Featured photo: Crystal Towers resident Samuel Grier stands in front of the building (photo by Jerry Cooper)
A standard apartment at Crystal Towers consists of a small bathroom, a bedroom, a living area and kitchenette. The tiled floors evoke the setting of a hospital room, made for quick cleanups. The peeling paint — five decades of it — obscure the age of the walls. The wooden cabinets in the kitchen splinter due to years of use.
The 11-story low-income housing facility is the result of the city of Winston-Salem’s effort in the mid 1960s to create a place where elderly people on fixed incomes — but still independent — could reside. The notion of a community of people with similar needs housed in a cost-effective downtown highrise appealed to those who did not have traditional care options, so on July 31, 1972, the first residents moved into the building’s 201 units, according to reporting by the Winston-Salem Journal.
But much has changed since 1972.
Now, 50 years later, the original idealistic dream of Crystal Towers is unrecognizable to its 196 residents. The world is different now: Poverty among the elderly is on the rise. The state of Crystal Towers’ facilities and its surrounding resources struggle to match the needs of the aging building’s population.
And it’s a complicated issue. Resident advocates point to the city’s housing authority, which owns the property, as failing to meet residents’ needs. The housing authority, on the other hand, focuses blame on the fact that their hands are tied when it comes to funding derived from the federal government.
In the end, the residents are the ones often left in the lurch.
Ongoing issues such as broken elevators, bedbug infestations, flooded floors and even undiscovered deaths of residents have plagued those living in the building for years.
“It’s easy… once you get put into the shitcan, you’re gonna be shitted on,” said Coalition for Accountability and Transparency member Phillip Carter who often advocates on behalf of the residents. “People that live in low-income communities — whatever the case may be — once they’re in that shitcan, they’re gonna be shitted on.”
“There’s an attitude from management that we have what we deserve and nothing more,” added resident Michael Douglas.
What it costs to maintain Crystal Towers
In the ’60s, architect Michael Newman of the Lashmit, Brown & Pollock firm designed Crystal Towers and Sunrise Towers for the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, or HAWS.
Most localities have some form of government-run housing assistance. These are led by local housing authorities who have boards chosen from local governments. Standards differ from localities due to need, availability and demographics. Virtually all are funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Funding from federal sources means the input and distribution, while local, is tied to national directives. Federal budget cuts leave local housing authorities stymied as they decide what to do with lower budgets and ever-increasing needs.
The Housing Authority of Winston-Salem manages approximately 4,600 units under the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8, a federal program that helps low-income families, older adults and people with disabilities afford housing.
On the housing authority’s website, the section addressing inspections within the Housing Choice Voucher Program states: “It is the department’s responsibility to ensure that through the inspection process, residents reside in housing that is safe, decent, sanitary and in good repair.”
According to HAWS Executive Director Kevin Cheshire, maintenance staff regularly check the building, and it was last inspected by HUD in January 2023, by HAWS staff in February 2023 and is scheduled to be inspected by US Inspection Group in July 2023.
Crystal Towers’ architectural twin, Sunrise Towers on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, has 195 units, while Townview Apartments near Gateway Commons Park has 49 units. Other large facilities include 244 units at Cleveland Avenue Homes and Piedmont Park with 240.
To upkeep and maintain the buildings, HAWS receives two forms of subsidies from the federal government: an operating subsidy and a capital subsidy. Operating subsidies cover the difference between the revenue HAWS receives in rent and the ordinary maintenance expenses of operating the building, such as fixing a cupboard or a toilet.
During a 2018 city council meeting, former HAWS Executive Director Larry Woods explained how the difference in rent and maintenance costs at Crystal Towers was posing a problem. At the time, Woods explained how HAWS had to pay more than $700,000 in bedbug treatment.
“We’re taking money from other properties just to keep this one going,” Woods said.
The lowest monthly rent that Crystal Towers’ residents pay is $50 and the median rent paid is $215, Woods said, noting that Crystal Towers was approximately $7 million behind in maintenance costs.
At the time, the committee included council members Derwin Montgomery, Denise D. Adams, Dan Besse and Robert Clark. Additional council members present at the meeting included the Northwest Ward’s Jeff MacIntosh as well as John Larson and James Taylor.
“We do not have the operating dollars to operate the building at a level that we think the residents should live under,” Woods told city council members in 2018.
A more recent conversation with Cheshire, who became executive director in 2020, revealed the same issue.
“The affordable rents are obviously not high enough to cover those expenses, so HUD bridges that gap and gives you the subsidy,” Cheshire said.
But the subsidies often aren’t enough.
The second type of subsidy from the federal government — the capital subsidy — addresses needs like a roof replacement. During fiscal year 2021, HAWS received $6.2 million in operating subsidy and $3.2 million in capital subsidy. In 2022 they received $6.5 million and $4 million, respectively.
Cheshire said that HUD calculates what they think it should cost to operate a variety of different buildings based on the construction of the property. For example a high-rise building is calculated differently than garden-style apartments. HUD then prorates that calculated amount, Cheshire told TCB.
“They run a calculation, say, ‘It should cost you $1 million a year to run this building, your rent that you collected last year was $500,000. So you should get $500,000 from us just to break even.’ But every year HUD applies a proration to that amount.
“They’re only giving you a proration of what HUD itself determines it should cost to operate these buildings,” Cheshire said.
That makes it difficult for HAWS to budget how to maintain the buildings.
“Every year we’re sort of all on the edge of our seats waiting for them to determine what the proration factor is gonna be…. That’s for both of our large programs — public housing and Section 8,” he said. “They run a calculation and then they apply a proration factor, to say, ‘How much of what we’ve told you it should cost you to operate this building are we actually going to give you?’”
The ongoing issue of maintaining Crystal Towers came to a head in 2018 when HAWS announced that they were considering selling the building.
Now, HAWS and the city will be partnering on an alternative strategy that includes “a commitment to identifying a scope of work that will drastically improve the look, feel, functionality, safety, and security of Crystal Towers,” Cheshire said.
What’s going on with the building?
More than a year after the sale’s cancellation, repairs have just begun.
According to Cheshire, they’ll take place in stages, starting with the installation of two new elevators which sit in a large shipping container just outside of the building.
The current elevators, which often have issues and break down, weren’t fixed until this March; efforts to replace them altogether began in early May. Each elevator car will take approximately 12 weeks to install, Cheshire said. Once they complete that, then they can modernize the lobby and relocate the laundry facilities. After that, HAWS will assess future needs. They won’t know how many changes they’ll be making until the design team conducts the assessment.
Each residential floor is laid out with apartment units that sit along a long hall that extends to a balcony or elevator area and the floor-specific laundry rooms.
The laundry rooms currently sit front and center when exiting each elevator, each containing one washer and one dryer for all of the residents on that floor. Water covers the floors in many of the laundry rooms, according to residents. Flooding is one of the reasons the elevators are constantly out of commission, HAWS representatives say. The plan is to centralize the laundry to the first floor in order to combat this. Disabled residents on higher floors who are used to their laundry room being down the hall will now have to navigate their way to the first floor with every other resident.
A few months ago, before crews removed floor tiling from the first floor for the laundry relocation process, they tested it for a carcinogenic material often used in construction until the 1980s — asbestos — which was found in the tiles. That’s where it’s been found so far.
“There’s been no other asbestos testing because we’re not working anywhere else,” Cheshire told TCB.
Some residents told TCB that they had no idea the asbestos removal was even happening.
In early May, TCB spoke to many residents who were either unaware that asbestos was being removed or did not know where it was located.
Cheshire said that management had been tasked with letting residents know what was going on. A flyer hung in the lobby informing residents of possible health hazards of the asbestos removal.
Cheshire noted that staff had a meeting with residents after the removal to address any questions and explain the process.
“This meeting should have taken place before the removal.” Cheshire acknowledged.
In addition to the elevator and flooding issue, residents also face issues with temperature control.
According to a search of Forsyth County property records, the building has no HVAC and no sprinklers. Cheshire confirmed to TCB that the building does not have a sprinkler system, and that while the first floor of the lobby does have central HVAC, the residential units do not.
This often causes the hallways to get hot and muggy. According to residents, the doors to the balconies at the ends of hallways are usually propped open — which goes against fire code.
“Yes, doors being propped open by residents is indeed a problem,” Cheshire wrote to TCB in an email. “Management does its best to ask residents to not prop doors open and to take enforcement action against repeat offenders. However, as an independent living facility, the building is not staffed 24/7 and residents are expected to abide by building rules. Management staff is unable to go behind residents all day closing doors.”
During an April 17 city council meeting, Housing Justice Now organizer Dan Rose spoke about the state of Crystal Towers: “We see that the housing authority is struggling.”
“Many of us are believers in housing low-income people in this community, but we know that the city can be doing more to support the housing authority’s efforts there,” Rose said.
About $1 million has been spent on Crystal Towers since the sale was canceled in 2022, according to Cheshire. As far as Crystal Towers’ profits go, Cheshire said that the building had a negative cash flow of $152,393 during the 2021 fiscal year, which was covered out of cash flows from Cleveland Avenue Homes. In 2022, it had a negative cash flow of $286,328. Cash flows from Cleveland Avenue Homes, Townview Apartments and Camden Station covered the losses that year.
In a May 9 text to TCB, Cheshire discussed funding for renovations, noting that he wasn’t sure how much they would get from the city moving forward.
“[The] City has committed to work with us to make the upgrades, but we do not have a figure on that need yet,” he wrote, adding that they anticipate having that number by the end of the year. “[W]e do not know how much of that need the City will fund.”
Mayor Joines told TCB in a June 8 interview that the amount of funding that the city will provide hasn’t yet been set in stone.
“We’ve talked in the range of $2 million, but we’re waiting on them to make an official request,” Joines said.
But part of creating a safe living environment will take more than just improving the actual building, residents say.
‘They didn’t even realize that he was gone’
In early April, Rose, Coalition for Accountability and Transparency member Phillip Carter and 76-year-old resident Samuel Grier, who is also president of Crystal Towers United, met to unload a laundry list of needs at Crystal Towers that advocates and residents alike believe are not being addressed.
Grier, who leads the initiative that allows for residents to advocate for one another, is soft-spoken, unassuming. He knows everyone who passes by and greets them with kindness. Both he and Douglas want better tenant representation.
“What they really need — and some of those people up there are earnest in what they’re doing — but they need people that are living through this process in those positions,” Douglas said about management.
One of the most harrowing issues facing residents is the fact that when some of them pass away, it can go unnoticed by neighbors and staff alike.
“I had to report two dead bodies,” Grier said. “A person on my floor was deceased for I don’t know how long, but the smell…. Once you smell that, you will never forget it”.
In June 2022, Rose emailed HAWS attorney Alex Boston to let them know that Freddie Kirkland, a resident facing eviction, had passed away.
“He moved out to a nursing home and died. After he died, I saw his name on the eviction dockets. They didn’t even realize that he was gone,” Rose told TCB.
Cheshire confirmed to TCB in June that two residents had passed away in their apartments in approximately the last 10 months.
“In the first instance, the resident’s family members had not spoken with her since the previous day,” Cheshire explained. “When they could not reach her, they contacted law enforcement for a welfare check. Law enforcement entered the apartment for a welfare check and found the resident deceased. In the second instance, the residents’ neighbors began noticing a smell of unknown origin and contacted management. While no report was received by management, presumably the resident in the second instance had been deceased inside the unit for multiple days.
“As heart-wrenching as that is, and as tragic, we don’t have social workers,” Cheshire explained. “This is an independent living building. And it’s a shame and it is sad and tragic, but that’s not a housing management issue.”
Still, Cheshire explains that staff try to be as attentive as possible.
When a water main break left much of downtown without access to water on May 25, Cheshire said staff members alerted residents and provided them with water bottles.
Staff members stayed past midnight to help residents, Cheshire said. One week later on Memorial Day, a blackout occurred downtown. Staff spent the holiday at the building supporting residents when the power went out.
“We are property managers, period,” Cheshire said. “We are maintenance workers and property managers.”
Still, the needs of Crystal Towers’ population are just different than those at other properties, Cheshire said, and the reality is that while they are neither equipped nor funded to try to meet those needs, they do anyway.
While staff tries their best to address the facility issues within the building, they also try to address mental health, behavioral health, substance abuse and emotional health needs.
“That’s the situation we’re in and that’s the environment in which we are operating,” Cheshire said. “We’re doing our very best to manage a population that we’re not funded to manage.”
Cheshire said that many of his staff members either grew up in public housing or still live in it. “You’ve got people working in this industry who are doing it for the right reasons,” he said. “That’s not to say that they always get it right…. I don’t always get it right. But we’re here fighting this fight for the right reasons because we care about people.”
Cheshire also said that they have created a community engagement team, noting that the two positions are not typical HUD positions.
“We have had to identify a way to fund these positions because it is important to me that our agency provide services to residents and advocate for residents rather than simply manage the brick and mortar buildings,” Cheshire said.
Douglas wants to get an on-site social worker to assist residents and help meet their needs.
“We’ve got people in the building with mental health issues,” Douglas said. “We’ve got people in this building that could use some of the programs offered by the state, the county, the city… that they have no knowledge of.”
An onsite social worker might have helped resident Deborah Watkins, who told TCB that she had a seizure and laid on the floor of her apartment for two days before anyone checked in to help her. Watkins, who is missing both hands and lower legs, travels everywhere via an electric wheelchair, including going from picnic table to picnic table to visit with her neighbors.
“My nurse demanded a key from the office so she could get in to see what was wrong because she had been calling me and I didn’t answer my phone,” Watkins said.
In previous reporting by TCB, Watkins said she faced difficulties when the elevators would shut down.
“I can’t get to my doctor’s appointments,” she said. “I can’t get out of this building. I’m on the fourth floor. I can’t take the stairs.”
Douglas also said that Watkins is a perfect example of why the elevators needed to be working.
“She can’t go up and down no steps,” he said.
“If a fire catches in here, are you going to expect me to jump out the back? You crazy,” Watkins said.
‘They could do better’
Today, the building continues to house elderly and disabled residents in its 201 units of small and large one-bedroom apartments. But a younger population has been moving in, and now the ages of Crystal Towers’ residents now range from 23 to 84.
Most of the residents who aren’t homebound rely on public transportation, but a few own cars that are parked in an outside lot. In warmer weather, residents gather outside the building at the lobby entrance or at a few picnic tables that surround a garden area. The small community garden is surrounded by a metal wire gate and boasts dozens of large concrete pots that hold various plants and vegetables that the residents lovingly tend to.
During their meeting, Grief and Douglas brought up yet another issue faced by residents: the issue of paying and recording rent.
On occasion, they said, residents do not receive receipts proving their payment when they pay their rent. Rose, who has paid tenants’ rent in the past, made similar allegations.
“I’ve been in there with tenants where I had a cashier’s check if they were behind on rent and they asked us for help,” Rose said. “I said, ‘Can you please give me a receipt for my organization?’”
Rose claims he was met with a reply of, “I can’t do that right now, you’re gonna have to come back tomorrow,” from management staff.
Cheshire told TCB that staff at Crystal Towers report never having received any payment directly from Rose. Rose has “apparently paid online (through Rent Café),” Cheshire wrote, adding that payments through Rent Café automatically generate a receipt that is emailed to the resident and can be printed via the Rent Café portal.
“In the absence of a signed authorization from the resident, staff is not able to provide a receipt to Mr. Rose for payments made on behalf of residents,” Cheshire added. “This is because the receipt includes a full payment history and is, therefore, unable to be released without approval from the resident.”
Rose disputed Cheshire’s claim, stating that he has never paid a tenant’s rent online, and provided an email showing proof of his in-person payment to HAWS to TCB.
Despite the problems, at least one resident, who has lived at Crystal Towers for 15 years and preferred to remain anonymous, told TCB that he was grateful to be living there.
“When nobody else gives you a place to live and these people give you a place to stay, you ain’t got no other choice but to like living here,” he said.
As for the way the building is managed, the resident said: “They could do better. We all know that. They could do better. But I just appreciate them giving me a place to stay when I needed a place when nobody else would…. They opened the door…. If it weren’t for them, I’d probably be homeless.”
And those who are critical of HAWS and the state of Crystal Towers like Douglas and Grier know that Crystal Towers is a unique place. It exists for people like them who can’t afford to pay the ever-increasing rent prices in the city. But that’s all the more reason to continue advocating on behalf of each other, Douglas said.
Sitting on a bench next to the flourishing gardens, Douglas recalled the property manager of the building where he grew up with his father as child.
“I grew up in apartments down in South Carolina. And Miss Lockhart… I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Miss Lockhart,” he said.
Douglas said she’d ask his father, “You feed that boy today?”
“She would get in his shit and make him,” he said. “My daddy didn’t know no better.”
Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and rice was a staple in their home.
“That’s all my daddy could do to feed his child…. She made him take care of me,” he said.
This kind of attentiveness and care is what the building needs, Douglas said.
As Douglas, Grier and Watkins sat around a picnic table outside of the building chatting, they noticed a woman wearing red using her walker to stroll toward the community garden. Grier recognized the woman.
“This woman right here, with the red on… she doesn’t speak English,” he said. “She speaks French fluently… and her native tongue is Swahili or Kiswahili.”
He added that he is able to communicate with her by way of a translating app. Grier waved at the woman.
She smiled, and passed the picnic table into the garden.
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