Despite decades of redlining, deindustrialization and disinvestment, many residents speak positively of the neighborhoods in the High Point ghetto.
“I like the neighborhood; it ain’t no worse than any other neighborhood,” said Sherman Marshall, a 74-year-old Burns Hill resident who has lived in the neighborhood since the mid-1960s and worked for Carolina Springs and Haywood Rolling Panel. He first rented a house on Furlough Avenue, and then moved to his current residence on RC Baldwin Avenue in 1984. At the time, the neighborhood was plagued by break-ins.
“It changed a whole lot,” Marshall said. “Right around here it ain’t been as many break-ins. The police stay busy.”
Dorothy Darr, executive director of the Southwest Renewal Foundation and a resident of the West High Street Historic District, emphasized a sense of pride in the area’s manufacturing legacy.
“It is historic housing stock,” she said. “It was mostly neighborhoods that were associated with the manufacturing industry of furniture and hosiery. The West High Street area was people who owned the mills. The other areas were largely made up of residents who worked in the factories or the mills, some of them craftsmen, some of them just working in the hosiery or cotton and then yarn, as they did at Highland [Cotton Mill].
“The people that I’ve met in these neighborhoods — there’s almost no crime — they’re just really decent, nice people who have a lot honor and integrity,” Darr added. “We do have a large proportion of renters in the Southwest — 70 to 30 renters to owners — and we would like to see more ownership in the area, some restoration, infill, all of that is necessary.”
While perception is almost as important as reality when it comes to public safety and neighborhood stability, the stats cut against Darr’s claim: The UNCG market segmentation highlighted one of the Census block groups in the southwest area for a violent crime rate of 9.58 calls per 1,000 residents.
The southwest quadrant in particular shows signs of reinvestment. Most notably, the Belgian furniture maker BuzziSpace took over the historic Pickett Cotton Mill in 2014. And in late 2012, part of the old Myrtle Desk company was jointly purchased by a company that contracts furniture manufacturing in China and an import business that specializes in South African wine.
Yet for all of its promise, 43 percent of the residents of the southwest quadrant fall below the federal poverty level, and in one Census block group the figure is as high as 87 percent. The UNCG researchers found that median household incomes in the two poorest census tracts in the southwest charted at $9,006 and $15,806 respectively. They found generally high levels substandard housing and vacant units throughout the southwest.
Stephen Sills, the lead researcher of the UNCG study and director of the Center for Housing and Community Studies, likens rental housing to an extractive resource industry, even going so far as to compare it to the “mountain-top removal” method of coal mining where the tops of mountains in Appalachia are literally blown off.
Even though the vast majority of landlords in the High Point ghetto live nearby, Sills said, “You’re still extracting wealth from one side of town to the other, largely from low-income black people to high-income whites. I still see this as a social justice issue. If I’m a landlord, I’ve bought low-income housing because it’s a good investment and I can still extract the dollars from rent payments but I’m not going to invest very much as long as there’s a tax advantage. They get to write off the wear and tear as it’s rented. As soon as it reaches the highest level of depreciation, there’s incentive to sell. Then the next owner comes in and the cycles repeats. They buy the house and put lipstick on it — paint it, fix the windows, do some cosmetic things so they can rent it out.”
As the owner of Atlantic Realty & Property Management, Cridlebaugh’s company manages about 1,200 residential properties around High Point. The vast majority of the monthly rents fall between $400 and $600, what Cridlebaugh calls “a recession-proof range” because “it doesn’t matter if you’re working a low-income job; you still need housing.” Cridlebaugh and his wife, Nicole, also own 18 rental properties of their own through Fennario Properties LLC.
A longtime Grateful Dead fan with framed photographs of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir on his office wall, Cridlebaugh named his real estate company after a fictitious locale that crops up in at least two songs by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. “Fennario” is referenced in the traditional folk song “Peggy-O” that entered the band’s repertoire in the late ’70s, but also in the Hunter-penned “Dire Wolf” from the 1970 album Workingman’s Dead: “In the backwash of Fennario, the black and bloody mire/ The Dire Wolf collects his dues, while the boys sing ’round the fire.”
“I don’t work with slumlords,” Cridlebaugh said. “I’ve fired plenty of clients who don’t keep up their properties. My job is to make money for my clients. My job as a landowner is to make money for Fennario Properties. I don’t make money if my houses are vacant.”
Cridlebaugh’s days are filled with working through a constant stream of code violation letters from the city and repair requests from tenants. He takes pride in responding quickly.
“I have an army of contractors that work for me that can take care of everything from a dripping kitchen faucet to removing a dead body,” he said.
From Cridlebaugh’s perspective, the challenges in the ghetto include both homeowners who simply find themselves unable to afford the cost of upkeep to people in the neighborhood who commit property crimes.
“There’s a house where we recently put new carpeting throughout the house,” he said. “The next weekend all the windows were broken out. They had made a campfire in the living room. The owner of it told us to board it up, put Roundup on the yard, and put it up for sale.”
Making a property management business works revolves around a couple fundamentals, Cridlebaugh said.
“It’s by getting qualified tenants in the house,” he said. “Collections, collections, collections. And keeping maintenance costs as low as I can. People wouldn’t come to me if I didn’t turn a profit for them. On the other side, people wouldn’t come to me if I didn’t provide a good house, provide fair housing and an affordable rent.”
Since the city engaged the UNCG Center for Housing and Community Studies to conduct the market segmentation study, the city has increased its code inspection staff from one full-time inspector to six.
“We’re up to full speed now,” said Michael McNair, the city’s director of community development and housing. “We’ve got a regular diet of demolitions and repair orders.”
Jerry Mingo, who lives in Burns Hill and operates the nonprofit sewing factory on East Green Drive, said the city’s stepped-up efforts have produced results.
“You can tell with a lot of the lots being cut that weren’t being cut before,” he said. “And with some of the houses that were in disrepair being torn down you can see the difference.”
Also notable in the city’s efforts to address housing conditions in the ghetto is a partnership with the national nonprofit Operation Inasmuch. Leveraging volunteer labor from churches, the city is targeting a handful of houses on a single block for repairs. The first project took place in the Southside neighborhood in May 2016, followed by the east-central area in November. The third project will take place in Highland Mills in May.
“The idea is that if you target four or five houses on a block for light rehab — it might be painting — it has a spill-over effect,” Sills said. “Neighbors might be inspired to improve their houses. It makes people think about the status of the neighborhood. The program targets elderly homeowners who might have paid off their mortgages, but they have fixed incomes so they can’t always afford to make repairs.”
The completion of the market segmentation study has raised a nettlesome but ever present question in High Point — whether the city should focus resources on the areas of greatest need or strategically target distressed areas with stronger assets that are likely to yield a higher return on investment.
The market segmentation study bluntly recommends “wholesale redevelopment” for the ghetto. Such an undertaking would require millions of dollars in federal funding, Sills said, adding that the $500,000 budgeted by the city this year for blight removal and redevelopment would barely make a dent.
“We recommend focusing on the constrained markets,” Sills said. “They bottomed out in 2009 at the beginning of the recession. They’re selling, but very slowly. The city can turn that around by providing low-interest loans to prospective homeowners. Things like credit counseling would help. Trainings for new homeowners: When you’re accustomed to renting, you might not know about cleaning out the hair trap under the sink so you can save money instead of hiring a plumber. The city could strategically seize properties with delinquent taxes and then find new owners. That’s a way to bring money back in paid taxes.”
The recent buildout of the Park Terrace Apartments, a public housing community that received an award for excellence in affordable housing from the NC Housing Finance Agency in 2013, would seem to be a bright spot in the High Point ghetto. The apartments, which replaced Clara Cox Homes, lie a block south of the East Green Drive shopping center where Jerry Mingo operates his nonprofit garment factory. But Sills cautioned against siting affordable housing in areas that lack resources.
“The opportunity structures aren’t there,” he said. “Where are these kids going to go to school? You’ve got a concentration of poverty there. What are the grocery stores like? You’ve got a food desert. A Family Dollar counts as a food store. That, in my mind, does not count as a healthy food store.”
Instead, Sills said the city should look for opportunities to build affordable housing in more stable housing markets around Emerywood that would provide residents with access to public transportation, shopping and employment. As a tradeoff, the city could look for ways to incentivize higher-income, mostly younger people to move into the urban core to diversify incomes and stimulate demand for retail.
In previous conversations, Michael McNair, the city’s community development and housing director, has emphasized a redevelopment strategy in line with Sills’ recommendation, but he said over time he’s come to believe that the city can’t afford to neglect the areas of greatest need.
“What we’ve come to recognize — we still have to be smart — is that red doesn’t mean don’t go in there; it means don’t go in there without a plan,” he said. “This is not a wasteland.
“Our council’s serious about this, our manager’s serious about this,” McNair added. “They’re serious about addressing blight in the core.”
The High Point ghetto is a place with almost 5,000 residents that happens to include City Hall, an Amtrak station and cluster of showrooms that serve as a hub for the largest home furnishings market in North America. Armed with a new study and a granular view of conditions in the ghetto, city leaders face a reckoning about whether to make a concerted effort to address urban poverty and blight or to continue on the same course as in the past 50 years.
As a person who made a good livelihood as production supervisor, Mingo knows he could have moved away, but he said he likes Burns Hill, and his neighbors.
He recalled a time when his house was broken into and a police officer asked him why he didn’t move.
“Why?” Mingo replied. “I shouldn’t have to. Your job is to protect and serve.”
He knows the value he places in his community is not reciprocated by its real-estate values.
“I know if I decided to sell my property tomorrow I couldn’t find a buyer,” he said. “Or, if I did, it would become a rental property. If I die tomorrow, that’s it.”
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