Grier Heights is nearing a tipping point. Will another black community vanish?

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As Antoinette Wallace sits on the front porch of the house her husband’s family has lived in for generations, construction noise drowns out the taps on her iPad as she checks her email.

Beleaguered for decades, her neighborhood of Grier Heights has now quietly but quickly slipped into the crosshairs of developers and investors who see profit in its real estate.

“People are looking to sell out,” Wallace said, referring to the landlords who own the low-cost rental properties that still make up more than 80 percent of the neighborhood.

For now, property values are increasing somewhat slowly and only a few homes have begun to be torn down and rebuilt larger and more upscale.

But as Charlotte increasingly redevelops its formerly low-income neighborhoods close to the center city, there’s a growing feeling that Grier Heights could be the next neighborhood to go down the path of gentrification.

There are plenty of factors making Grier Heights attractive. The neighborhood is directly across Randolph Road from Eastover, the highest-dollar area of Charlotte. It feeds into the desirable Myers Park High. And it’s only two miles from the center city.

“Grier Heights is on every residential developer’s radar screen,” said Don Gately, executive director of the nonprofit CrossRoads Corp., which supports the neighborhood. “Given the location, that’s inevitable.”

A quick history of Grier Heights

Grier Heights’ identity as a black community run all the way back to the 1890s, when former slave Sam Billings bought 100 acres of land in the area — the first recorded time an African-American bought land in Charlotte. Today, Billingsville Elementary bears his name.

The neighborhood grew slowly until the 1940s, when prominent African-American businessman Arthur S. Grier built 100 homes. The first residents were black soldiers returning from World War II.

Over time, the homes became rental properties, grew dilapidated, and became “open-air drug markets,” according to the police. Crime spiked, and unemployment rose. The middle-class neighborhood became low-income.

It was in this context that a combination of police officers, churches, city officials and community organizations set about to “revitalize” the neighborhood.

The city forced property owners to clear overgrown vacant lots. Police officers cracked down on people loitering on private property and forged relationships with children living in the neighborhood. The quality of life improved.

The average homes sales price jumped from $27,885 in 2013 to $74,000 in 2015 on low volume, according to city of Charlotte survey data. That’s well below county average of $273,064.

A familiar trajectory

This history puts Grier Heights squarely on a familiar trajectory.

Across the country, young people are increasingly spurning the suburbs and growing interested in close-in neighborhoods. With areas like Myers Park unaffordable for early-career professionals, the attention turns to formerly low-income areas.

All of the efforts to revitalize these neighborhoods unintentionally make them “safe enough” for affluent — and typically white — families to move in.

Charlotte has seen this play out several times over the past decade.

The Cherry neighborhood just south and east of Uptown originally housed the African-American servants of wealthy Myers Park residents. Its duplexes and bungalows have been demolished to make way for $600,000 homes.

Cherry development

To the north, the Belmont neighborhood is awash in construction as affluent families tear down old ones and build new, bigger ones in their stead. And to the west, the neighborhoods comprising Historic West End are in flux as well.

west-end-charlotte-nc

Grier Heights isn’t as far down this path as the examples above. The neighborhood’s property values have yet to recover from the Great Recession. The real estate market is still somewhat slow — there aren’t any houses currently on the market.

“Every so often, somebody will put a little money into a house and flip it, but to date, we haven’t seen developers come in,” Gately said.

But home prices are beginning to accelerate — up nearly 7 percent in just the past year, according to data from Zillow.

This is a far cry from rapidly gentrifying areas like Belmont (28 percent), Plaza-Shamrock (28 percent) and Wilmore (15 percent).

But for neighborhood advocates, the comparisons are already apt.

“I think everybody’s fear is what some might call an eventual reality,” Gately said. “Developers will be buying homes just based on where Grier Heights is and building larger homes.”

The tipping point approaches

Already, real estate listings are touting the neighborhoods virtues to wealthier buyers.

“It’s close to the growing nightlife section of 7th Street that comes with all of the old school charm of Plaza Midwood before the mega apartments moved in,” one recent listing read. The house sold for $150,000 last summer, a massive jump from the $47,000 the property fetched in 2001.

“You can’t get a better location in Charlotte, minutes to uptown, 7th Street & Plaza Midwood. This .25 acre corner lot has a lot of room to expand if ever needed,” another nearby listing read. It sold for $162,000 in March.

A spillover effect has begun, as well.

Ben Page, who works with the Charlotte Eagles urban soccer program and has lived in the neighborhood for eight years has had a up-close view of what’s already happening.

A grandmother who’s lived in the community for 25 years has had her rent increased twice in the past six months, though no work has been done to improve the house, Page said. Another person’s home did get renovated and rent immediately went up another $500.

Despite the piecemeal listings, investors are holding on to most of these properties for now. But when the apartment owners decide to sell, the flip will switch fast.

Only a few hundred yards away, condos on 7th Street are renting for $1,600 or selling for as much as $400,000.

“Eventually Grier Heights won’t be anything that Grier Heights is today,” Page said. “If you’ve got money, why wouldn’t you invest and buy a house? Your investment is only going to double in the next five years.”

Each home sale brings Grier Heights closer, he said.

“If every month, two more houses get bought and flipped into $150,000 to $200,000 homes, that means each month, it’s two more houses away from whatever the tipping point is,” Page said.

“It happens slowly enough where you can get away with watching a community slowly die.”

Could Grier Heights find a different path?

These macro trends are deeply personal to the people who have lived in Grier Heights for generations.

Paris Huntley, 60, lives in the house his grandmother built in the early 1940s. Looking down Orange Street, he points out the homes where his uncles, aunts and cousins grew up. One by one, they died or moved away and investors bought up the homes to turn into rentals.

But unlike in Cherry, the major land buyer in Grier Heights hasn’t immediately turned around and built massive homes.

In both neighborhoods, duplexes were razed for new construction. In Cherry, the new homes were priced at the luxury end of the market. In Grier Heights, most of the new homes are income restricted.

The nonprofit CrossRoads Corp. used seed money from Myers Park Presbyterian Church to buy up largely boarded-up homes and is helping subsidize their sale to low-income families. They’ve also rehabbed the historic schoolhouse into a community center, supported youth programs and offered up grants for home repair.

“We’re doing all of these things with the primary objective of improving quality of life for the people of Grier Heights,” Gately said, but emphasized that his organization has worked hand-in-hand with community leaders already in place. “You can bring a lot of change to a neighborhood, but unless you’re working with the residents of the neighborhood, it’s not sustainable.”

The most noticeable CrossRoads development is Elizabeth Heights, a subdivision consisting of 35 homes built in phases and sold to people making about 80 percent of the area median income. These homes fall under the umbrella of “affordable housing,” and are accessible to households of four earning $53,750, or $37,650 for a single person.

The typical price is around $175,000, and downpayment assistance is available.

[Agenda story: What does affordable housing mean in Charlotte?]

The first eight homes were finished in 2013. Another eight have recently broken ground.

People who buy these homes can’t immediately turn around and sell them for a larger profit. Deed covenants keep them income-restricted for 15 years.

“If we can continue to acquire land and continue building homes, it won’t end up that type of situation where there’s $500,000, $600,000 homes here,” Gately said.

Is it enough?

But what’s considered low-income or affordable to Mecklenburg County as a whole doesn’t feel affordable or low-income in Grier Heights.

The median household income in Grier Heights is just $17,171, according to city data. And indeed, many of the new homeowners are white.

Page, of the Charlotte Eagles and an eight-year resident of Grier Heights, says he could be considered an example. He is white and describes himself as middle-income.

And a lot of his newer neighbors are of the same ilk. Perhaps it’s a household with two teachers, or a first-time single homebuyer with an entry-level professional salary and a college degree.

“That’s not poverty, but that’s who’s qualifying,” Page said. “That’s whose credit score is good enough. That’s who even has credit.”

Huntley said his own niece applied for a loan to buy a home and stay in Grier Heights, where she grew up. But she was denied, and Huntley said he’s seen too many black people turned down.

“There was so much love in this community. When someone died, you couldn’t even get in the house because so many people were bringing food by,” he said. “Now it’s all strangers.”

From his driveway, the change feels inevitable. Across the street, a man works on the top level of a quadruplex, perhaps preparing it for new tenants. Homes with shinier, newer paint can be seen through the trees in his backyard.

“Where are these people going to go?” Wallace said, gesturing to her long-time neighbors and walking back to her front porch under the shadow of a crane.

“The neighborhood leaders, they’re selling this community out.”

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Andrew Dunn
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