Sunlight cuts through trees winter stripped to the bone months ago as Michael Kelley drives from his home to a field of grass just around the corner. Plump geese scatter as he parks his car on a barely discernible driveway that leads to nowhere. He points to his 12-year-old son, who waves hello from their backyard.
In 2002 when Kelley moved to Willowmere, a neighborhood in the southeast corner of Mecklenburg County, a farmer grew hay and let his cattle graze on this field. Kelley's black lab couldn't make sense of the ever-hungry herd, especially the 2,000-pound bull.
Kelley had an electric fence installed to contain the dog, except the contractor accidentally encroached on the farmer's land by a foot. Without notification, the farmer killed the electricity.
As Willowmere and its sister neighborhood Nottingham grew around the field, filling with more stay-at-home moms, retired police and others in the middle class, it was inevitable that the farmer would leave.
Kelley chuckles as he recalls watching him move, taking everything — even his home, built in the '70s, hardly an idyllic farm house — on I-beams with him.
"You mentioned before the idea of change. That does scare people, worry people. That's why I really hope, if and when they build this development, I hope it's successful."
In September, a nonprofit housing developer visited the Willowmere and Nottingham homeowner associations meetings. Representatives of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership said they would submit to the city a rezoning application to turn the field, zoned at the time for a day care, into workforce-housing apartments — otherwise known as low-income housing.
As usual, the HOA meetings weren't very well attended, but word of the application spread quickly. Kelley and some neighbors took to the Internet to learn how to file a protest petition that he says only a few days later carried 570 signatures, exactly the number of homes in Willowmere. He and about 15 neighbors launched the Weddington Rd Rezone Committee page on Facebook, named after the road that would connect Willowmere, Nottingham and the low-income apartments. They'd use the page to discuss the many meetings between residents, residents and city councilmen, and residents and the housing developer.
Between September and Jan. 21 — when, in a 9-2 decision, City Council approved the Housing Partnership's rezoning request — about 2,100 residents had signed a protest petition.
Proponents of such housing say Weddington Road was just the first of many battles they will have to fight against residents in south Charlotte who already feel overwhelmed by increased traffic or who may disagree with the Partnership's mission of expanding affordable housing. City Council passed a policy in 2011 that required low-income housing move away from the north and northwest parts of town into "stable neighborhoods," measured by crime and high school drop-out rates, among other factors. Many of those neighborhoods are in south and southeast Charlotte.
"The supporters of this thing were motivated by the desire to further the objectives of affordable housing and disbursement of affordable housing," says Willowmere's district representative, Ed Driggs. He and Councilman Kenny Smith voted against the rezoning. "They could openly campaign for it."
That January meeting was filled mostly with Nottingham and Willowmere residents who sat in silence as council members precluded debate by alluding to the elephant in the room: Not In My Backyard.
A square peg in a round hole. That's the way Kelley and others on the Weddington Rd Rezone Committee describe their main issue with the project: land use. They say the three-story building will stand out among, and cause privacy issues for, the two-story homes that line the field, despite a planned 50-foot buffer wall and a well-maintained tree line. Storm water from the complex will drain into nearby homes already struggling with flooding. Driggs and residents who emailed him about the project are concerned that the 70-unit complex will create more traffic on Weddington, an old, winding farm road that they argue new retail developments have stressed enough.
Kelley acknowledges that studies generated throughout the debate refuted some of these arguments. The day care, for example, would have caused much more traffic than the apartments — and at peak hours. But he says a day care wasn't needed for the area anymore. And had it come to fruition, at least the traffic would have been easier to manage. (Socrates Academy, a 600-student charter school across the street from the field that doesn't offer busing, could have discussed with the day care start and end times.)
A Willowmere resident wrote Driggs about the water-drainage issues that already exist for her home, located less than 100 yards from the future Weddington Road apartments. "We believe that with the proposed new development, this issue will only get worse," she wrote. Driggs forwarded her note to the watershed area manager with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services, mentioning a handful of other residents had similar concerns. The manager wrote back that a study by an engineer "showed less runoff leaving the site after the development than leaves the site currently."
Kelley says larger pieces of land, in Matthews, for example, could have more comfortably supported the complex.
"It seems like [the city] has some policies that contradict each other," Kelley says. "The Housing Locational Policy that says, 'this is where we want [low-income housing].' Other policies, general land-use and development policies ... say it doesn't qualify. From a city standpoint, I would hope that they would figure out exactly what they want and how they can handle it."
In the last few months of 2013, Driggs carried a binder to council meetings filled with 400 to 500 email exchanges between him and residents. "The level of unhappiness of people living in the area" is very high, he says. "As their representative, that gets my attention right away."
Along with traffic issues and problems with the building itself, some mentioned in their emails the potential for a crime increase or aired their grievances with low-income housing in general. A resident on Kathryn Blair Lane, which is in neither Willowmere nor Nottingham but still in District 7, wrote, "How long should people be allowed to live in public housing? How many generations? Maybe if they saw the benefit to improving their lot in life by making themselves more valuable through education and/or training, they might move into housing they could afford on their own!"
After he voted against the rezoning, Driggs replied using a variation of the same email he sent other constituents: "Although I agree that there are very basic social issues at play here, I didn't believe debating them in a zoning meeting had any chance of leading to a favorable outcome. So I tried to make a strong land-use case that would allow this petition to be denied and not require other Council members to change their position on affordable housing generally. In the end, there is just too much energy behind the concept of dispersing the various housing types."
Previous attempts to move low-income housing into south Charlotte neighborhoods, including Ballantyne and Ayrsley, also met opposition from residents, but they were either dropped by their developer or did not pass City Council.
In a recent interview, Driggs asserted that his district doesn't often fall in line with the rest of Charlotte.
"This is a Republican area. At the same time, I respect the city and its adopted policies and goals. What I'm reluctant to do, if I can't get people in the area comfortable [with the project], is just tell them, 'tough luck.' They have enough people in Charlotte telling them 'tough luck.'"
Low-income housing has had a hard time finding a home in other parts of Charlotte. Residents of the historic Elizabeth neighborhood, which is within walking distance of Uptown, cited security issues when they voted against an apartment complex for the homeless in 2012, the third project that would serve low-income (or no-income) residents in the area. Financing issues killed the project, according to a WFAE story.
Housing Partnership President Julie Porter goes so far as to argue that when apartments of any variety are proposed in a residential neighborhood, the developer should expect some pushback.
In Weddington Road's case, she repeatedly told neighbors that the apartments would not be voucher or Section 8, the kind of housing often — and often unfairly — perceived as increasing a neighborhood's rates of crime and drug use. The Housing Partnership will not get a subsidy from the federal government to pay for a tenant's rent. Workforce housing comes with a tax credit, "and it's called a low-income tax credit, which is where a lot of the confusion comes in," Porter says. "The subsidy just comes in on the financing side.
"I probably said a hundred times, 'this is not voucher housing. This is not public housing. The subsidy does not arrive with the person, who has a piece of paper that says, I only have to pay $25 in rent. There are set rents for various income levels, but they're set.' It's like, how many times can I say this, and it just gets miscommunicated."
The Weddington Road apartments will run background checks on residents and require they be employed, which Porter says the Partnership will verify every 12 months. Seven units of the 70 units are reserved for families of four making 30 percent of the area median income, or about $19,250. The remaining 63 units will serve families making 60 percent of the area median income, or about $38,500.
The state Housing Finance Agency issues the tax credits and will use formulas, including how much the complex cost to build, to determine rent, which is why Porter has never been certain on the numbers.
In our interview, her figures ranged from $300 to $600 a month for the seven units and $700 to $950 a month for the rest. Other news outlets have reported higher figures, and even she admits the Housing Partnership backtracked on some of the numbers it presented to the homeowner associations during last year's meetings. She says next time, she'll make sure a project is more complete before opening it to the public.
"When you start changing things like that," says Kelley, who is now the president of Willowmere's Homeowner Association, "people's faith in what you're saying can be shaken sometimes."
The Partnership also initially sold the complex to residents by explaining that it would cater to low-income earners like grocery-store employees, new teachers and policemen, but later included managers in the service industry, another common complaint in the emails. Porter says she doesn't see a difference between a renter who pays $300 or one who pays $950, or a teacher or a manager of a Pizza Hut.
"What's so funny about that is that those people probably make the same amount of money," Porter says. "I see things so differently that it's just income. People are the same."
Porter struggles to address another complaint residents had: how low-income housing affects surrounding-property values. Nationally, studies show well-managed low-income housing has a negligible effect on surrounding homes if they are in stable neighborhoods. But as this is the first project of its kind in District 7, Porter says the Partnership has no point of comparison.
And then there's the issue of crime.
Steve Huber is the patrol lieutenant over Response Area 2, in north Charlotte. His patrol area includes Rivermere Apartments, a Housing Partnership-developed and -managed mixed-income complex. About half of the 192 units go for market rate, and half are reserved for those making 60 percent of area median income.
Porter says the Weddington Road apartments will closely resemble Rivermere, one of the Housing Partnership's crown jewels.
The neighborhood around Rivermere has more retail than the Weddington Road area, so it naturally attracts more crime — though not at the hands of anyone associated with Rivermere's tenants, Huber says. He adds that apartments are just more prone to crime, which rarely spills into the surrounding community.
"We just had a robbery series where they robbed 7-Eleven stores I have [under jurisdiction] and a Wendy's. And those guys are responsible for robberies in Cabarrus County. These guys drive around looking for a place, an opportunity to hit, and they go from there.
"You put a large portion of people in a small, confined space, and one of the things that I've found through my experience that does happen in apartment complexes is thieves break into cars and generally target apartment complexes because there are so many cars."
How an apartment is managed also factors heavily into safety. A property manager that doesn't enforce rules is going to invite theft, whether residents make $10,000 a year or $1 million.
In regard to Rivermere's management, the Housing Partnership, Huber says "they stay on top of residents."
When I mention Rivermere caters to lower-income residents, Huber stops me. "I've been in this division for seven years. I just thought it was a regular complex."
At the end of the January rezoning meeting, Kelley approached Porter, shook her hand and said he looked forward to working with her. He hopes to fold the Weddington Road apartments into the community. Perhaps some of his neighbors will move, as they threatened in emails to Driggs, but he hasn't heard of anyone following through.
Kelley, who owns UPS stores, says this project turned into a second full-time job in which he spent hours researching zoning rules. He doesn't see himself engaging in another such debate but will gladly share what he's learned with neighbors. He's already advised some who are battling a senior-housing complex.
For her next project, Porter is eyeing Matthews, where low-income seniors are struggling to find affordable housing. The Partnership will continue to host potlucks and other events, inviting neighbors to interact with residents of low-income properties. Porter says that seems to quell anxiety.
"The minute they meet one of our renters, they'll say, 'that's an exception.' What they don't realize is what they think is an exception is really the rule."