by Jordan Green

A city councilman finds himself embroiled in a redevelopment proposal that he says would wipe out about 350 units of affordable housing in a walkable area of Winston-Salem near Baptist Hospital and Thruway Shopping Center.

Earline Nichols has lived at Ardmore Terrace Apartments near Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem for 35 years — ever since she suffered a massive stroke at the age of 52.

She has broken her hip a couple times, along with her right ankle, so that she requires a walker to get around. On top of that, her mind is steadily deteriorating. Her daughter, Sheila Billings, who lives nearby in the Ardmore neighborhood and acts as her mother’s sole caregiver, said she had to unplug her mother’s stove because she is so absent minded. Nichols gets at least one hot meal a day from Meals on Wheels. Waiting at the door and letting the volunteer in is a daily ritual.

Nichols’ rent is $508, which is a deal. After rent, the rest of her $900 monthly income goes towards medicine, groceries and utilities.

On. Aug. 7, Billings received some devastating news through a flier left outside her mother’s door by city Councilman Dan Besse: The building’s owners would be tearing down the Ardmore Terrace and Cloverdale apartment complexes — with roughly 350 units distributed through about 90 buildings — and erecting a new, mixed-use development with retail and housing.

“I really, really hate to leave,” Nichols told her daughter. Her mother’s clarity made an impression on Billings.

“For her to remember that, when she can’t even remember what she ate 15 minutes ago,” she said, “it’s really sad.”

Besse, who represents the Southwest Ward on city council, by coincidence and circumstance is a victim of the impending dislocation himself. In the midst of a divorce, he moved into the Cloverdale Apartments in 2011, with the expectation that it would be a short stay during a transitional period of his life. But he found that he really liked the apartments, which are within short walking distance of Thruway Shopping Center, Whole Foods and Harris Teeter, and ended up staying longer than he had initially planned.

Along with elderly neighbors like Nichols, the racially diverse population of the apartment complex also includes young families and working professionals.

“The rent for one bedroom is in the $500s and for two bedrooms is in the $600s,” Besse said. “It’s located in an area that is safe, and is in walking distance of retail jobs and the hospital. It’s the kind of affordable-living environment that is becoming increasingly scarce in our city.”

Besse said an architect hired for the project approached him in January and outlined the proposed redevelopment. Besse was opposed from the outset. The apartment complex is the largest concentration of affordable housing in his district, he said, and while he generally supports mixed-use development, this is one area of the city that doesn’t lack for retail.

At a later meeting with the architect and the ownership group, Besse said he told them the proposal was “ a nonstarter” as far as he was concerned. Besse said the developer, Robin Team of Carolina Investment Properties in Lexington, told him that if he blocked the rezoning, they would drop the retail component and simply proceed with the plan to build new residential units — an option that would sidestep the requirement for a rezoning.

Besse said he asked the developer and representatives of the ownership group if they would give him time to try to come up with an alternative plan to preserve at least some of the housing. Ardmore is on a national registry of historic neighborhoods and the apartments were built between 1947 and 1952, Besse said. If he’s able to identify grants for historic preservation, he said he thinks he might be able to present the developer and ownership group with a financially attractive alternative.

“They believe they can do better financially with a plan that includes a retail component,” Besse said. “They can’t get the retail without a rezoning. That’s the thing that gives me leverage. If I can get sufficient concessions from them on affordability and historic preservation, then I would withdraw my objections to the retail. If I can get a deal like that, then I’ll take it as the best deal I can get. If I can’t then I’ll go down fighting.”

During the most recent meeting on Aug. 4, Besse said the developers told him they were filing their plan with the city, with an eye towards having it ready for review by the planning board in September. When he learned that the developers were filing the plan, Besse said he felt obligated to inform his fellow tenants and constituents.

Representatives of the ownership team and the developer could not be reached for this story.

Besse said he has already given notice to the apartment management that he plans to move out at the end of September, when his lease is up, to avoid any conflict of interest in the matter.

The demolition of the West Side Apartments following a 2012 rezoning by city council left an impression on members of city council, Besse said. About 75 tenants, many of them elderly, poor, sick and disabled, were displaced to make room for the luxury Edge Flats apartments across Business 40 from Baptist Hospital.

“A number of us on council feel badly there wasn’t another way we could help those residents out,” Besse said. “We consider that a lesson learned.”

As a result, the council prodded staff to develop a new workforce affordable housing program.

While characterizing the program as “ambitious” and “comprehensive,” Besse added, “We’re talking about drips and drops — single digits of affordable housing. The loss in one blow that our community would absorb just beggars everything that we are talking about putting together.”

He cited the first project to come forward under the proposed workforce affordable housing program — renovation of the Pepper Building in downtown.

“That example makes clear when we’re talking about investing in creating six affordable units just how huge a loss the elimination of 350 units would be for the community,” Besse said.

The councilman said that it’s only a minor hassle for him to move. He has savings and owns a car, after all. For many of his neighbors though, facing the loss of their housing “is a full-blown crisis.” Most of the decision-makers — developers and city planning staff — “don’t have the life experience of living long-term in an apartment where they don’t have a vehicle, and walking and public transportation is their only way to get around,” Besse said.

Sheila Billings said she understands that everyone wants to make money, but she is asking for a little compassion towards the community’s elderly residents.

“My mother is really decrepit,” she said. “I pray every day God will call her home before she has to move because this will be so disruptive. When I heard the news, I said, ‘Oh Lord, this is as bad as it could be.’”

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