Housing authority demolished low-income senior apartments in 2017. No new housing has been built

Almost a decade ago, the publicly funded Charlotte Housing Authority put an ambitious plan into action: Redevelop 16 acres of prime real estate in Dilworth and generate millions of new dollars for affordable housing in other parts of the city.

The mostly Black seniors who lived at the site were relocated in 2017. Their 122 one-story apartments, known as the Strawn Cottages, were demolished soon after.

The high-rise Strawn Tower — which was renovated — is still there, just off South Boulevard in Dilworth.

But almost seven years after the cottages were torn down, nothing has been built. Most of the site is still an empty field crisscrossed by muddy tracks. There are a few trees and two lonely electrical meters on poles.

“I understand that investors are in the business to make money. I get that. But on the back of whom?” said Corine Mack with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, who recently toured the Strawn site. “Most times or not, it is Black people who are the most harmed. Maybe to never move back to this community again.”

Fulton Meachem is CEO of Inlivian, the Charlotte Housing Authority’s new name. He said the Strawn redevelopment is necessary so the housing authority can use its property to generate its own revenue streams and become less dependent on funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But the high-reward, high-risk strategy has so far not produced any new housing nor any new profits.

And Inlivian’s private development partner, The Fallon Company of Boston, recently said it needs another 18 months before construction begins. That could mean construction is pushed back until 2026.

‘Elderly don’t much like elevators and high places’

The Strawn public housing was built a little more than 50 years ago.

Named for Dilworth resident Zebulon Strawn, a former housing commissioner, its centerpiece was a high-rise tower. But most of the land was dedicated to small “cottages,” single-family homes where residents had yards and quick access to the outdoors. The Charlotte Observer wrote in 1969 that the housing authority “discovered that some of Charlotte’s elderly don’t much like elevators and high places.”

One of those former Strawn cottage residents is Nellie Gregory. She lived in Strawn for 27 years before Inlivian told her she had to leave.

WFAE found her through old voting rolls dating back to 2016. Her granddaughter, Naja Gregory, brought a reporter to Nellie Gregory’s apartment in Grier Heights. She lives alone, except for three cats.

She’s 91.

“The reason I’m leaning is because I’m partially deaf,” Gregory said, laughing. “And I’m leaning with my good ear. So you can talk loud to me.”

Nellie Gregory, who is 91, lived in the Strawn Cottages for 27 years.
Nellie Gregory, who is 91, lived in the Strawn Cottages for 27 years. Steve Harrison / WFAE

Gregory grew up on a farm on Beatties Ford Road. She moved to Strawn in the 1980s. She said she would have stayed if it hadn’t been torn down.

“I loved that place,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been there 27 years if I didn’t like it. I would have been gone. It was quiet and good, and all the neighbors were peaceful and that’s where I wanted to be.”

When it came time to move in 2017, the housing authority offered her the chance to move to Strawn Tower or a new mid-rise development, called the Landing at Park Road.

But Naja Gregory said her grandmother wanted to live in a garden apartment similar to her Strawn cottage.

She chose instead to receive a housing voucher, leaving one of the safest parts of Charlotte — Dilworth — for Grier Heights, one of the most dangerous.

“It just be a lot of traffic going in and out,” Nellie Gregory said about living in Grier Heights. “And so many people would come and park in front of my house. That’s what I didn’t like.”

Naja Gregory said that when her grandmother first moved to her new neighborhood, “there was a lot of drug dealing.”

“My grandma is 91 years old. What can she do to defend herself?” Naja Gregory said.

Though the Strawn Cottages were for seniors, Nellie helped raise Naja, who also lived there.

“I wasn’t on the lease,” Naja said laughing.

“And that’s always been home for me,” Naja Gregory said. “My mom graduated from high school there. We got our first car there, we moved from there to get my first apartment. I always went back to live with my grandma. That place was like home. It was like home.”

Doing more than just building affordable housing

Meachem, the CEO of Inlivian, said the Strawn redevelopment is necessary. With federal funding declining, he says Inlivian needs new revenue to build more affordable housing and maintain what it has.

“If you’re asking families that are on public assistance to be more self-sufficient, to pull themselves up from their bootstraps, then I think as an agency you have to do the exact same thing,” he said. “You can’t depend on the federal government to fund the needs in our community.”

Under his leadership, Meachem said Inlivian is at the “forefront” of a new business model, which calls for the organization to no longer be just a publicly funded housing authority but also to act as a quasi-private developer. It created an offshoot organization, Horizon Development Properties, which now owns the Strawn property.

“So as a sustainability strategy for us, we’re now doing development,” Meachen said.

Inlivian has also partnered with a Maryland-based developer to build a 353-unit apartment building uptown that has some subsidized housing. To make way for the project, known as Trella Uptown, Inlivian demolished the Hall House, which had been public housing.

In 2017, Horizon entered into an agreement with The Fallon Company to transform Strawn into a new development called Centre South. Under the deal, Fallon would get 85% of profits and Inlivian would get 15%.

Over the last several years, Fallon and Inlivian have announced a succession of different dates for Centre South to break ground. That hasn’t happened.

A banner on the Strawn site shows the rendering of an office building that The Fallon Group says it plans to build.
The Fallon Company said it's going to build an office tower on the Strawn site, but it's asked for an 18-month extension. Steve Harrison/WFAE

Inlivian’s contract with Fallon calls for construction to begin no later than 2024 on the hotel, the office building, and 160 of the 745 planned apartments.

Meachem said Fallon’s recent request for another 18-month extension is not “a reasonable request.”

Though the pandemic upended several projects, Charlotte developers have built thousands of new apartments in the last five years.

So why can’t Fallon start building now?

“I think you should ask them that question,” Meachem said. “For me, the focus is how can we assist in making sure these units that we’ve promised get in the ground as quickly as possible.”

WFAE reached out to Fallon multiple times. The developer declined to comment.

Setting aside the delays, there are questions about the overall plan — including moving the residents and demolishing the cottages before construction was ready to start.

When asked whether Inlivian acted prematurely, Meachem said the cottages needed to be replaced, regardless.

“It was housing, yes. But I wouldn’t qualify it as a quality version of affordable housing,” he said. “It needed to be redone.”

The right mix of housing?

Centre South’s plans call for 20% of the 745 new apartments to be affordable housing. But they aren’t for people earning 30% or less than the area median income, the lowest tier of housing prices. That’s the market the Strawn Cottages served.

The affordable units are for people earning between 65% to 80% of the area median income. That means someone making nearly $56,000 a year could be eligible for a discounted apartment at the new development.

Meachem says very low-income apartments didn’t make financial sense since the Strawn Tower is still there.

“To add more (apartments for 30% of AMI) that just didn’t seem like the right investment,” he said. “We need to be careful. You aren’t always going to get 100% at 30%. That’s public housing. That day is gone.”

But there hasn’t been a debate about whether all of the new Centre South apartments should be for very low income, only whether some should be.

Mecklenburg Commissioner Pat Cotham noted that the county’s greatest need is for apartments serving people who make less than $21,000 a year, or 30% of the area median income.

Studies have shown it’s beneficial for low-income residents to have access to amenities like good schools that the Strawn site provides. That’s one of the primary conclusions of Harvard economist Raj Chetty, who studies economic mobility. Chetty’s studies about Charlotte’s difficulties in helping low-income people climb the socioeconomic ladder have found that some of the most beneficial public policies are those that mix rich and poor people in the same neighborhood.

“It would be great if those people were included in this because there’s proximity to a park,” Cotham said. “The bus is close. There’s a lot of things close. And for any young person, there are jobs that are close.”

Inlivian is governed by a six-member Board of Commissioners who are appointed by the Charlotte mayor and Charlotte City Council.

WFAE tried to reach them but was unsuccessful in getting a response. Commissioner Linda Ashendorf said she is “satisfied that questions that can be answered at this time have been answered and that there will continue to be ongoing communication with you.”

New board and council members

In discussing the Strawn project today, one problem is that the majority of City Council members weren’t serving when Inlivian launched the project in 2017. At-large council member Victoria Watlington, who chairs the city’s current housing committee, said she’s not familiar with the project.

Dimple Ajmera served on the Housing Authority board before being appointed to City Council in 2017.

She said the board took a tour of the Strawn Cottages, some of which were unoccupied.

“I did see the age of the property,” Ajmera said. “We were focused on creating something sustainable and safe.”

Even though there would be fewer apartments for very low-income residents in the Centre South plan, Ajmera said she and board members were OK with the project because the Strawn Tower was being renovated.

Cotham said regardless of the intention, the outcome as of now is depressing.

“This is depressing,” she said, standing at the empty site. “You know, wouldn’t it be great if there were families over here … It’s just sad.”

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