City faces dual challenges of poverty and downtown revitalization

Randy Hemann
Randy Hemann

by Jordan Green

The city of High Point is confronted with dual needs of attacking concentrated poverty and finding a catalyst project to bring revitalization. The relationship between the two needs can get complicated.

The number of housing units renting for less than $500 decreased by nearly half, from 2000 to 2010, Community Development Director Mike McNair told High Point City Council on Monday. Over the same period, the population increased from 85,839 to 104,371, with non-white residents’ share surging from 39.4 percent to 46.4 percent.

McNair’s presentation included a map of so-called “racially concentrated areas of poverty,” with a minority concentration above 50 percent and poverty higher than 40 percent that covers major swaths of east-central portions of the city and then sweeps through the southwestern quadrant. It overlaps significantly with another map of the core city produced for a housing market segmentation study conducted last year by the Center for Housing and Community Studies at UNCG. The housing-market segmentation study map shows a continuous band coded red for “extremely weak” that stretches through the central parts of the city roughly from Meredith Street in the east through the central business district and down through the southwest area to Ward Avenue. The study characterizes the red zone as having the lowest home values, the highest vacancy rates, the highest rental rates, substandard homes and vacant lots.

“They tend to go hand in hand,” McNair said of racially concentrated poverty and weak housing markets.

Along with Rockford, Ill. and Baltimore, High Point was recently selected by the nonprofit Center for Community Progress for a scholarship to receive free technical assistance from a national team of experts over the next six months. The assistance in High Point will be focused on improving the city’s code enforcement system and developing comprehensive strategies to address non-housing needs of residents with code violations.

McNair noted that the UNCG study recommended different strategies, depending on the relative strength or weakness of housing markets in different areas.

“You’ve seen that probably riding around certain neighborhoods that there’s one bad house that sticks out,” McNair said. “And if you can do something with that bad house, the neighborhood will look a lot better. You get into some of the red areas you’ll see a preponderance of problem properties, we’ll call them: burnouts, dilapidated houses, high grass. Those we’ll need to sort of target on a proactive basis — go out and look for them and find them and do something with them.

“We know we have these large racially concentrated areas of poverty leading to food desserts, low homeownership rates, low employment rates,” he continued. “We’ve got all these blighting influences and we have these concerns of community safety. These are actually issues that we hear out in the community. Neighborhoods tell us this. Liquor houses are a big thing, drug houses, prostitution, block parties.”

The highest priority of his department is fully staffing the code enforcement division, McNair said. He told council members that the city offered one prospective code enforcement officer a job last week and is trying to track down references for another candidate who was recently interviewed.

McNair said staff wants to get a resolution of support from city council and to work with the city’s legal department and the UNC School of Government to make the maximum effort within the constraints of state law. He added that the city might consider using the nuisance abatement law to address properties with repeated code violations and a history of criminal activity. Language in state law referencing conditions “inimical to the health of the community” provides ample latitude for the city to craft policies to creatively address blighted properties, McNair suggested.

“As you step up code enforcement, you’re going to have more appeals,” said at-large Councilman Latimer Alexander, who was one of the few council members to respond to McNair’s presentation with questions or comments. “What can we do other than just back your play?”

McNair noted that any condemnation proceedings would still require a public hearing. “It’s the appetite that you all want to have as elected officials to really address the community issues,” City Manager Greg Demko added, “because it’s not going to be easy.”

A companion presentation by Assistant City Manager Randy Hemann on “values and vision” for revitalizing the city in some ways reinforced McNair’s presentation while cutting against it in others. Hemann challenged council members to consider what city investments would provide the highest yield and stabilize areas in decline.

“You’ve got to have a catalyst,” Hemann said. “You’ve got to assemble the land. You’ve got to offer incentives. You’ve got to have a plan — a detailed, by-the-block plan. And you’ve got to have somebody take that first step to incent it. And I think we’ve got to have a catalyst project in our downtown that helps with that. Once you get it started, it becomes self-perpetuating. There will be others that want to join in.”

Based on a review of selected properties on the city’s tax rolls, Hemann said density is the most important factor for High Point to increase its tax base. He contrasted the $845,122-per-acre value of a Walmart store on North Main Street with an un-restored two-story building in downtown, which holds a value of $1.5 million. Attracting investors to renovate downtown buildings with retail on the first floor and apartments at the upper levels could make a significant difference in tax revenue, he said. High-rises create even more tax value per acre, according to Hemann’s review. As an example, he pointed to Sheraton Towers, a luxury hotel designed by William Lee Stoddart and built in 1920. Converted to a retirement community in 1982, the building is now valued at $5.3 million per acre.

At-large Councilwoman Cynthia Davis challenged Hemann’s assertion that the city needs to strategically pick areas for revitalization that are likely to bring the highest return on investment.

“I’m really concerned that everybody get a slice of the pie instead of just a few,” she said, noting that the areas coded red for an “extremely weak” housing market in the UNCG study have been in decline since the 1960s.

“Most of the money we’ve been spending is in the red, is it not?” Hemann replied. “My question to you would be, if that’s the case and you haven’t seen the results that you want and that’s where we’ve been investing, then what about the thought of, would it be more successful to invest on this edge here and push that line that way?”

  • Angel Schroeder

    Apparently, Hemann has read the recommendations of every consultant who’s ever been invited to study High Point. But will council EVER listen?