by Natalie Alms, Jaclyn Childress, Isabella Kornitsky, Elizabeth Maline and Rita Venant

Crystal Towers residents pose in front of the public-housing high-rise. (photo by Owens Daniels)

Sam Grier is 73 years old, but his age isn’t apparent to those who might speak with him. He’s energetic, quick-witted and concerned about protecting the well-being of his neighbors in Crystal Towers, a public-housing community in downtown Winston-Salem.

He’s lived there for 11 years. But before that, he didn’t always have a place to call home.

“Before I got the apartment I got now, I was living on the streets,” Grier said. “I had a lot of experience on the streets, but I don’t want to go back. And I just hate to think about it.”

Like the other 200 or so residents at Crystal Towers, many of whom are elderly and disabled, Grier faces an uncertain future. The Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, or HAWS, is seeking approval from Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, to sell the Crystal Towers property to Arden Group LLC, a local developer, for an undisclosed price.

If the proposed sale goes through, the residents will be forced to relocate. The relocation process presents many questions for residents: whether they can continue to live in the sought-after downtown area, if they will have immediate access to the resources they do now, such as public transportation, grocery stores and pharmacies, among other concerns.

“It’s frightening. I hope that’s not the case, but I don’t know. I don’t know,” Grier said. “I got saved before, but the availability of low-income housing is bleak right now. I can go somewhere else, but shoot. I got family here. I got my grandchildren here.”

In April 2019, Larry Woods, then the CEO of the housing authority, wrote a letter to Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines, outlining the challenges faced by the building.

“Crystal Towers is, and has been for some time, operating at a loss,” he wrote. Woods cited several large-scale repairs needed in the building, such as replacing the elevator, which is outdated and could soon be nonfunctioning. As of late February, it was evident that only one of two elevators, meant to serve all the residents in the building, was working.

By selling the building now, the housing authority could potentially avoid an emergency relocation of residents, Woods stated in the letter supporting the sale.

“This controlled, planned transaction will allow us to relocate residents in a dignified and orderly manner over a period of approximately one year, utilizing both our inventory and private-market rent subsidization through the issuance of special tenant protection vouchers,” Woods said.

Kevin Cheshire, who succeeded Woods as the top executive at the housing authority in January, told Triad City Beat the housing authority lacks funding for capital repairs — a shortfall that amounts to about $7 million. Cheshire attributed the deficit to historical underfunding of maintenance for the authority’s stock of aging housing. While the housing authority is currently able to keep up with the operating costs for its housing, Cheshire said the agency doesn’t have sufficient funding to build new units.

HAWS has received an offer from the Arden Group LLC to purchase Crystal Towers. The company has a track record of building a range of housing, from townhomes to luxury subdivisions across Forsyth County, but has little experience with affordable housing, according to a report in the Winston-Salem Journal.

Before the housing authority can sell the building, the agency needs permission from HUD. The request is currently awaiting approval at HUD’s Special Applications Center in Chicago.

Cheshire said the Arden Group intends to gut the 11-story high-rise, and repurpose it as private housing. He noted that 10 percent of the units will be set aside as “workforce housing” — a common arrangement when the city subsidizes residential development in exchange for reserving some housing for median earners like teachers and firefighters, but would likely remain out of reach for public-housing residents.

The plans to sell Crystal Towers have unsettled many of the residents.

“Personally, I hope there will be no sale,” Sam Grier said. “I like where I’m at. If we move out, that’s going to kill us, those that are in the same shape I’m in.”

Mary Douglas, who is retired, has lived in Crystal Towers since December 2008. Douglas said she believes the sale is motivated by an intention to remove public housing from downtown.

“That’s one of the plans — get them out of Winston,” Douglas said.

“And that hit me,” she continued. “You would just think that you could physically remove people that you don’t want to see lookin’ shab in the new downtown and spoiling the brochure.”

Irwin Mulrain, 60, has lived at Crystal Towers for about eight months. He isn’t confident that the relocation process will be smooth.

“It won’t be possible for everyone living there to find a new place to live if the building is sold,” he said. “Vouchers are very complicated. Just because you get the voucher doesn’t mean you’ll actually get housing.”

Douglas summed up the residents’ current emotional state.

“It’s like you’re on a ship and there’s no port,” she said.

Dan Rose, a local housing activist and assistant professor of sociology at Winston-Salem State University, became involved with Crystal Towers residents through his advocacy group Housing Justice Now. The group was working on eviction resistance when they received a call from Rico Givens, a Crystal Towers resident who was facing eviction.

“Rico was kind of our ‘in’ at Crystal Towers,” Rose recalled. “He introduced us to other residents there. We started bringing a table in the heat of summer 2019 — we met a couple more folks who started calling us and saying, ‘What’s going to happen with us?’ You know, ‘What’s going to happen to our building?’”

Givens also alerted Rose and the other Housing Justice Now activists to the maintenance and upkeep problems at Crystal Towers.

“He also had bedbugs crawling on him,” Rose recalled. “And it was a situation where the management at Crystal Towers wasn’t taking his complaints very seriously about the bedbug situation, so he had an inhabitability problem.”

Some Crystal Towers residents are skeptical of the claim that the cost of repairs amounts to $7 million. While they see this number as reflecting the funding needed to complete long-term repairs, they claim there are more short-term repairs that can be made, such as getting rid of bedbugs, as Mulrain suggested, which will improve the functionality of the building at a much lower cost. Other residents like Grier said the building has been in disrepair for a while now.

“It has deteriorated quite a bit,” Grier said. “The services have deteriorated, as well as the building — everything has deteriorated. This is not like it used to be. Even the management has deteriorated.”

Mulrain highlighted the challenge of bedbugs in a wry piece of advice to visitors.

“Don’t lean on the walls of the elevator,” he said. “You get little tidbits of information, because bedbugs are just hanging on the walls. You lean on it, and you take ’em home.”

Despite its worn and faded appearance, the building is appreciated by some residents, including Douglas.

“For one thing, I love the colors of the walls, you know,” she said, referencing the off-white color in her small apartment. “Even in the wintertime, you feel like it’s summer. I love that!”

Douglas also has a view of a park out her window. She can see up to Pilot Mountain on clear days, she says.

“On the whole, I have been very grateful to be here,” she said. “I don’t want to move unnecessarily. I love the library, especially downtown, and I would miss my neighbors here.

Samuel Grier (left) and Irwin Mulrain pose in front of Crystal Towers. (photo by Owens Daniels)

‘Everybody knows our economy goes up and down’

The surrounding downtown provides important context to the recent developments concerning Crystal Towers. The proliferation of high-end downtown apartments over the past decade has marked the change of gentrification.

For example, Link Apartments at Innovation Quarter sits at the corner of North Patterson and Fifth streets, less than a mile from Crystal Towers. It features a saltwater pool and a “yoga and meditation mezzanine,” according to its website. A one-bed, one-bath apartment starts at $1,124 a month.

The rise of expensive downtown housing developments has come with some support from the city. Matching pledges by both the city of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County in property-tax reimbursements supplied the parking deck associated with the Link at Innovation Quarter with $8 million in total.

These changes, and their support from the government, have been criticized by some for making downtown living unaffordable.

Median gross rent in Winston-Salem is $782 per month. Based on the rule of thumb that an expenditure of more than 30 percent of income on rent is a cost burden that makes it difficult to afford necessities like food, clothing, transportation and medical care, someone earning $7.25 per hour — North Carolina’s minimum wage — would need to work 31 hours just to make rent, before paying for any other necessities.

This has presented a challenge for any residents who want to stay downtown if they lose their place in Crystal Towers.

“It’s no food desert here ’cause I can go down to Ronnie’s [County Store] and get some vegetables,” Grier said. “I have good access to the public transportation, you know, so it’s a convenience.”

Douglas connected what is happening downtown to how government policies treat low-income people more generally, and to what effect.

“I wish this building would be preserved for whomever may need it in the future,” she said. “Winston-Salem city government may want the good times to roll with their lovely upgrades to downtown, but everybody knows our economy goes up and down. They don’t need to erode the safety net here; it’s very dangerous. In fact, they need to patch the immense holes in it.”

Beyond downtown gentrification, Winston-Salem also has high eviction rates that color the local housing market.

The Eviction Lab, a website founded by sociologist and Princeton professor Matthew Desmond, that provides research about housing evictions, found that the eviction rate in Winston-Salem is 7.1 per 100 renter homes. That’s more than 4 percentage points higher than the average rate in the United States. Based on eviction rate, the website ranks Winston-Salem as the American city with the 17th highest eviction rate. Greensboro, Winston-Salem’s neighbor, is even worse, with a No. 7 ranking.

The housing authority itself helps drive Winston-Salem’s eviction rate according to local news reports. A 2019 investigation by WFDD and Carolina Data Desk found that the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem had actually been the second highest evictor in Forsyth County since 2014.

“In 2018 alone, it brought evictions against nearly 40 percent of the households living in public housing units,” the report said.

What Winston-Salem’s housing authority can and cannot do is profoundly dependent on the government entities that fund it.

HUD was founded in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. The agency’s website describes its purview as “national policy and programs that address America’s housing needs, that improve and develop the nation’s communities, and enforce fair housing laws.”

Programs administered by HUD include Section 8 vouchers for low-income households, as well as loans and mortgage insurance through the Federal Housing Administration.

The Housing Act of 1937 was passed during the Great Depression. On paper, the government committed to housing every American, but the reality did not play out so neatly.

After World War II, the GI Bill subsidized white soldiers and families to buy homes in the suburbs.

At the same time, though, the housing options of African-American families were constrained by lending practices that denied financing to people who lived in segregated, black neighborhoods. So, public housing became the default federal housing program for people of color. In During the Roosevelt-era New Deal, less than 2 percent of home loans went to people of color, according to Marcus Hyde, a Greensboro activist who cofounded the Homeless Union of Greensboro.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington. Much of his work has focused on the effect of government policies in segregation. Rothstein argues in his 2017 book The Color of Law that enduring segregation isn’t “de facto,” meaning effective, if not legally codified. Instead, it’s largely been “de jure,” a result of government policies.

“With public housing, federal and local government increased African Americans’ isolation in urban ghettos,” he wrote. “And with mortgage guarantees, the government subsidized whites to abandon urban areas for suburbs. The combination contributed heavily to creation of the segregated neighborhoods and schools we know today.”

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 changed that precedent by outlawing discrimination in housing.

Nonetheless, disparities linger. In Winston-Salem, this makes for an even more dramatic effect. Nationwide, the percentage of the public-housing population who are people of color is 71 percent, and 43 percent of them are black. Almost 80 percent of Crystal Towers residents are black, according to a May 2019 estimate by the housing authority.

Race is one big part of the story of public housing policy. Federal funding for HUD and other housing agencies is another crucial part. The local housing authority’s ability to fulfill its mission is dependent on the laws that shape it and the budget it is allotted.

A series of congressional laws have shaped the housing market, and HUD, over time.

Between 1978 and 1983, the public housing budget was cut by 75 percent, according to a report by the Western Regional Advocacy Project, or WRAP, a social justice organization centered on issues of poverty and homelessness.

The decline in funding affects what can be provided and how many people get access. There was a 17 percent decline in the public-housing population nationally from 2014 to 2019, according to HUD data.

Hyde traces these policies to mass homelessness. 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness each year, according to the WRAP report.

HAWS directly referenced the decline in federal funding for public housing in August 2018, when the agency announced it was putting Crystal Towers on the market. Explaining a vote by its board of commissioners to authorize the sale, a press release said that “the board’s decision comes after years of decreasing federal support to public housing agencies across the country, many of which are struggling to maintain their aging housing stock.”

In other NC cities, disinvestment is playing out in a myriad of ways. In Durham, McDougald Terrace has had problems with carbon-monoxide poisoning, exacerbated by a lack of funding for upkeep, and 288 residents were temporarily moved out in January. And at the Greensboro Housing Authority, the rental-assistance demonstration program has been converting housing to the private market to access financing for renovation.

President Trump has proposed even deeper cuts to HUD funding. His proposed 2021 budget includes an $8.6 billion cut to HUD; that’s 15.2 percent. Those budget cuts could put 160,000 families at risk of losing their rental assistance, according to Affordable Housing Finance, a publication geared for people who work in the industry.

Trump’s proposed budget also cuts homeless assistance grants by $4 million.

Restoring funding for HUD rarely surfaces in Congressional debates or election campaigns, and US Rep. Virginia Foxx, whose 5th Congressional District includes Crystal Towers, chafed at the suggestion that Congress should do more.

“Get the facts before you make the assumption that more funding is needed,” she said during an interview in April. “Perhaps it’s a matter of moving funding around. Perhaps it’s a matter of different priorities.”

Beyond that, Foxx was not fully informed about the status of Crystal Towers residents.

“There are very few people left that haven’t been placed in other housing,” she said.

Cheshire clarified in an interview that the process of moving residents out has not yet started. He said the building is at almost 100 percent capacity.

“For one, we don’t know if this sale is going to be fully approved,” he said. “And we have a significant operating deficit at Crystal Towers. So, we need those units full.” Cheshire added that it would be a “disservice” to take the units off the market now, given the need for affordable housing.

For Douglas, the proposed sale of Crystal Towers reflects a larger pattern of divestment in public housing and devaluing residents.

“I can say unequivocally the people that I met here — the ones in wheelchairs, the ones with walkers, the ones with canes, the ones with beautiful emotional qualities that cannot be understood in the workaday world by unfeeling people — are some of the kindest, gentlest loveliest human beings I have ever met,” she said. “And they do not deserve to be railroaded out of here so that Trump’s, and HUD under [Housing Secretary] Ben Carson’s desires to completely dismantle public housing in the US, and the desire of powerful people in Winston-Salem to render the poor invisible in their showcase city, can be satisfied.”

Pushback against ‘demolition and disposition’

In April 2019, then-HAWS CEO Larry Woods sent a letter to Mayor Allen Joines requesting the city’s support for the housing authority’s proposed sale of Crystal Towers.

Joines responded to Woods’ letter, indicating that the city council would not be able to support Woods’ request due to the concern of the council that the sale of Crystal Towers “will reduce affordable housing opportunity in the city and particularly in the downtown area.”

Councilmember DD Adams, who has represented the North Ward since 2009, faulted the proposal during an interview in February for failing to provide proper contingency plans for relocating the residents.

“If someone makes the decision, whether it’s the housing authority or HUD, that they are going to tear those units down, then I would be looking for the city or some of us in government to legally stop that unless they have a plan,” Adams said. “The plan has to be for affordable units.”

Like many residents, Douglas is skeptical of not only the housing authority’s intentions, but also the city of Winston-Salem’s.

“While it is true that Mayor Joines and some on the city council did not support the sale, they did not step up to save Crystal Towers from being sold,” she said. “The city cannot in a moral universe wash its hands of their lack of action to save Crystal Towers. No effort was made at all. I don’t think I will ever get over the shock of that indifference for the rest of my life, though I do believe in the providence of God for my life.”

HAWS outlined a proposed relocation plan in its initial application to HUD for permission to sell Crystal Towers, which was submitted in September 2019. The plan budgeted about $250,000 for counseling and advisory services for Crystal Towers residents, as well as about $50,000 for moving expenses. The proposed plan tacitly acknowledged that areas of Winston-Salem under consideration for relocation would not be accessible to public transportation.

“These staff members will have driving licenses and be able to drive residents to relocation housing sites using housing authority-owned vehicles,” the proposal reads. “In this way, residents will not be constrained by their lack of access to a personal automobile or the limits of public transportation, and will thereby be able to visit parts of the city not otherwise convenient to access.”

In the application, the housing authority also itemized a list of comparable housing relocation options, including Sunrise Towers and Cleveland Avenue Homes — two other public-housing communities in HAWS’ portfolio.

Sunrise Towers, built a few years before Crystal Towers but just outside downtown, conceivably faces the same long-term upkeep challenges.

Cheshire said Sunrise Towers has so far avoided the revenue and upkeep challenges that have beset Crystal Towers because the property included an administrative building that generated additional leasing revenue for the site to augment rent payments from residents. But Cheshire said the administrative building at Sunrise Towers has been vacant for about a year now.

“So, I suspect that some of these issues that we’re seeing at Crystal and have been seeing, we will also see with Sunrise unless we get that building rented or do something differently out there,” he said.

In late April, the housing authority learned that HUD approved a $30 million grant to tear down the 244-unit Cleveland Avenue Homes and replace the aging public-housing community with 406 mixed-income units, only 199 of which will be public housing. Though the housing authority and the city have promised that the initiative will positively transform the area, the fact that Cleveland Avenue residents will be displaced during construction undercuts the idea of relocating Crystal Towers residents there.

Notwithstanding Cheshire’s explanation that Sunrise Towers has held a financial advantage over Crystal Towers, Rose views the proposed sale of Crystal Towers in the context of the downtown real-estate market.

“If its twin building, Sunrise Towers, was built at the same time, with the same design, why are they selling Crystal Towers and not Sunrise Towers?” Rose asked. “It’s obvious, to me at least, that they’re trying to cash in on the downtown real-estate boom, and to wipe their hands of publicly owned and operated housing.”

HAWS’ plans could be viewed as violating federal regulations governing where public housing residents can be relocated, depending on one’s interpretation. Federal law requires that “a [public housing authority] must offer each family displaced by demolition or disposition comparable housing quality standards (HQS) and is located in an area that is generally not less desirable than the location of the displaced persons.”

Rose articulated his interpretation of the federal regulation.

“You must relocate them in a relocation plan to an equal or better property in an equal or better neighborhood,” he said. “When it comes to neighborhoods, you cannot beat that location. Crystal Towers has access to the library. Even if you’re on a walker, it’s not too far to the library, CVS pharmacy, Ronnie’s grocery store. It’s prime real estate.”

Cheshire acknowledged the point in a recent interview, but suggested the housing authority has the latitude to relocate residents outside of downtown.

“I know I can’t give you a great answer to that,” he said. “I don’t know that anyone can, just to be perfectly honest about it. What I’ve seen in the literature is that it’s essentially a case-by-case analysis. And the needs of the individual resident are going to drive that. I think that what may be less desirable in your eyes may not be less desirable in my eyes.

“I think probably the most honest answer I could give you guys right now is that we do not feel wedded to a downtown or a central business location for relocation housing,” he continued. “But if we have individual residents who have needs that are particular to downtown or are really difficult to serve outside of downtown, then we would do everything we could to try to identify comparable housing that’s downtown. Now, that’s easier said than done, as a practical matter.”

Whether HAWS ultimately relocates Crystal Towers residents to other public-housing communities or provides Section 8 vouchers so they can find housing in the private market, the offset effect on other people who need housing in Winston-Salem is inescapable. As of February, the housing authority indicated that the waiting list for public housing in Winston-Salem is 19,893. To put that in context, 19,893 people are waiting to get into public housing in Winston-Salem, but the housing authority currently has only has about 1,300 units in its inventory. (Cheshire told TCB it’s important to keep in mind that the public-housing waiting list remains open, so that the aggregate is constantly increasing, and that each of HAWS’ nine communities has its own waiting list, so it’s possible that some families are counted more than once. The agency does not have a way of counting unique applicants.)

Cheshire also confirmed that the Section 8 waiting list, also known as the Housing Choice Voucher, “is literally years-long,” with 3,522 people on it. In contrast to the public housing list, the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers periodically closes.

“You’re going to have an effect not just in our housing but the private market because at the end of the day you’re taking 200 units offline,” Cheshire said. “Now, the long-term play, of course, is to parlay that into more units. But in the short term, you’re losing 200 units, and those people are going somewhere, and the demand [for low-income housing]… is not decreasing.”

In its initial application, the housing authority proposed tapping into a pool of tenant-protection vouchers to relocate Crystal Towers residents, moving them to the privately-owned rental housing market. But even if a tenant acquires a voucher, there’s no guarantee a landlord will accept it.

Mulrain is among those who are skeptical that vouchers will work.

“It won’t be possible for everyone living here to find a new place to live if the building is sold,” Mulrain said. “Just because you get the voucher doesn’t mean you’ll actually get housing.”

Douglas said she worries about those who are on the waiting list.

“There are already people on waiting lists for public housing, including handicapped and/or elderly low-income people in Winston Salem,” she said. “If this building is no longer available there will be a loss of 201 apartments for them. Where will they go? What will they do? They are not on the waiting lists for no reason.”

Far from being a reboot, HAWS’ current effort to sell Crystal Towers represents a continuation of the original plan, Cheshire said. If anything, he said, he and his predecessor did “a really poor job of explaining” to city leaders what led them to the decision to put Crystal Towers on the market.

“It wasn’t that our analysis was uninformed, or it was indifferent to the plight of low-income or no-income residents of the city — specifically downtown,” Cheshire said. “We understood that. And so, the fact that elected officials were opposed to it didn’t make us go back to the drawing board, and say, ‘Oh gosh, we didn’t think about how this is going to affect housing downtown.’ We knew that. That was something that we discussed a lot. And we just felt like this was not the best alternative. But it was an opportunity to address something that we felt was only going to get worse with time rather than punt on it.”

‘Human units… waiting to be carted off’

While housing authority leaders finessed their plan and worked to allay the concerns of their counterparts at the city, Crystal Towers residents got organized.

It started with the local advocates at Housing Justice Now, who sat outside the public-housing community and spoke with residents after they befriended Rico Givens, who was fighting eviction from the location.

In just under a year, Crystal Towers United has made strides helping residents know their rights. Under pressure from the residents’ groups, HAWS agreed to lower prices for replacement entry badges from $40 to $20.

Residents believe their advocacy persuaded city officials to add signage to protect pedestrians at the Sixth Street crosswalk in front of the building. And Rose said the residents will see additional improvements thanks to their advocacy.

The residents went before the public safety committee of Winston-Salem City Council in December 2019, and said, “We’ve got a problem on Sixth Street: Cars don’t stop for us,” Rose recalled.

Sam Grier said he’s looking forward to the city narrowing Sixth Street so it’s safer for residents to cross.

“They can put a median there for the tenants so we don’t get ran over and crippled and killed crossing the street,” he said. “That’ll be Phase 2. The completion of the second part will be in the summer of this year. That’s what they said.”

Residents also persuaded HAWS to reopen the computer room in the building.

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Crystal Towers United was challenging the rule against posting signs on doors, claiming they violated the First Amendment. At a meeting in late February, two residents committed to leaving their signs up, with a guarantee that Housing Justice Now would cover the cost if they were fined. And residents agreed to challenge a housing inspection checklist with requirements such as cleaning the outside of their windows and waxing their floors, which is difficult for elderly and disabled people.

“What drew me was the idea of, one person can’t have too much weight,” said Grier, one of the residents who challenged the rule against posting signs on apartment doors. “The power is in unity. And we formed this group.”

With uncertainty looming about the sale of Crystal Towers and the future of its residents amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cheshire confirmed that the six-month resident-relocation period to be orchestrated by the housing authority remains 18 months on the horizon.

“We’re doing everything we can to try to identify sites in downtown proper, or in proximity to downtown to develop affordable housing, or to have a development that includes affordable housing,” Cheshire said. “So, I guess I would say all options are on the table, and we are in the process of and willing to have conversations with any and all parties who have an ownership interest in any holdings downtown.”

Although housing authority officials say the sale will ultimately improve public housing opportunities in Winston-Salem, residents have their own feelings about not being in control of their fate.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do with us,” Grier said. “They make promises, but you can’t depend on that.” 

Cheshire confirmed that the housing authority is working with the city to come up with a plan, while declining to specify whether it might include a real estate transaction to develop new housing that would absorb displaced residents.

“We have a great relationship with the city,” he said. “So, I don’t know if I would say that we are actively negotiating with the city to acquire land. I think what I would say is we are actively collaborating with the city to try to solve this problem.”

While the housing authority promises that the sale of Crystal Towers will set the stage for new housing opportunities, residents have fought just to be visible and respected.

“I do feel very positive about the fact that there is at least now some debate going on in the community,” Douglas said. “It was hardest when no one was saying anything at all — in the papers or anywhere else. Just after the announcement [was] personally related to the residents, it felt like we were already gone in people’s minds. And sometimes, at least from my point of view, it still feels that way. We are just human units they are waiting to be carted off somewhere else so that the square footage here can be supremely monetized.”

Crystal Towers residents have had to rely on their own resourcefulness and help from allies to obtain sanitation and cleaning supplies during the coronavirus pandemic. (photo by Owens Daniels)

Sidebar: Surviving COVID-19

Dan Rose, a sociology professor and organizer with Housing Justice Now, popped the trunk of his car, and watched from the driver’s seat with the windows rolled up as Crystal Towers resident Irwin Mulrain transferred toilet paper, bottled water, Lysol, Clorox wipes and gloves into his own vehicle. With just a passing smile between them, Mulrain headed back to Crystal Towers, bringing aid to his fellow residents.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across North Carolina in mid-March, residents of the public-housing community found themselves fending for themselves to procure sanitization supplies.

By the third week of April, there was only one full hand-sanitizer station in the building, located between the two elevators on the first floor.

“We installed them on the ground floor because we had sufficient inserts on the ground floor,” Kevin Cheshire, the executive director of the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, acknowledged. “And, totally on me, I went to the ground floor and made sure that the installations had been done, and not just at Crystal, but at the other sites. And they had. My mistake was not walking up to the upper floors, and just relying on their representation that they had in fact been installed.”

The dispensers on the remaining floors remained empty as recently as late April, according to residents Sam Grier and Kathy Holland. Signs posted on the dispensers read, “RE-FILL IS ON BACK ORDER AND WILL BE REPLACED AS SOON AS WE RECEIVE THEM!” The signs have been up since the machines were placed on the floors, which were never filled to begin with. 

“They’re dragging their feet, I’ll tell you that,” said Grier, a 73-year-old resident who has lived at Crystal Towers for 11 years. “All of a sudden, they’re trying to put up some hand-sanitizers.”

Grier attributed the housing authority’s action, limited as it was, to pressure from the residents’ organization Crystal Towers United..

“They’re putting up containers on each floor now, thanks to Crystal Towers United,” he said, “but they don’t have anything in them.”

The housing authority, like many institutions, discovered there was a shortage of essential supplies when the pandemic hit. Cheshire said the housing authority purchased thousands of dollars’ worth of inserts for the machines, only to discover that they did not contain alcohol, making them ineffective against COVID-19.

“We promptly canceled the order,” he said. “But that’s kind of what we’re up against. You’re almost ecstatic if you find some disinfectant wipes or some Clorox that you can get out to your maintenance staff.”

With a majority of residents being elderly and or disabled, the people who live at Crystal Towers are at a heightened risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19. With residents in the 201-unit building passing through a single ground-floor entrance, and one out of two elevators frequently disabled, they face an increased likelihood of interpersonal contact, exacerbating risk of exposure to the virus and raising anxiety.

“We’re getting calls from other Crystal Towers United members saying, ‘Hey I need, can I get one of those cans of Lysol I’m afraid to get on the elevator. I’d like to spray Lysol first,’” Rose said. “People having to wait an hour to try and get the elevator to open up with nobody inside so they can get downstairs and get their mail or get their groceries. But we’re doing the best we can. We’ve spent a good amount of money at Costco. And ya know, they want thermometers too.”

The housing authority has installed sliding plexiglass at the management office to limit staff-resident interaction, Cheshire said, and flyers taped to residents’ doors instructs them to leave rent in a drop-box outside the management office while trusting that a receipt will be mailed to them. Rose said the arrangement makes residents uncomfortable because it leaves them without documentation to show that they’ve paid their rent, thus making them vulnerable to illegal eviction.

On March 27, President Trump signed into law the first coronavirus relief bill which includes a temporary moratorium on evictions for public housing tenants through July 24.

Cheshire said that the housing authority has responded to the unanticipated contingencies of the pandemic by relaxing its rules to protect residents from eviction. With many residents facing a sudden loss of income due to unanticipated job losses, Cheshire said, the housing authority is reducing their rent without first requiring extensive third-party verification, as would normally be the case.

“If you reported a reduction in income, we made that effective the next month, which is to say the next time the rent’s due,” he said. “And any sort of verification issues that arise post hoc, we’ll then address that retroactively, as necessary. But our first priority was going ahead and getting that rent adjusted downward.”

Ultimately, Crystal Towers residents find themselves improvising with the help of allies to meet their own needs while the housing authority scrambles to meet their needs.

“They take care of themselves when management won’t,” Rose said. “When management won’t provide, ya know, cleaning of the building, sanitation of the elevators, they’re taking matters into their own hands when trying to protect themselves at this point.”

— Jaclyn Childress

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