This week, we've been reporting on the aftermath of a tragic fire that spread through a low-rent Greensboro apartment earlier this year, killing five young refugee siblings. Their family was placed there by a resettlement agency tasked with finding safe, affordable housing for new North Carolinians. But as the number of low-cost rentals has dwindled here, safe and affordable is becoming increasingly rare.
For this chapter of our series "Unsafe Haven," WFDD's David Ford surveys the Gate City's response to a housing crisis that's been years in the making.
“We Can't Afford To Be Biased”
Code enforcement officer for the city of Greensboro Terri Buchanan is following up on repairs that she requested a landlord make to a small, two-bedroom rental house. That's how it works: a tenant files a complaint with the city, and if warranted, they send out people like Buchanan to inspect.
Even though this property owner lives out of town, Buchanan says he's been extremely responsive. He's gone above and beyond in resolving the roughly dozen or so code violations that needed to be addressed, the only conflicts arising when contractors he's hired have cut corners, and they're easily resolved.
Other landlords, she says, consistently fail to meet even minimum standards.
“We have to be so careful, and we can't afford to be biased with someone. We can't afford to let our emotions or our opinions enter in and we don't," says Buchanan. “That's one of our strong points as a team. We may grumble amongst ourselves, but we cannot let those opinions enter into the inspection and the process.”
Buchanan acknowledges that this even-handed approach can be frustrating, particularly for the affordable housing advocates, and thousands of low-income renters throughout the city of Greensboro who want bad actors held accountable. But Buchanan contends that the city's reasoning is sound.
“I think that's been an asset to everybody and eventually helps get landlords back on track if they've lost their way, without really pointing fingers at anybody,” she says.
But there are many who argue it doesn't work. Case in point? The Summit-Cone apartment complex near the intersection of Summit Avenue and Cone Boulevard.
City inspectors came to investigate living conditions in the sprawling 42-unit complex following the deadly fire there, and after several tenant complaints surfaced in a petition. While there, code enforcement officers discovered 466 code violations.
It's the second time in five years this property has been condemned, so how does it keep happening?
"A Tool In Our Toolbox"
To find out about one contributing factor, we have to rewind the clock, when state laws changed that made it more difficult for the city to prevent the abuses from happening in the first place. Specifically, the Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy (RUCO).
Mayor Nancy Vaughan says RUCO was groundbreaking in holding more landlords accountable, and it served as a model for other cities.
“We were able to go in and do proactive inspections of units before people rented them,” says Vaughan. “And then the legislature took that away not only from Greensboro, who pioneered that legislation, but from the entire state which took away one of the tools in our toolbox.”
So, by 2012 RUCO was no more.
Brett Byerly with the Greensboro Housing Coalition laments the loss as well, but admits the program also ruffled feathers.
“Philosophically, a lot of it had to do with real estate lobbies feeling like they were being pushed on too hard and overregulated,” says Byerly. “And I get it. Maybe one of the weaknesses of RUCO was that it was an across-the-board inspection program.
"So, we're spending a lot of time inspecting what investors refer to as A and B Class properties. And A and B class properties by definition don't generally need to be inspected, because the people living in A and B Class properties, if their owner landlord is not taking care of the property, they leave.”
Byerly says that, meanwhile, people in C Class properties, without $1,500 in their pocket for a deposit plus the first month's rent, have no ability to vote with their feet. They're stuck.
With RUCO gone, city code inspectors were invited to investigate properties only after receiving complaints from residents, or petitions—as was the case at Summit-Cone. After inspections, problems are identified to the owners who are then given two months or more to correct them. If no action is taken, the building can be condemned as a last resort, followed by civil penalties and fines levied to further entice them to comply. If the owners still don't make repairs, it can be pricey, with escalating reinspection fees eventually totaling $400 per unit, per month. And the last resort: demolition.
“Are We Doing Enough?”
When buildings are condemned, people can't live in them. That just makes the dearth of affordable housing even worse, says City Councilman Justin Outling.
“The fact is there are 26,000 households in our community where people are not able to afford the price they pay for housing.”
That's why, after negotiations with housing advocates and real estate officials, the city passed a $25 million bond referendum to support more affordable housing.
That's helping to fund a 176-unit apartment community in East Greensboro called Cottage Grove. It's being refurbished with a $400,000 investment from the city for energy efficient upgrades.
Then in October, the City Council passed a new housing ordinance. Outling says it will target substandard properties, like the Summit-Cone apartments.
“That property was in compliance as of 2016,” says Outling. “We know now, 2018, a mere two years later, it's woefully out of compliance. This revision to the housing ordinance will help address situations like that one to ensure that properties stay in compliance for a longer period of time.”
Outling says, that unlike RUCO, this ordinance allows the city to inspect all units of an apartment complex where just one serious threat to safety was found. It also gives them permission to follow up with multiple, rollover inspections there over the course of one year without having to start back at the beginning: scheduling, notifications, hearings, and demolitions.
“Are we doing enough?” asks Outling. “The answer is, ‘No, but we're making tremendous progress.' If you want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, you go together. On this topic, we have to go really far, really fast.”
Construction at Cottage Grove seems to be moving along at a good clip, with a move-in date scheduled for some time this spring.