City Council rejects buyout of blighted property

by Amy Kingsley

The Greensboro City Council voted against buying property in the Cedar Street neighborhood for development that might have priced out some residents and would have profited a landlord known for violating housing codes.

Several neighborhood residents came to speak at the Dec. 20 city council meeting, and some expressed the concern that it was not the buildings the city wanted rid of, but its residents. The city council voted 8-1 against the plan, with District 2 representative Goldie Wells casting the lone dissenting vote.

Landlord Bill Agapion offered to sell his properties at 201 and 211 Cedar Street to the city for $1.65 million. Part of the apartment complex at 211 Cedar Street burned down in a fire earlier this year, but the rest of the once-condemned complex was brought up to code and had residents.

The plan, proposed by former City Councilman Robbie Perkins, would have combined the Agapion tracts with city-owned property at 700 W. Friendly Ave. and offered it for sale. City estimates initially put the likely sale price at $1.2 million. Combining the purchase price with the planned $200,000 relocation costs, the sale might have netted the city up to a $650,000 loss.

‘“We are worried that it is not the property the city considers an eyesore, but the tenants themselves,’” said Liz Fitzpatrick, a Cedar Street resident. ‘“That doesn’t mean we should shove them out, but affordable housing doesn’t have to mean slums.’”

Beth McKee-Huger, director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, also said the location of the property at the west entrance to downtown earn it more scrutiny than hundreds of the landlord’s other properties. When McKee-Huger showed a map of all Agapion’s properties on it, District 3 representative Tom Phillips responded.

‘“You talk about setting a bad precedent,’” Phillips said. ‘“We’ve got a lot of buying to do.’”

The Cedar Street neighborhood is strategically positioned between UNCG and downtown. As new condos are built and rent rises in downtown, some residents worry that the affordability of their community will be threatened.

In recent months, community members have formed a Cedar Street neighborhood association and have met with some of Agapion’s tenants. Among the things valued by residents are neighborhood convenience and diversity, especially of income. Even those who spoke in favor of removing the buildings said they advocated an outcome that would allow Agapion’s tenants to stay in the neighborhood.

Some members of council argued that a recent $1.65 million offer a developer made to purchase the property from the city made their role in the transaction superfluous. But Wells, whose district includes Cedar Street, maintained that the city would be the only entity willing to buy and clean up the property.

‘“I really want this trash out of District 2,’” Wells said. ‘“I’m ashamed of the fact that we have people living in substandard housing.’”

Mike Barber offered some suggestions for ways the city could strengthen the enforcement of housing codes, including making landlords pay for relocation costs. The prospect of adding teeth to the housing code appealed to McKee-Huger.

‘“There were several great ideas about how to address substandard housing,’” McKee-Huger said.

The meeting also brought up concerns about affordable housing downtown.

‘“If you don’t have real deep pockets you can’t afford retail space downtown,’” said District 1 representative Diane Bellamy-Small. ‘“Downtown Greensboro is becoming a very expensive, elitist area.’”

Most of the recent growth downtown has involved nightclubs and restaurants, not areas with very highly paid employees, council members noted. Cedar Street is a convenient place for service industry personnel without transportation to live, neighbors said.

Although the city will no longer be involved in a development plan for the property, many present seemed resigned that market forces would eventually drive up prices on their own. For now, the area will remain an affordable haven surrounded by rising property values.

Most of the residents gathered outside after the meeting seemed relieved that the plan failed. McKee-Huger expressed relief that the city refused to pay Agapion and hoped that the issues raised would be explored more fully.

‘“This is great,’” she said. ‘“The city council is talking about affordable housing downtown, they’re talking about enforcement.’”

She said Agapion is the worst offender among local landlords in terms of housing code violations, but he finds ways to get away with it. Other unscrupulous low-income landlords follow his lead by taking advantage of loopholes in he law that he exposes. McKee-Huger opened her statement to the council by telling members that the landlord had 5,813 documented code violations since 1983.

‘“I was so impressed with the neighborhood people,’” McKee-Huger said. ‘“Nobody wants it to stay the same, but the city doesn’t need to be a part of this.’”

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