoman for Crisis Assistance Ministry, one of several nonprofits conducting tenant assessments.

“It’s going to require the whole community coming together to help these families and bring various resources to bear to make sure they don’t become homeless,” Humphrey said.

Mecklenburg County funds short-term housing assistance and general emergency assistance and is providing social workers to help with assessments, county spokesman Rick Christenbury said.

“In collaboration with our non-profit partners and the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County will work to ensure eligible residents are aware of and have access to available resources,” he said.

Moreno worries for those who don’t quickly find a new apartment or have family or friends to stay with temporarily.

“It’s a cycle of displacement,” Moreno said. “There is nowhere to go. They are going to go to another neighborhood that is like Lake Arbor or worse.”

A community meeting for tenants is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Tuckaseegee Recreation Center.

This work was made possible in part by grant funding from Report for America/GroundTruth Project and the Foundation For The Carolinas.

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Lauren Lindstrom is a reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering affordable housing. She previously covered health for The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, where she wrote about the state’s opioid crisis and childhood lead poisoning. Lauren is a Wisconsin native, a Northwestern University graduate and a 2019 Report for America corps member.
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