For years, the city of Charlotte has attacked derelict homes with a drastic final measure: mandatory demolition.
Since 2010, City Council has approved 415 forced demolitions of homes and businesses — most in low-income areas, where property owners struggle to pay for repairs or absentee owners let them fall into disrepair, according to an Observer review of city records.
But as affordable housing has become the City Council's top priority, there is a concern that demolishing homes is inadvertently fueling gentrification and rising rents.
The issue came to a flashpoint last week, when a property owner in Washington Heights off Beatties Ford Road pleaded with council members to deny the city's plan to demolish his home on Booker Avenue.
The property owner, Lord Nacep, said it is ironic the city wants to tear down his house, while at the same time trying to frantically build new affordable housing. The home is empty today, though Nacep has rented it out in the past.
"A lot of folks here are talking about access to housing," he said. "My house is an affordable unit."
He added: "We are 50 out of 50 in economic mobility. There are hundreds of voiceless people who don't know how to fight this. They don't know how much their homes are really worth."
Nacep contends that the city's formula for deciding whether his house should be demolished is flawed, and doesn't account for the surge in property values that nearby neighborhoods like Biddleville have seen. He said it makes no sense to bulldoze the house, when the sales price of nearby homes have risen.
His claim has resonated among some council members.
Democratic council member Braxton Winston said the city should consider waiting on tearing down homes until Mecklenburg County finishes a property valuation in 2019. That would give a more accurate assessment of how much homes are worth, he said.
"We are dealing with exorbitant land value increases," Winston said. "We are a year out from the next valuation, and that could throw this out of whack. It doesn't seem fair. I don't want to be complicit in relocations happening citywide."
Democrat LaWana Mayfield agreed.
"What is happening now, because of the proximity to uptown, empty lots are being purchased and $300,000 and $400,000 homes are being built," she said. "The $50,000 homes are now worth $80,000. They may have an opportunity to get a loan."
Mayfield said she wants the city to partner with nonprofits like Goodwill Construction to re-hab homes in disrepair.
City defends process
The city's code enforcement director, Ben Krise, said the city's process is fair. He said the city gives Nacep and other property owners months to make progress on their properties before asking council members to approve a razing.
Krise demolitions are reserved for between 1 and 2 percent of all code enforcement cases.
"Our goal is for people to live in standard housing that is safe and sanitary," Krise said, adding the city has given Nacep an "exorbitant amount of time."
Housing advocate Robert Dawkins of the NC Safe Coalition said the city should use the Housing Trust Fund to renovate properties slated for razing. The trust fund is used to build affordable housing, and City Manager Marcus Jones has recommended the city ask voters to approve $50 million in bonds in November, instead of the usual $15 million.
"The city should not be tearing down affordable units," he said. "They should force the landlords/owners to renovate the property. "
But Dawkins said the old residents can't afford to live there now.
If council approves demolition, the city pays for the cost of tearing down the house or business, and a lien is placed on the property to cover the cost of the demolition and debris removal.
In the Booker Avenue case, the city expected it would cost about $6,100 to tear down the house. The city does not seize the land in mandatory demolitions. But the property owner does have the lien on the land for the cost of the demolition and debris removal.
Some of the neighborhoods most impacted — or improved — by the demolitions are the historically African-American neighborhoods west of uptown: Smallwood, Biddleville and Seversville.
The neighborhoods are west of Interstate 77, south of Brookshire Boulevard and north of Tuckaseegee Road. Johnson C. Smith University acts as a hub for all three. They are near Nacep's Washington Heights neighborhood, which was founded more than 90 years ago for African-Americans along one of the city's streetcar lines.
In those three neighborhoods of Smallwood, Biddleville and Seversville, 52 homes or buildings were demolished in the last decade, after City Council approved the mandatory razings. Property owners bulldozed another 68 homes or buildings to satisfy city code enforcement violations and fines.
Of those 120 demolitions, only 11 of the cases started with a citizen complaint. In the other cases, complaints from city officials started the investigation. Nacep's case was started by a code enforcement officer's field observation.
A review of some of those files shows the buildings or homes had been dilapidated for years. Some were original homes. Others were newer small duplexes and triplexes that had little architectural or historical value.
The demolitions cleaned out blight. But Dawkins and some council members say they also paved the way for those neighborhoods' rapid gentrification. Today, there are $500,000 homes where the city once demolished houses.
Mandatory demolitions have decreased in recent years. Krise said the booming economy and rising home values may be behind the drop.
Investors are looking to buy homes in disrepair, he said.
"I don't have a concrete answer for the reason behind it," Krise said. "As an organization, as a regulatory agency, we have really pushed prevention (so the city doesn't have to raze a home). The market has changed, and there are investors who troll the lists and look for investment properties."
He added: "We don't want an abundance of vacant lots. We want to preserve the housing stock and preserve the existing community."
In the Northeast and industrial Midwest, demolitions of decrepit homes are often driven by population loss. Those cities do not have enough people to live in the existing homes, so some properties will remain empty and fall into disrepair.
Since the mid 1980s, New York City has worked to sell condemned housing to other property owners who can maintain them.
Nacep said preserving his house would help the city's goals of building and preserving affordable housing.
The city's code enforcement office first opened a file on the Booker Avenue home in February 2017, and the city said the estimated cost of repairs — more than $44,000 — is more than 65 percent of the value of the building's tax value of nearly $30,000. When the repair cost exceeds 65 percent, that can trigger a demolition.
The city report painted a bleak picture of the 90-year-old single-family home. The city said the home had structural, plumbing, electrical and heating violations. It was "missing areas of ceiling and wall covering." Its "subflooring not reasonably level," and there is broken glass, decaying wood siding, areas of ponding water in the crawl space and no heat."
Nacep, a general contractor, sees it differently. He said he has already spent $15,000 on repairing the house that he has owned since 2001, and a visit there last week shows some work has been done, including new windows and a new front door.
But he said the biggest flaw in the city's efforts is using the tax value for his home that's from 2011, years before property values began increasing.
Nacep said he believes his home is worth $70,000 to $90,000, even in its poor condition. He points to a 900-square-foot, renovated house two blocks away that is for sale, with an asking price of $199,000.
"I'm a real estate man, I knew what was coming to this neighborhood," Nacep said in an interview Monday. "This is the hottest area in Charlotte now. I'm all for gentrification. It's more tax dollars for the city. But what I'm against are policies that keep people from profiting from gentrification."
After hearing Nacep's case, council members voted to give him a 90-day extension and did not require him to post a $6,100 bond that the city had requested.
Nacep said he thinks he can finish the work in time.
"We have a housing crisis here, so why are we tearing down houses?" he said.