As Lartar Johnson stood in the courtyard of the Southern Comfort Inn in west Charlotte on Saturday, Sept. 14, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employee found herself at a crossroads.
All around her, children ran under tents and tossed cornhole bags while neighbors took turns singing between DJ spins on a mic-and-speaker setup. A line of volunteers helped serve hot dogs, hamburgers and sides to anyone who was hungry. The sense of community in Southern Comfort was strong that day, but Johnson knew it was only temporary.
At that moment, Johnson had only lived in the Southern Comfort Inn for a matter of days, and she still didn’t know where she’d be living come October.
She had moved into the motel after being pushed out of the nearby Lake Arbor apartments. The county had promised help in paying for a new home, but she was still waiting for an update.
“Without Southern Comfort I’d probably be homeless,” Johnson said. “My plan now is to try to find me somewhere — to find me an apartment or find a home. I haven’t gotten no help from nobody.”
Johnson had lived in the Lake Arbor complex on Tuckaseegee Road for three years. For much of the last year she was in and out of court with management after they ordered her to pay two months rent at once. The case never went anywhere, but she hadn’t been able to feel secure at Lake Arbor since.
On July 30 of this year, management let everyone in the complex know they would have to move; the complex was shutting down.
Johnson and her partner lived in one of 177 units that were occupied at the time of the announcement, the most egregious instance of displacement to occur recently in a city that’s struggling just to build enough affordable housing for those already in need.
In the time since the announcement, residents like Johnson have been thrust into a confusing situation for which news about their precarious living situation has become increasingly unclear. Deadlines for eviction have differed between residents and changed without warning for some.
In August, the county put together a coalition of organizations to help pay for housing for displaced residents, but some have criticized the way those efforts have been implemented.
Separate from that coalition, a group of grassroots organizers who have been working within the Lake Arbor complex for nearly two years now say the county-led effort, spearheaded by local housing advocacy organization Community Link, is well-intentioned but not being carried out in residents’ best interests.
To be clear, the mess at Lake Arbor is not Mecklenburg County’s responsibility to clean up. The situation has come to this partly due to years of lax code enforcement on the city’s part, leading to unlivable conditions and health concerns first reported on by Fox46’s David Sentendrey in July 2018.
Sentendrey began reporting on the issues at Lake Arbor soon after Blanche Penn, founder of local government accountability group Voice for the People (VTP), began raising issues with local leaders regarding living conditions there. One of Penn’s closest friends had a daughter and infant granddaughter living in an apartment racked with mold. The infant was suffering from breathing problems, but Lake Arbor management was ignoring requests to fix the issue.
Motivated by Penn’s advocacy and Sentendrey’s reporting, city code enforcement carried out an investigation in the complex and found violations in every unit. Things only went downhill from there, with ownership and management allegedly targeting residents who spoke out against the slumlord behavior with evictions, padlocking homes of people while they were at work.
Things came to a head in July, when letters were sent to all residents stating that they would need to vacate their homes. Most were given deadlines of Sept. 1, though that was moved back on the day of eviction. Some are still facing Oct. 1 deadlines. Those with month-to-month leases were evicted immediately. The final deadline for the apartment complex to be empty is Dec. 31 2019.
At a Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners meeting on Sept. 4, Vilma Leake, who represents District 2 where Lake Arbor is located, expressed frustration with the fact that the county now had to step up in a role that commissioners were not familiar with or responsible for.
“We’ve known the problems and we thought the city would take care of its responsibility of code enforcement in that facility … and they have not done what they were supposed to do in terms of making sure that it was livable for our people,” Leake said, “and now that we’ve come around to this point, it grieves me.”
Stacy Lowry, director of Mecklenburg County Community Support Services, gave a presentation to commissioners at that meeting explaining how the county would try to lead efforts to find and fund housing for those displaced from Lake Arbor.
The county formed a coalition called Project SAFE (Stop Apartments From Evicting) that would make use of money raised by United Way of Central Carolinas and the county’s annual $1.8 million Crisis Assistance Fund to offer each qualifying household up to $1,000 to assist with relocation. The money would be funneled through Community Link, which would deal directly with residents and set standards for who qualified for the assistance.
In early September, Community Link staff members went to Lake Arbor to assess the needs of residents. They were able to complete more than 70 assessments, from which they estimated the need for $350,000 to relocate those residents. The need is probably much higher, however, as nearly half of the residents went without assessments.
United Way representatives have stated that the organization is working on more long-term assistance options for residents, as well.
Apryl Lewis, who has been working on the ground with grassroots groups like VTP and Tenants Organizing Resource Center (TORC) since 2018, spoke at the meeting about her concerns that Community Link is out of touch with the direct needs of Lake Arbor residents, slowing down the process at a time when streamlining efforts is key.
“I know for a fact that, from the beginning, Community Link was not receptive to the community of Lake Arbor,” Lewis told commissioners. “I need you to question them just a little bit more. I also ask that the organization TORC is considered to actually sit down at these meetings when these funds are being dispersed … If we’re sitting at the table, we can actually come up with a plan of action to really address displacement, to really understand what restorative justice is and to make sure that the community is sitting at that table. There are decisions being made that, yet again, the community is not here for.”
On Sept. 11, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham tweeted her frustration with efforts after accompanying Penn and Robert Dawkins of Action NC on a trip to connect Lake Arbor residents with Community Link. According to all three involved, members of Lake Arbor staff threatened to call police on Dawkins for taking a van to the complex to help bring residents to the Community Link office in Uptown.
Once they arrived at Community Link, Penn was told by staff there that she could not enter the office with the residents she brought there to help them sort through their options.
“What I’ve seen from Community Link, there’s a disconnect between working on housing from their aspect and being able to understand the needs of people that’s being impacted and going through an emergency,” Dawkins said. “The whole process is screwed up. It’s too academic and top-heavy. If you’re an MBA who’s never been in the neighborhood talking to people and all your experience is sitting across from them in a chair when somebody’s in a crisis, that’s not the response that we need.”
Calls and emails to Community Link were not returned by Queen City Nerve’s print deadline.
Dawkins, Lewis and Penn have continued to focus on the immediate needs of Lake Arbor residents, finding housing for those who don’t qualify for Community Link’s standards, or who are having the most trouble finding new apartments because of criminal history or credit scores. They continue to try to work with Community Link in any way that they can, sending residents to the offices to fill out paperwork while they search Charlotte for housing.
U.S. Postal Office employee Lonnie Sparkman lived in Lake Arbor with his wife and two kids for three years, during which he dealt with management’s refusal to fix water damage, broken doors and mildew. In August, he was told his family would have to vacate their apartment by Sept. 1. When Queen City Nerve spoke with him that day, he said that management had pushed the deadline back to October, but he wasn’t treating that as a grace period.
“With these people, I done seen them padlock doors,” Sparkman said. “I just don’t want to get myself into that predicament to have my children on the street, or my wife and family on the street. So I’m trying not to wait for the end part … I gotta make sure somehow we’re secure.”
Despite his own urgent situation, Sparkman was out with members of TORC that day informing his neighbors of their rights. Jessica Moreno and Bree Newsome led efforts that day to go door-to-door with flyers letting residents know that they did not have to vacate their residences if they had not gone through a court-ordered eviction process, with an order served by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. Even if residents had gone through that, TORC organizers reminded them that they still had 10 days to find new housing.
For Newsome, the day of action was about protecting residents still in search of housing from being forced onto the street.
“We know that in the past we’ve had people who were padlocked out of their apartments before they went through a legal eviction process, so that’s why there was concern today that that might happen,” she said. “One of the reasons we have really been rallying in the past couple of weeks in drawing attention to this issue was trying to make sure that didn’t happen today — that we didn’t have a situation where people were simply left out on the street with nowhere to go.”
While he worked alongside fellow TORC organizers, Sparkman feared just such a circumstance for his family that day.
“We’ll be on the street,” he answered when asked what would happen if he were forced out that very day, as originally planned. “We put up for a place, but they hit me with a double deposit. I don’t have money for a double deposit, I just had enough to get in and do what I had to do.”
Since Sept. 1, Sparkman has secured housing in an apartment thanks to the work of Lewis and TORC and supplementary funding from Community Link. Other, however, continue to search for permanent housing.
At Southern Comfort Inn, Johnson said she talked to a Community Link representative and was promised three weeks of rent at an extended-stay hotel, though she feared what would happen when those three weeks were up. Every apartment she’s looked for is over $1,000 and would cost about double that to move into with a deposit, she said. She worried that if she took the offer from Community Link, she might lose her spot at Southern Comfort.
“Extended-stay is expensive. I can’t afford that,” she said. “I might as well stay here. It’s not the best of hotels, but it’s something that helps people.”
Southern Comfort manager Traci Canterbury has been renting exclusively to low- and fixed-income people for 10 years now, when she recognized that the recession was creating a housing crisis in west Charlotte.
“There’s not any resources on the west side of Charlotte,” said Canterbury, who lives in the motel. “We don’t get government funding; our city leaders overlook it. I saw so many people struggling, especially people here that are fixed-income that get $741 a month. Tell me where in Charlotte they can move to. It’s impossible for them.”
On Sept. 1, Canterbury took in seven households from Lake Arbor, offering them lower rates than usual to help in their transition. She’s since accepted another and is expecting two more on Oct. 1.
Lewis is looking for more people like Canterbury to partner with in her vision for creating a larger infrastructure of transitional housing in situations like what happened at Lake Arbor. In fact, her long-term goal is to create a coalition that buys the actual Lake Arbor complex and turns it into transitional housing for people facing displacement.
Lewis has lived the problem she’s trying to confront; she was priced out of her Enderly Park home in August and forced to commute from her temporary home in Concord to west Charlotte to help Lake Arbor residents.
Queen City Nerve met with her once on Sept. 13 in a hotel room she rented near Southern Comfort so she could be close enough to set-up the next day’s community cookout that she had organized. That day, Samaritan’s Feet handed out 250 pairs of shoes to local residents while nonprofits and other government entities helped educate residents on how to access services.
While she unpacked her stuff in her one-night room, Lewis said she gets overwhelmed by the nature of the work, as she and fellow organizers are constantly receiving calls from people facing evictions in other parts of the city, but she won’t stop because of “my kids,” which is how she refers to the children at Lake Arbor that she has become close to over the last two years, waiting with them at the bus stop on Tuckaseegee Road almost daily.
“My kids forced me to be in this fight because they want their family to do better, and they’re mad at the community because the community isn’t showing them better,” she said. “So this is where all this is coming from. I got it from them.”