Charlotte is changing. What else is new, right?
The city’s population is now above 800,000. Mecklenburg County’s population has doubled in the last 25 years to more than 1 million people today.
But change is about more than the growing numbers of people. Properties change hands and so does their value. Buildings get torn down.
Sometimes, the entire fabric of a neighborhood changes – and the people who lose out the most are the ones who can least afford it. Today, WFAE begins a periodic series in which we’ll visit neighborhoods going through change, big and small. Our series is called Block By Block.
We kick it off with a story on Cherry. It’s a historically African-American neighborhood going through gentrification. Safeguards were in place to protect locals from being priced out. City Council unanimously endorsed a long-term vision to protect its character but things are not going according to plan and many longtime residents feel jilted by developers and city leaders.
The Cherry neighborhood is about a mile southeast of uptown Charlotte. A large church and well maintained park sit in the center of Cherry, surrounded by small bungalows with neat lawns. Homes on several streets have picturesque views of the uptown skyline. It’s those panoramic views and the neighborhood’s closeness to uptown that have led to a housing construction boom in this working-class community.
Homes selling for more than $600,000, are replacing the quaint bungalows and duplexes. This 100-acre community was carved out from a large cotton farm in 1891 to provide affordable housing for African-American families
Sixty-two-year-old Velvity Cherry said her great grandmother worked in those cotton fields and six generations of her family resided in Cherry. She lives with her husband in a ranch-style home in Cherry that they own. She was raised in a rental across the street.
“The house was there until they tore it down (last year),” Cherry said. “It was a little three-room house. It wasn’t a good feeling to know that this was a historic place, historic houses, even though they were small, they were livable. It was really devastating to see history torn down.”
At least 6 upscale homes are being built where Cherry’s house used to sit. Next door a nearly 5,000-square foot home dwarfs nearby bungalows. Large homes like this are being built all over Cherry.
Virginia Bynum president of the non-profit Cherry Community Organization or CCO thinks the new homes, often plunked between small bungalows, are out of character with the neighborhood.
“They’re not brick and not what we wanted in this community,” Bynum said. “This neighborhood is not for large two-story houses because nobody over here can afford them, so that means it will be new people coming in all the time. We’ll welcome them if they come in the right way but not if they tear up our houses.”
To be sure, change comes to older neighborhoods all the time but gentrification was not supposed to happen in Cherry.
Using federal funds, city officials purchased 125 units from absentee landlords in the 1970s to keep the single-family, duplexes and triplexes on those sites affordable rentals. In addition, three years ago, City Council unanimously approved a plan that called for the preservation of neighborhoods and building homes compatible with the bungalow character of Cherry. City planning coordinator Kent Main says the goal was to protect Cherry’s residents.
“They use the word gentrification and that is a double-edge sword,” Main said. “You don’t want to live in a place with no upside possibilities, but at some point it overruns you if it gets so far away that everyone who has been there suddenly are not there and the opportunities for affordable housing no longer are there. We’ve always been concerned about that.”
In the 1990s the city deeded its 125 housing units to CCO to continue maintaining them as affordable rentals, which it did for a while.
“At this point CCO has lost over 90 percent of its real estate assets and we’re trying to determine what happened,” said Cherry native and activist Sylvia Bittle-Patton, who talks a lot about developer Stoney Sellars.
Ten years ago, Sellars’ StoneHunt company bought about 100 of the CCO properties. Bittle-Patton says in community meetings Sellars promised he would build affordable townhouses and senior housing that displaced residents could afford. The senior apartments were built, but not the townhouses.
“When you’re talking about parcels owned by a nonprofit for years, funded entirely with federal funds, and not being able to see the affordable housing that should have been there to replace it, that’s worth following up on,” Bittle-Patton said.
Sellars declined interview requests. He later sold the property to developers building many of the upscale homes. But first, City Council approved a request by Sellars to rezone the properties from multifamily to single family residences.
Council member Patsy Kinsey believes the rezoning went against the plan council approved in 2012.
“It was crushing for the neighborhood and for me,” Kinsey said. “It was the gentrification of the community and the fact that affordable housing had been planned for this area. I wasn’t able to sway my colleagues.”
Everyone else on the council felt differently during that meeting, such as council member Claire Fallon.
“It makes the 'hood less crowded and more single use which is what you want I’d imagine in the end because it benefits you better to have nice single family homes than multi -family right now,” Fallon said.
But Cherry native Doris Dennis said she knew changes would come to Cherry eventually but not this drastic. Dennis and her husband rent a bungalow that’s diagonally across the street from a more than 3,200-square-foot new home.
“The new homes outnumber us but they moved to Cherry, so they will have to accept us,” Dennis said. “They might have their own private fences but they gonna miss out.”
The ‘they’ Dennis is referring to are whites, whose entry in the neighborhood is causing some resentment. Kristen Cooper is white and built a nearly 3,000-square-foot home in Cherry.
“As years go by things change and you have to adapt to change and I think everyone here is getting along and the biggest problem is the builder who made promises that has them upset,” Cooper said. “No one wants to be pushed out of their homes, I understand that.”
Those displacements are hard to take for Cherry’s husband Heyward, who broke into tears as he recalled one neighbor who rented a bungalow.
“This elderly man down on the corner, moved out. He used to have a beautiful garden,” Heyward Cherry said as tears streamed down his face and his wife finished his thoughts while comforting him.
“It’s a heartbreaking situation, you know,” Velvity Cherry said. “Now we don’t know anybody hardly over here. Everything that moved over here are 99 percent white. I’m hoping and praying we’ll be able to save some of the community for some of our people and I mean black people.”
There has been talk of making Cherry an historic district, but with so many of the original homes gone, Mary Newsom of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute doubts it would qualify.
“A lot of the historic flavor still exists in some places and other places, its large houses that have nothing to do with the historic character of the neighborhood,” Newsom said. “I’m afraid it may be too late. The neighborhood is being lost.”
Cherry residents are not giving up on their neighborhood and CCO officials say they are looking at making Cherry a conservation district to preserve the community’s character. City Council would have to approve an ordinance that allows such a district to be created.
Meanwhile, the Council recently approved the sale of property the city owned in Cherry to a developer to build 30 affordable housing units. The Housing Authority has plans to build about 80 other low-rent units there.