Condominiums rise downtown, affordable housing shrinks

by Amy Kingsley

Almost 400 people gathered Jan. 31 at the First Presbyterian Church on the border between downtown and the Fisher Park neighborhood to discuss the findings of a comprehensive report on the state of housing in Greensboro.

In each of the cardinal directions contractors have cleared land, laid bricks or swept the plastic off windows newly installed in brand spanking condominiums. The nearby building boom belied the findings of the ‘“Comprehensive Housing Report: Greensboro 2006,’” which concluded that much of the city’s decent housing costs more than local families can afford. The report was financed by the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro and authored by Gary Paul Kane.

While the discussion inside the church focused on brainstorming solutions for the city’s housing troubles, hammers outside drove nails into condominium walls that some residents consider the coffins for affordable downtown housing. The conflict between affordable and substandard housing that affects the entire city is being played out in fast-forward in the laboratory of neighborhoods surrounding Elm Street.

‘“All of the new developments that have already been built or are in the process of being built are pretty high end,’” said Beth McKee-Huger, executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition. ‘“They are definitely out of the range of affordable for working people. What little bit of housing that is affordable is in very marginal shape.’”

Kane discussed the concentration of affordable housing in certain neighborhoods and the decrepit condition of so much housing at the lower end. In particular, he noted the east side’s collection of public and low-income developments and the northwest area’s lack of such features.

But at the center of the compass, housing problems have appeared in stark relief. A proposal the city floated to buy land owned by landlord Bill Agapion for $1.6 million raised fears among some Cedar Street residents that affordable rental housing in their neighborhood might be an endangered species.

In downtown in the past five years housing has become the big business. Elm Street, which until recently had only a few residences will soon have hundreds of condos and townhouses for sale.

Governor’s Court on Church Street and the Southside neighborhood on Martin Luther King opened the market about five years ago. Demand did not initially match the vision of investors at Governor’s Court and slow presales almost caused the bank to pull funding. Downtown Greensboro, Inc. stepped in to guarantee construction interest for the bank so building could continue.

Now all the condominiums have sold, and several new projects are in various stages of completion. Downtown Greensboro, Inc. President Ray Gibbs counted 500 new units planned for the blocks surrounding Elm Street.

‘“The next four years are going to look radically different,’” Gibbs said. ‘“We have four night clubs, two restaurants and retail in the works. And it’s residents that drive all that. People who live downtown spend four to five times more than people who only work downtown.’”

The flip side is that many of the industries, like restaurants, nightclubs and retail that draw people to downtown, do not pay enough for their employees to live there, McKee-Huger said.

And it is the numerous renters on Cedar Street who might be forced out if development continues to spread. Only 17 percent of the neighborhood’s houses are owner occupied. While some of the historic rentals have been maintained, others have deteriorated ‘— like Agapion’s apartments ‘— to the point of condemnation.

The neighborhood sits at the mid-point between UNCG and downtown. The recent construction of First Horizon Baseball Park drew one developer, Kavanagh Properties, to the neighborhood. They are preparing the land at 600 Bellemeade for 28 units planned for fall completion. Arbor House on Spring Street is another high-end development moving into the area.

‘“It is very difficult for an area that high income people want to move in to keep it affordable,’” Kane said during his presentation.

Joya Wesley, a nine-year resident of the neighborhood, is one person trying to raise awareness of the plight of area renters. She rents a duplex on Cedar Street and has a good relationship with her landlord.

‘“I could have chosen over all these years to buy some property and marry an unsatisfying job to keep it, but I’m glad I didn’t,’” she wrote in an email. ‘“I feel like I’m supposed to be here as a renter at this time of a real-live case of gentrification and make some noise about how it displaces people who don’t have the choices I do.’”

Although she works from home most of the time, Wesley can walk to the offices of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission downtown when she needs to. Several of her neighbors are students who walk to school at UNCG and Greensboro College.

The Catch 22 for McKee-Huger and other housing advocates is in trying to improve the condition of affordable housing without increasing the price. Pressure from developers makes this job even harder.

‘“We need code enforcement that tries to get owners to maintain the housing that’s there in decent condition,’” she said. ‘“But then the owners can say, ‘Well, why should I maintain it? I’ll just sell out for big money.””

And big money it is, both for investors and buyers. One Cedar Street neighborhood development, Bellemeade Village, is preselling units for between $250,000 and $400,000. Two remaining units in Smothers Place Lofts on Elm Street are priced at $139,900 and $199,000. Prices like that exceed the means of the median income earner.

According to Kane’s study, it takes an income between $11.44 and $13.65 per hour to afford a decent two-bedroom apartment in Greensboro with a monthly rent between $500-$600. The working poor often struggle because they earn too much for public assistance but not enough to afford a decent place.

But the prices of downtown housing reflect the expense of developing there. Land costs more, construction costs are greater and the gamble is riskier for those investing in downtown, Gibbs said.

Land costs for suburban apartments run from $4,000 to $8,000. For their downtown counterparts, the land costs between $15,000 and $20,000. Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson, who also builds low-income housing, stressed this as a factor in choosing land to develop.

‘“The cost of land is just a big, huge factor,’” Anderson said. ‘“To build affordable housing in downtown, it would almost have to be a redevelopment project.’”

Although the downtown market is booming in many cities across the country, market research for Greensboro is very limited. The city’s economy is also struggling, Gibbs said.

‘“We’ve had five of our biggest corporations file bankruptcy in the last four years,’” he said. ‘“Not many places survive that.’”

The demand for downtown condominiums in Greensboro has so far kept pace with supply. Within a week and a half of opening a sales office, Bellemeade Village sold 12 units.

All of those involved in the downtown housing debate are working to find solutions that preserve the diversity of the neighborhood. Gibbs said diversity is a selling point and vital to the health of downtown as an integrated ecosystem. Anderson said having diverse incomes in city neighborhoods strengthens the communities and is important for downtown.

Solutions suggested by Kane included setting up a land bank to buy property when it is affordable and hold it in trust for specific developments. He also referred to a Portland, Ore. development that piggybacked low-income housing on top of a downtown library to save land costs.

Another option for government officials might be to freeze property taxes, which could mitigate rising rents. Gibbs suggested shifting streets and decreasing lot size to prevent costly developments from bleeding over into the bordering, affordable neighborhoods. Implementing solutions will require prioritizing the issue of affordable housing and exerting a huge effort, McKee-Huger said.

‘“If the city really had paid $1.6 million to Agapion and used that for affordable housing then that’s $1.6 million that won’t be used for other affordable housing projects in other parts of the city,’” McKee-Huger said. ‘“There are a lot of trade-offs that are really hard dilemmas.’”

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