Charlotte businessmen Stoney Sellars and Anthony Hunt have taken some heat over their plans to develop Cherry, a mostly working-class black neighborhood sandwiched between downtown and the more-upscale environs of Elizabeth and Myers Park.
Creative Loafing: When you bought the land, did you expect this kind of debate?
Stoney Sellars: Yes, I did. And I actually consider it healthy. Because there needs to be this type of heightened awareness, relative to gentrification of some of our most cherished neighborhoods. People need to be sensitive to changes in some of our fragile neighborhoods -- those that are predominantly African-American especially -- and the history that's associated with them.
The debate ironically is not coming from the long-term residents. It's coming from those who are new to the neighborhood, those who are primarily individual investors and absentee landlords. And there are very few of them. For the most part, we've been meeting with the Cherry Neighborhood Association and the Cherry Community Organization for the better part of 18 to 20 months, I guess. So we've kept them abreast as well as our various tenants that we took on once we acquired the property from CCO. Everyone there has been highly supportive and a lot of those folks spoke at the hearing.
Stereotypically, gentrification is thought of often in racial terms with black tenants and white developers. With y'all being African-American, do you think that changes the debate or affects it in any way?
It does. Only from the perspective -- and I don't think it's an issue of us being African-American developers -- I think that if any developer comes in and looks to provide the affordable housing component that can maintain the residency of tenants within their neighborhood, then folks are going to be OK. But if there isn't that sensitivity to ensuring that you don't displace the existing residents, yeah, there will be the perceived racist or race-based impact or thought related to it.
Do you hope it remains a historically black neighborhood?
Not necessarily. What we hope is to maintain the spirit of Cherry, in that it was originally developed so that basically workforce-oriented African-Americans, black folks, would have decent housing close to the core of the city. What I hope will happen is that with this model of doing mixed-demographic -- market-rate and affordable housing -- within the neighborhood, we can now build revitalized neighborhoods by taking them out of at-risk status. By having market-rate housing in there along with the affordable, you prevent it from going back that way, because everyone now will take an interest in the care of that neighborhood and will lobby to ensure that all aspects of that neighborhood are well-maintained.
What can public policy do to make sure that downtown and the immediate surrounding area isn't just for upper-income groups? I'm thinking of developments like First Ward Place.
Even with First Ward, those homes that were originally sold as affordable units have now turned over where it's predominantly market-rate units. The folks moved in when they were affordable -- well, unfortunately the property taxes increased and some of them just chose to take the equity out of the property, sold it and moved on. Well, now a lot of that has become primarily market-rate. What the city, county, federal, state government can do is to streamline the process of providing more affordable housing. You've got a significant wait list of folks who need workforce housing or affordable or subsidized housing. What we're doing is providing subsidized housing ... this will be folks who will only have income that's 30-40 percent of the AMI [annual median income]. Paying anywhere from $281 to $450 to $500 would not get anyone decent housing in the city, and particularly not close to the core.
Is there anything that can be done, as far as what you described in First Ward?
Two things. Obviously if you're going to make it for purchase [make sure] that there will always be a second mortgage that restricts it to being sold to another affordable housing occupant, and the equity in it or a percentage of the equity would be retained by the city or the developer that sold it in order to continue to make it affordable.
The other option is just to ensure that ... there are long-term leases in place to retain the folks.
Would you characterize yourself as someone who is genuinely concerned about affordable housing in Charlotte?
My background, I come from a very humble background. My grandparents lived in the type of housing that we're trying to implement, at one point, from maternal to paternal side. The folks who are residing in Cherry are folks who have been laborers, teachers, social workers and veterans who have earned the right to have decent housing and who have earned the right to stay within a neighborhood where they've been for years. ... If we don't care about our residents and the ability to give them hope and contribute to the city and to the economy, then who will?