GREENSBORO Late last year dozens of people were forced out of a dilapidated apartment complex on Summit Avenue.
The landlord at Summit/Cone Apartments hadn’t made repairs quickly enough to fix hundreds of housing standards violations and city officials condemned most of the 42 units.
The apartments have become a symbol of Greensboro’s affordable housing issues and a rallying point for people who want to increase and improve such housing here.
On Wednesday, experts from here and across the state will meet at the annual Greensboro Housing Summit to talk about ways to improve and expand good, affordable housing.
The Summit/Cone apartments became notorious after five refugee children died in a fire in one of the units in May.
Although the fire was blamed on unattended cooking, residents began to publicly complain about bad conditions such as leaking sewer pipes and pest infestations. After the condemnations, dozens of families moved out.
The apartments became an example of the kind of low-quality housing that many poor and immigrant people are forced to rent because they can’t afford something better.
Housing is not considered affordable if it costs tenants more than 30 percent of their income. Lower-income people are most likely to face problems paying for their apartments or homes. Affordable housing in Greensboro is hard to find and much of it is plagued with maintenance issues, mold and pest infestations, said Brett Byerly, executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition.
Although “a lot of work” has been going on at the Summit/Cone Apartments, and many of the apartments have been rented again, Byerly said finding affordable housing remains a major challenge in Greensboro.
Housing experts estimate about 26,000 people in Greensboro live in homes or apartments that cost more than 30 percent of their salary in monthly rent. Byerly calls those people “rent burdened” and he’d like to see that number drop.
Affordable housing is within reach, experts say, but it takes a broad effort of property owners, financial agencies, health-care providers and government officials to set up complex programs for a complex problem.
Every year, affordable housing advocates say, a good idea or a new connection comes from the Greensboro Housing Summit and planners are hoping this year’s event will spark enough ideas in seven hours to help improve the problem over the next year.
Although open to the public, reservations are already sold out for Wednesday’s summit.
The event is hosted by the Housing Coalition, which can guide people to housing options while working with public and private officials to improve the quality and number of affordable housing units. Byerly said the group assisted 22 families who were forced to move out of Summit/Cone find new places to live.
But the coalition is one of many groups at the summit who will be there to work on four major components of the housing problem, said Byerly.
“We’ve got four buckets we’re thinking about,” he said.
- Supportive housing for the chronically homeless. That’s an umbrella term that refers to any of several strategies for finding affordable housing for homeless people and then providing services that teach them habits so they can maintain rent payments and stable housing.
- Healthy housing. That involves finding ways to rehabilitate housing, getting governments to enforce housing codes and finding investors willing to spend what it takes to improve substandard housing.
- Eviction. Greensboro’s eviction rate is among the worst in the nation. Nearly 5,000 renters were evicted here in 2016 — the most recent year available — according to a 2018 survey by Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. That ranks the city seventh in the nation. Byerly said his group is working with UNC-Greensboro, Legal Aid officials and landlords to find ways to avert eviction for tenants who are on the edge of financial instability.
- Affordable housing. That means finding developers to build new apartments and also finding people willing to take on the substantial financial cost to improve dilapidated complexes. But it’s happening here and there, Byerly said.
Justin Outling, a member of the Greensboro City Council, said the Housing Coalition and meetings like this have a way of focusing priorities.
For city government, he said, “there are lots of issues to address. Oftentimes it’s an issue of prioritization. When you have groups engaged like the Housing Coalition, they have ideas and they serve as eyes and ears in the community. They help you prioritize issues.”
Outling and the City Council last year worked with the coalition, the apartment industry and other experts to tighten city housing ordinances that now allow housing inspectors to regularly inspect apartments that are found to have more than four minimum housing standards violations in a rolling 12-month period.
But he said that was a first step in a long-term plan. The city now needs to provide the budget to hire more inspectors to enforce the ordinance, he said. Without that, the law is meaningless, he said. An annual housing summit helps to keep attention on the issue.
“You have to keep on working at it and you have to go piece by piece by piece,” Outling said. “And you can’t rest on our achievements that we made improving the ordinance in 2018.”
The Housing Summit will unite experts from a variety of disciplines to attack all four of those “buckets” and fill them with new ideas.
Speakers include Dr. Megan Sandel, the nation’s leading expert on how housing impacts child health. And Andy McMahon, vice president of Health and Human Services Policy at UnitedHealthcare Community & State, which has invested more than $350 million to finance low-income and supportive housing since 2011 in 14 states.
Greensboro’s apartment industry will also play a key role in the meeting, which includes Jon Lowder, executive director of the Piedmont Triad Apartment Association.
The members of his group operate roughly 66,000 apartments across the Triad, 2/3 two-thirds of which are in Guilford County.
The apartment industry is often blamed for the lack of affordable housing or the prevalence of low-quality housing for low-income people, Lowder said.
Lowder said he hopes by being a part of the meeting he can help explain how the market is driving rent prices, how tight regulations affect responsible housing owners, what happens when a few bad landlords attract the worst kind of attention for the whole industry, and why it is difficult to find financing for low-income housing.
“We’re pleased to be involved with the conversation,” he said. “To me that’s a huge step in the right direction — that we’re hopefully taking a more collaborative approach to addressing housing.”