It was like patching a hole and watching the dam break.
On September 17, the deadline passed for 18 people who were forced out of the Twin Oaks apartments in NoDa to leave. Thanks to the help of neighbors, volunteers and the residents themselves banding together to help each other, 16 were able to find permanent housing, while two others are living in motels, supported by local nonprofits while they continue their search for a home.
One day later, on September 18, as the doors and windows at Twin Oaks were being boarded up, a letter was delivered to each of the 80 units of Brittany Woods apartments in east Charlotte informing residents they had until October 31 to find new homes, after having been told three days earlier that ownership had changed but that the new property management company, Rivergate KW Residential, "looks forward to providing you an outstanding experience."
The two incidents were technically unrelated, but both are part of a pattern of gentrification that is displacing hundreds of people in Charlotte on a monthly basis and jarring communities that find themselves disbanded as they become more "desirable." The Oakhurst neighborhood, where the Brittany Woods apartments sits, is ripe for redevelopment; it's close to Uptown, rubs up against hip neighborhoods like Chantilly and has recently become home to a new Common Market, which was forced out of South End after gentrification took over there.
Residents at Brittany Woods live on month-to-month leases, leaving them vulnerable to short-notice evictions. Robert Forquer, a real estate attorney in Charlotte, said this has become commonplace in a city experiencing rapid growth and redevelopment.
"It's something that's becoming more normal, where people are just given 30 days notice," Forquer said. "What I'm seeing, especially with a lot of lower-end rentals, is that landlords are happy to let them go to a monthly lease, because it gives them that ability to be able to empty everything and sell."
Rent at the Brittany Woods complex is lower than residents would find at most Charlotte complexes, ranging from $625 to the $800s for a two-bedroom unit. There are many handicap-accessible units, which adds to the difficulty faced by those residents who now have fewer than 40 days to find new homes.
Charlotte's lack of affordable housing gives vulnerable residents little to no options.
"It's not enough time if there's plenty of housing out there that you can move into. But when there's no place to go. . ." Forquer trailed off, the rest of his thought implicit.
Troy Graham has lived at Brittany Woods for 10 years. As his neighbors did, Graham signed a one-year lease when he first moved in and has lived on a month-to-month agreement since then. He's disabled, and gets by on the small amount of income he gets from the limited work he can do from home.
When I met with him, he was standing outside of the Brittany Woods leasing office with a few neighbors and a couple of the folks who helped find housing for Twin Oaks residents and had heard about the situation Brittany Woods residents now face.
- Brittany Woods residents Tanya Burns [far left] and Troy Graham [middle] discuss options with concerned neighbors [from left] Molly Barker, Robert Forquer and Allyson Siegle. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
Graham said he and his neighbors became suspicious after seeing different types of companies show up on a regular basis to survey the property and carry out inspections, which hadn't been done in the decade Graham lived there. He asked each company that showed up what they were doing, but was never given an answer.
At first, Graham said he was "all talked out," as he had spent the week trying desperately to find a new place to move to, arguing about application fees with complex managers and discussing his situation with neighbors who were in the same boat. But it soon became clear that Graham, known around the neighborhood for his outgoing nature, does not get talked out. He had plenty to say.
"Sell the place, that's fine, that's your business, we don't own the place, so we can't control that," Graham said. "But not once did they give us any lead-up. It was just a whole bunch of evasiveness. They're displacing us with no courtesy, with not a modicum of any sort of decency."
Paperwork shows that Gvest Capital, a real estate investment company based in Pineville, bought the property. A deed filed on September 18 shows that the property has switched titles from Brittany Woods to Oakhurst Apartments. Calls to Raymond Gee, who signed the files to buy the property, were not returned in time for this article, although he is reportedly meeting with someone representing Brittany Woods residents on September 28.
Tanya Burns, who lives with her 16-year-old daughter in Brittany Woods, said she hopes the company will at least give residents a month or two longer to find new homes. She's worried about her many disabled neighbors, and those without family and friends in the area.
"We have people who don't have cars, people who live here because they can walk up to the bus and get to wherever they need to go," Burns said. "We all know that, legally, [Gvest Capital has] done what they're supposed to do. But that's just not enough time for [residents] to figure out where they're going to live and then figure out how they're going to get there."
- Twin Oaks in NoDa now sits boarded up, ready for demolition. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
Sitting on the porch of her NoDa home just a week after the earlier complex, Twin Oaks, had been boarded up, Molly Barker got emotional when asked what it was like to look over at Twin Oaks next door and see the complex all boarded up.
Barker had spent every day of the previous two months fighting to find each of the 18 Twin Oaks residents a home. In the end, she said the experience had changed her forever.
"I went over there the day the whole thing ended," she said, and then paused to look down and gather her thoughts. "As painful as the process might have appeared at the get-go, it was a bridge for both sides. I learned a lot; I got to bear witness to racism in our town, I got to bear witness to classism, I got to bear witness to the narratives around all that I hadn't really experienced, which is good.
"And this process, having borne witness to what it's like to be in poverty for one's whole life, it's disrupting everything in me, everything I ever learned," she added.
Barker plans to meet with Gvest's Raymond Gee on Thursday, and said she remains optimistic that she can work something out with the company, as she did when she helped work out a deal with the developer that bought Twin Oaks to give residents more money and more time before they were pushed out.
If it doesn't work out at Brittany Woods, the residents, and those who have gathered to defend them, want developers to know that they will not go quietly.
"You're treating people unfairly," Forquer said of Gvest when discussing with residents what message needs to be sent to the developer. "You want to be in this community and you want to build apartments, then you need to step back and treat people with dignity when you're relocating them. And if you don't, we're not going to forget it. We're going to stand out in front and we're going to let people know what you're doing."
Sitting with Molly Barker, it was clear the last two months had taken their toll on her. She was tired. She compared the awakening experience she had at Twin Oaks to a near-death experience she once had on an airplane. Although that incident affected her in a positive way, she said, it took months to assimilate that lived experience into her daily life. She believes she will need months to put her Twin Oaks experience into perspective.
But she doesn't have months. The people of Brittany Woods are in an urgent situation, and at the mere mention of their struggle she perked up. Barker had never met this new group of people, but she said she wanted to tag along on my interview the next day. She swore she just wants to be a fly on the wall — just meet the people there — but it was clear she had just found herself another plane.