Landlords squabble over zoning as crime rises

by Jordan Green

Two low-income residential developers squared off on Jan. 16 over a proposed zoning change that would allow a new apartment complex to be built in an isolated neighborhood tucked between High Point Road and Interstate 40, a community where already-high rates of violent crime and theft continue to climb.

Aided respectively by a retired Greensboro police captain and a former city councilman, the two landlords argued before the Greensboro City Council that adding new housing units would alternately stabilize the neighborhood or push it into further decline. Both sides made appeals to welfare of the poor in the ensuing squabble, perhaps unwittingly calling elected officials’ attention to one of the city’s trouble spots - a place with dense low-income housing, apartments in disrepair, a park that has become a haven for drug dealing and streets bereft of sidewalks.

The proposed zoning change would have converted a sliver of wooded land owned by an elderly widow from a single-family designation to one allowing multi-family residences. The property in question backs up to two adjacent tracts owned by Jim and Betsy Moser, which are wedged onto a street called Overland Heights where rows of apartment complexes are steadily overtaken by modest bungalows.

The rezoning would have allowed the couple to build 80 new housing units on a combined four and a half acres. After hearing from both sides, the council voted 8-1, with Councilman Mike Barber dissenting, to deny the change.

Jim Moser presented his proposed apartment development as a needed addition to existing housing stock to accommodate the expanding ranks of the city’s bottom tier of low-paid workers.

“This new population demographic will include a large percentage of people who work in the service-based industry with generally lower-paying jobs,” he said. “That is not to say that these are not good people because they make less money. Because these are the people that help to keep us safe: entry-level police, firemen, big box retail, food service, healthcare workers need affordable housing. They keep us safe from crime, fire, hunger and sickness.”

Moser indicated that he planned to build most of the new units on two tracts he and his wife already own. He noted that the tract under consideration for rezoning would provide access to the new complex, but that the land itself came with some limitations: one end too narrow to build and the other too steep.

Drew Canady, the retired police captain hired by the Mosers, told council members that the neighborhood had been through several transitions and now appeared to be “in the midst of a new transition this time in a very positive direction,” before proceeding to outline some of its woes.

“There’s no doubt that the area has been a source of calls for police service and reports of crime,” he said, before narrating a tour of the existing apartment complexes as he showed a series of slides on an overhead projector in council chambers.

“These properties are characterized by buildings in need of paint, driveways in disrepair, broken doors and windows, poor and missing outside lighting, and a general sense of disarray,” he said.

Canady represented that the Mosers’ apartment complex would break from this pattern.

“If this community wants to continue to evolve in a positive direction, it can see that continued progress with the addition of the type of upscale apartment opportunity that is being offered by Mr. Moser,” he said. “This type of housing is particularly important now in view of the growing need for quality affordable living space in our city.”

The retired police captain offered a second reason why development would help the neighborhood reverse the tide of crime.

“The area that is subject to the proposed rezoning is currently a dormant overgrown lot with tall grass that is essentially unusable for any other purpose,” he said. “It’s landlocked from all vehicular access, a situation that currently prevents all police patrols on that property as well as the property currently owned by Mr. Moser on Overland Heights. That situation makes the entire tract rife for illegal activity in those woods currently out of view of adjoining streets.”

Don Vaughan, a lawyer and former city councilman hired to represent area property owners opposed to the rezoning, offered a more dramatic if less detailed assessment of the neighborhood’s challenges than Canady’s.

“This is ground zero for violent crime in Greensboro,” he said, adding, “Where’s the park? Where’s the shopping? It’s not on the map. There are no sidewalks in the area. I have a six-year-old daughter. I would be walking with my six-year-old in the street.”

Pat Edwards, a homeowner on nearby Belhaven Drive, said police patrols in the neighborhood were scarce and she had forbidden her grandchildren to visit the one park in the area because she believes it is used as an open-air drug market.

Sister and brother Sarah Clegg Lawrence and Rob Clegg made a simple argument against the new apartment complex: Increasing the neighborhood’s population density would increase crime. Clegg Lawrence said her family has owned two apartment complexes in Overland Heights since 1972. The vacant tracts already owned by the Mosers lie between the Cleggs’ two apartment complexes. The rezoning opponents presented a series of slides with line graphs depicting crime trends and pinpoint maps to denote clusters of lawbreaking.

Michael Fox, a Greensboro lawyer representing the Mosers, pointed to one of the slides – a map with a cluster of red dots – and attempted to shift blame back upon the Cleggs.

“Those masses of red where the crime is on Overland Heights are in the properties that are owned by the people who were up here opposing the new apartment complex,” he said. “This is not about keeping crime down, because the expert on crime will tell you that new quality apartments don’t cause crime. This is about wanting to keep the competition out, because every new complex that comes in there and is affordable competes with those old units that you see in the pictures that have just been around for awhile. I would encourage you not to be blinded by the smoke and mirrors.”

Fox attempted to discredit Vaughan’s contention that the neighborhood lacked park space.

“That’s a city park and it’s a nice little… it’s not a park like you find up here in the center city but it’s a greenway and it is an open space and there is a stream running through there,” he said. “Contrary to what you’ve heard, there is space there.”

Councilwoman Sandy Carmany asked him if there was playground equipment at Fairmont Homes Park, or if it was just a stream buffer.

“I think it’s just a streambed that has been cleared,” the lawyer replied. “It does have a sign that says ‘park.'”

Fox said his client intended to build 42 units on tracts he already owned on Overland Heights and 38 on the tract that was up for rezoning. City Planning Director Dick Hails, who recommended approval of the change, acknowledged there were no conditions on the ordinance to prevent the Mosers from building all the units on the Overland Heights tracts. Without the adding the third tract, density guidelines would allow them to build only 36.

Before voting against rezoning, Mayor Keith Holliday expressed objections to a possible loophole in city policy.

“It sort of manipulates the system that we’ve always thought of zoning would be a protector of that,” he said. “And by taking property that is un-buildable and adding it to the mix you are really skewing the system which I don’t think is what we designed when someone came up with the idea of having zoning regulations.”

Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small said the city must help the residents of Overland Heights and the surrounding area.

“When we sit here and hear something from a zoning point of view, we got people that are living in this area who obviously need our direction and our help to get in there and help them to have their quality of life,” she said. “It’s not right that we’ve looked at this thing and we just go away and those folks are living with the crime and all the other problems. We need to address that.”

A visit to the neighborhood on Jan. 17 revealed that opinion remains divided among residents and those who maintain property in the neighborhood on whether adding new housing would have reduced crime.

An apartment manager who asked that his name not be published said the tract that had been up for rezoning was currently a haven for lawbreakers and he believed new apartments would spur improvements. He said the area has recently been beset by shootings and home invasions.

“People will knock on your door and say, ‘My car’s broken down, can I use your phone?'” he said. “And then two people will storm in.”

Many of the crime victims are recent immigrants who, neighbors report, speak little English. Police reported that two occupants of the Overland Crest apartments owned by the Cleggs were assaulted and robbed by two men who knocked on the back door and forced their way into the home on a recent Friday afternoon. Juna Antonia Delgado-Ochoa, 50, was struck on the head several times with a pistol, after opening the door, police said. She and a second victim, 25-year-old Enrique Chachagua, were forced onto the floor and a sofa was reportedly overturned on top of them. The two suspects, whom police did not locate, took $3,300 from a purse hanging in the closet and $750 from Chachagua’s wallet.

A homeowner on Overland Heights, who like the apartment manager asked that his name not be used, said he took a pessimistic view of the development proposal rejected by city council. New apartments tend to stay free of crime for a while, but he said in his experience the passage of a year or two brings physical deterioration, diminished standards for screening new tenants and an inevitable resurgence of crime.

Along the street that morning few people were found outside the apartment complexes. A sports car with tinted windows sped out of a parking lot. A man in his middle years hurried home to his son, whom he had briefly left with a friend. And a young man who appeared to be a lookout nervously eyed passersby as he staked out a single-family house that had recently been foreclosed.

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