Balancing On The Edge: Affordability And Growth In Ole Asheboro
This reporting project is a collaboration between WFDD, Carolina Data Desk at The UNC School of Media and Journalism and Wake Forest University's Journalism Program. It was made possible through funding from the Knight Foundation.
Today, in our project on the Triad’s housing crisis, WFDD reporter Bethany Chafin takes us to a Greensboro neighborhood for a rare glimpse into a place at risk of losing valuable affordable housing.
This intersection at East Bragg Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive near downtown Greensboro is a dividing line. It's between two neighborhoods, and only one is thriving.
If you look to the right, you can see downtown. The tallest building in Greensboro peaks over the horizon. And there's Southside, a bright and shiny redevelopment zone that began 20 years ago.
It's a vibrant area; brick townhomes surround yoga studios and hair salons. There's perfect landscaping and new sidewalks as well as Dame’s Chicken & Waffles, a city favorite.
To the left of this intersection is the beginning of Ole Asheboro.
Homes are boarded up. Lots are vacant and littered. People loiter at a corner Citgo gas station; the neighbors call them “day walkers.”
WFDD has spent nearly a year exploring the Triad’s housing crisis. Families pay more than they can afford; in Greensboro alone, nearly 40 percent of residents struggle to meet their housing costs. The region’s two largest cities top a national list on concentrations of evictions. We dug deeper: how did we get here and why? What can be done to attract growth while preserving housing where it’s needed most?
It was a series of old maps that led us to Ole Asheboro. The maps have become, in some ways, predictors of where gentrification happens. But that new investment and those new residents had not come to Ole Asheboro.
The federal government drew up these maps after the stock market crashed in 1929. The colors guided banks to make safer bets on where they loaned their money. The practice is called redlining and used race as one of the “hazards” to warn away banks. Ole Asheboro was considered high-risk, colored yellow and red because of the nearby black neighborhoods.
Why does this matter? Ole Asheboro has nearly 700 residential properties – vital housing stock in a city that doesn’t have enough affordable options. In fact, Carolina Data Desk found the current average tax value of a home here is nearly $50,000, which is still within reach for low-income buyers.
So, how do you a lift a neighborhood stained by lending discrimination? And how do you preserve the culture and affordable housing it provides? Is it even possible?
To find out more, go left, into the heart of the neighborhood.
Rooted At Home
Jody Martin stands outside his house on Tuscaloosa Street.
Martin knows this view, these homes, and these neighbors like the back of his hand. He grew up here, and he plans to grow older here.
“My parents bought this house back in 1953. The white people that used to live in the area started moving out and then the first black families moved into this neighborhood,” he says.
This was a defining moment in Ole Asheboro. Some black families settled here after the city cleared what it determined to be "slums" nearby, where homes had reached such a level of decay that the city bulldozed to start over.
Some new residents rented space in large Victorians, left vacant as Greensboro’s movers and shakers migrated to the suburbs. Others, like Martin's parents, bought modest homes along streets like Tuscaloosa. An all-black neighborhood was what Martin knew growing up.
He remembers his childhood riding his bike around the neighborhood down to his grandparents’ house. At home, he dove into comic books, and his soundtrack was guided by his mom’s love of Nat King Cole.
When Martin was a boy, he once asked his dad if their family of four was poor.
“'No, we’re lower middle class,'" he recalls his father saying. "Now, we were poor. I mean we lived in a 5-room house. But you know, we had everything we wanted.”
Despite money being tight, Martin's family invested in their home — adding rooms and a basement.
The wealth they built would be passed down to Martin when he inherited the house after his mother died.
A home can be a family’s fastest way to build equity and have something to give the next generation. But there’s still a large racial disparity in average net housing wealth. According to a 2016 national Survey of Consumer Finances, for a white household, the figure is over $215,000. For a black household? It's less than half that at $94,400.
But for Martin and his family, a house was about more than money.
“When you don’t have the fear of wanting anything, needing anything, when you know you’re in a safe place, everything else is possible,” he says.
Today, Martin still feels rooted here even though most of the neighbors he grew up with are gone.
“All of the original black owners have either died or moved away,” he says.
Like Martin, a lot of the remaining homeowners in Ole Asheboro have been here a long time. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of them have been in their houses for at least 20 years. And quite a few for more than 40.
As residents age out of the community, not all of the homes are staying in the family. And that could be a problem for Ole Asheboro.
To see why, all you need to do is look a few blocks away to Julian Street.
House after house is abandoned, left to decay.
There's one that's really beautiful from the outside. But there’s a lock box on the front door, and the windows are boarded up. The window that’s broken is next to a yellow condemned sign from February 19, 2010.
This type of deterioration took root in the 1940s. Absentee landlords neglected maintenance on aging homes; others couldn’t afford these costs. And as a result of redlining, there were few new dollars or new loans being invested here.
By the 1970s, the neighborhood was in serious jeopardy. And the city knew it. Stakes were high; Ole Asheboro had affordable homes the city didn’t want to lose.
So, Greensboro invoked state law and declared Ole Asheboro blighted. This made things official. The city could intervene to stabilize the neighborhood. But no one predicted how long it would take.
Seeing Potential In Ole Asheboro
In the 1990s, Michael Akins took his wife Barbara to see the house he wanted to renovate on Caldwell Street. At the time, she couldn’t imagine making a home here.
“The disparity, the drug infestation, the prostitution that was going on ... This part of town at that time was so much different from the side of town that I came from,” she says.
But Michael Akins saw a place of resilience, a community he'd be proud to live in.
"People that I had known from growing up, this was a community they chose to move to in moving out of the projects or in moving out of the apartments that they had lived in. When they decided to buy a home, they came to a neighborhood like this."
Today, with their children grown and gone, the Akinses are still waiting for Ole Asheboro’s potential to be fully realized. As president of the neighborhood association, Barbara Akins proudly points to the new downtown greenway extension, a community garden and recently installed public art. But she says it can be an uphill battle.
“And you’re climbing, you’re climbing, you’re climbing. And you can’t get anywhere,” she says.
Michael Akins adds: “Am I seeing some change? Yes. Have I seen as much change as I anticipated? No.”
They see the answer in more invested homeowners, people who will sit on their porches, mow their lawns, and plant flowers. Now, fewer than 42 percent of the residents here own.
There are few signs that percentage is likely to increase anytime soon. Carolina Data Desk found for every 100 people living in Ole Asheboro, only eight applied for a mortgage. Across Guilford and Forsyth counties, that number was nearly double.
And, for the homeowners who are coming, their arrival is through heroic effort.
Mary Witherspoon and William Scott are watching their new 3-bedroom, 2-bath house go up before their very eyes. They’re about to be first-time homeowners.
"She's been over there every day to talk to the contractor. When she rolls up, they say, 'We see you coming, Mary.' While I'm at work she goes over there and checks on the progress," Scott says while laughing.
Until now, they’ve been renting a place just blocks away from the house they bought on Reid Street. And they’re bucking a trend. Black homeownership in Greensboro has been declining since the Recession. An American Public Media analysis shows that beginning in 2011, it dropped five percentage points in five years.
The couple is thrilled about the opportunity.
"That's all she talks about nowadays,” Scott says.
“I got so much joy. I didn’t think we could be able to get this house. But we got this house. I am elated. I am happy,” Witherspoon says.
A small, local nonprofit called Community Housing Solutions is making it happen. It’s a win-win — the neighborhood gets well-made homes and dedicated homeowners. Buyers get efficient, affordable houses and a chance to build wealth.
It takes a lot to make this work: city-owned land, donated materials, volunteer builders. But pulling this off for Ole Asheboro's 132 vacant residential lots? Not likely.
Nibbles, No Bites
Back on Julian Street, Carl Brower knocks on a "No Trespassing" sign in front of an empty lot the city cleared to make room for revitalization.
“One of the properties that the city has bought. Available for someone to put a single family home in,” he says.
But it takes some imagination to see it. The grass is knee-high and there’s trash strewn about. It’s an eyesore.
And a hard sell.
Property values are low in this neighborhood. That means a brand new house here will immediately be worth less than a brand new house somewhere else in the city. Carolina Data Desk found the average tax value of residential homes in Ole Asheboro is just under $47,000 — a casualty of those redlining maps. By comparison, the city average is more than three times that at $160,215.
Brower says, “[There's] traction being gained, but until we see these areas that are vacant and available, filled with homeownership and persons in the community that want the community to be what we want it to be, we’re going to have a never ending struggle.”
For decades it’s been hard to get much here, whether residential or commercial. The neighborhood recently got a Family Dollar. But Brower says the property sat vacant for 20 years before that.
It’s the same story for another undeveloped lot nearby.
“It’s been out for bid and looking for proposals for over 10 years. We’ve had a couple nibbles. We haven’t had a bite.”
Despite that, Brower thinks the neighborhood is at a turning point.
He imagines a community where it’s not such a heavy lift to lure a Family Dollar. He welcomes a place like Southside where people can work, live, and play. The city’s been trying to court such an investment for a while. One thing is for sure.
“It’s taking longer than anyone could imagine,” says Brower.
At A Crossroads
Back at the intersection near the gateway to the neighborhood, you can feel the revitalization of downtown creeping closer and closer. The question has always been how and will Ole Asheboro connect with downtown?
And there are so many more questions. Will family members stay or return, like Jody Martin wants?
“I’ll be here, and I’m hoping if either my niece or my nephew want to, eventually they’ll take it over, repair it,” Martin says.
Will it be renters or homeowners like the Akinses who move in as residents age out?
“Even though my professional colleagues may not live over here, and the folk I’ve known haven’t lived over here … I always say it’s because this is where I believe I belong,” says Barbara Akins.
And what will future development look like? Carl Brower says the line between uplifting and gentrifying is a very fine one.
“We’re not trying to keep anyone from developing, but it has to be the development that fits the culture of this city and this neighborhood,” he says.
But if and when the money starts flowing, it might not be up to them or the city. What is clear is that the next few years will be crucial. For now, residents wait, as they have for decades, feeling the pull of the future and the gravity of the past.
Bethany Chafin: firstname.lastname@example.org
Exploring Ole Asheboro's Changing Neighborhood