by Jordan Green
Two neighborhood leaders from different parts of High Point share a concern about blighted housing in the east-central part of the city.
The two men frequently meet for lunch at Becky’s and Mary’s, a soul-food restaurant on Washington Street.
Jim Bronnert is a retired custom-car painter, an Ohio transplant and conservative Republican who lives in the Oakview neighborhood on the north side of town. Jerry Mingo, who retired as a supervisor at Banner Pharmacaps, is a black Democrat whose family has lived in east-central High Point since 1965. Both men are the presidents of their neighborhood associations, and ran unsuccessfully for city council last year.
They got to know each other through the High Point Neighborhood Leaders Council, and have rode together on bus tours to highlight substandard housing, which opened Bronnert’s eyes to the challenges in Mingo’s community.
“One of the things as far as being part of the neighborhood leaders group is we’re supposed to share ideas,” said Mingo, the president of the Burns Hill Neighborhood Association. “Hypothetically, if a drug dealer is in our area and we get them out, we can at least identify them and give the other neighborhood leaders a heads-up.”
Bronnert picked up the thread.
“We got the idea from Jerry because they write letters to landlords when they have problems with substandard housing,” he said. “We took that idea and wrote a letter to a landlord where there was a drug house, and we asked them to put the drug dealer out.”
As neighborhood leaders, both Bronnert and Mingo have expressed skepticism towards revitalization proposals like dieting North Main Street to make it more pedestrian friendly, which focus on strategic investments in parts of the city such as Uptowne and downtown that are already relatively advantaged. Both Mingo and Bronnert argued during their campaigns that the city needs to focus on the areas of highest need, as opposed to greatest potential, and Bronnert took heat for saying that some areas of High Point were “disgusting.”
“The first time I came through here it blew me away,” Bronnert said. “The city can’t progress when you’ve got this hanging on.”
During a driving tour of east-central High Point, Mingo gave Bronnert directions. Right or left, it doesn’t much matter, he said, you’ll see the same thing: house after house boarded up and decaying. Or worse — some of the condemned houses are unsecured, creating a haven for drug users or a hazard to children who might wander in.
Approaching Vernon Street Park, Bronnert pointed to two children who had balanced a stray wooden plank across the top rail of a fence to improvise a seesaw.
“We’re going to take care of that and get some proper playground equipment,” said Bronnert, who sits on the parks and recreation commission.
Rounding the corner at East Commerce Avenue and Furlough Avenue, Mingo pointed to a series of vacant lots where three houses had been torn down after he complained to city council.
“There were trees growing up through the houses,” Mingo said.
On one block, Mingo counted 10 houses that were boarded up. They spotted at least two code violations, including a pit bull chained to a tree and cars parked in a front yard. A constant source of aggravation for residents is that when tenants move out, landlords toss their belongings out on the sidewalk, leaving piles of refuse. Mingo expressed no complaints about the city’s waste pickup service. Turnover among tenants in the area, which is predominantly rental, is simply so high that there’s an unending stream of mattresses, furniture and trash, he said.
Once Mingo confronted a scavenger, who extracted the metal springs from a mattress but left the felt.
“Couldn’t you take the whole thing?” Mingo asked him. He recalled that the request was not received kindly.
The area of concern for Mingo — what he calls east-central High Point — is roughly bounded by Centennial Street to the east, Kivett Drive to the north, Brentwood Street to the west and Green Drive to the south. The area is poor by every measure, with two-thirds of residents living in poverty, according to the most recent Census, and median family income estimated at $14,775. Less than half of residents are in the labor force, and of those, 34.6 percent are unemployed. More than three-quarters of the 1,500-some occupied housing units in the area are renter-occupied.
Mingo and group of neighborhood volunteers counted 126 vacant houses in 2011. They plan to conduct a new survey to bring their numbers up to date.
Mingo said he thinks the city needs to pressure landlords to maintain their properties.
“Fifty percent of the problems could be addressed if they used what’s on the books,” he said. “They don’t have to create anything new.”
He pulled out a photograph of a refrigerator covered in mold that he said he said was taken in a house that was ready to be rented.
“If you’re going to be in the rental-property business, you should make repairs before someone comes in, and after your tenants move out,” Mingo said.
High Point City Council has grappled with the problem of blighted housing for decades. When Becky Smothers came onto council in 1977, it was one of Mayor Roy Culler’s priorities, and one of the final acts of the previous council when Smothers retired last year was to enact a demolition order on the Meredith Street Apartments in Mingo’s neighborhood.
The neighborhood leader made a generalized complaint about a perceived emphasis on more affluent parts of the city, but did not articulate a request for public funds for streetscaping and other improvements.
“Something’s got to be done,” Mingo said. “You can’t put all your resources into the north. Green Drive is a major thoroughfare to [the furniture] market. I’ve heard people say that they tell them to come up Main Street so they won’t have to look at Green Drive.”
It’s common in High Point to see handwritten signs advertising housing for sale for $12,000. One wonders whether cracking down on landlords to make repairs would simply induce them to walk away from their properties.
Mingo admitted that he doesn’t have any easy answers.
“That’s just the thing,” he said. “I don’t know.”