Featured photo: Crystal Towers resident Samuel Grier stands in front of the building in 2023 (photo by Jerry Cooper)

Winston-Salem’s Sixth Street juts out of Broad Street, making a beeline through the downtown Arts District and Trade Street’s charismatic mecca.

On the path to downtown’s attractions stands an 11-story highrise built in the 1970s called Crystal Towers, located in the city’s Northwest Ward, home to nearly 200 elderly and disabled residents.

But it’s an accident waiting to happen, and as the Camel City’s skyline saw in late January, disaster came in the form of a fire.

On Jan. 23 around 3 p.m., traffic was halted on Sixth Street in front of the building and red lights from fire trucks blazed around the highrise, smoke engulfing its fourth and fifth floors. No one was killed, but the property damage and personal losses to one resident’s apartment amounted to around $10,000 and their cat reportedly died in the fire. Residents poured out of the building, but many sheltered in place, especially those on higher floors. While the building has two elevators, only one currently works because the other is being replaced. The next week there were two kitchen fires, which further disturbed residents because the building doesn’t have sprinklers. The building is owned by the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem. Kone, an elevator engineering company, began repairing the first elevator in September, work initially due to be completed around Thanksgiving. In December, HAWS Executive Director Kevin Cheshire told WFDD that work was expected to wrap up in January — it didn’t. 

At a housing meeting on Jan. 18, Cheshire said that this first elevator car would be fully modernized in the next “days or weeks.” After days and weeks went by and the elevator car still wasn’t in service, TCB sent a Jan. 30 email to Cheshire inquiring as to the status of the elevators. Cheshire did not respond to that email.

At a March 12 HAWS commissioners meeting Cheshire blamed the delays on NC Department of Labor inspections. Plus, their lead mechanic abruptly quit.

The inspection is now scheduled for March 19; HAWS anticipates that the car will be operational by March 20.

Once it’s ready, they’ll start replacing the second car, which has new flooring as of Feb. 21. The replacement process is slated to take 10-12 weeks, the same amount of time HAWS claimed the first elevator would take.

“It seems like Murphy’s law over and over again,” Cheshire said of Crystal Towers’ woes. “If it can go wrong out there, it will.”

Over the summer of 2023, Cheshire told TCB that HAWS is doing their “very best” to manage a population that they’re “not funded to manage.”

Cheshire added 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.”

On Jan. 23, 2024, a fourth floor apartment in Winston-Salem’s Crystal Towers caught fire. (photo by Gale Melcher)

What does the funding for Crystal Towers and other public housing in Winston-Salem look like?

By 2018, the living situation at Crystal Towers had become untenable. Bedbugs crawled the hallways, laundry rooms flooded and the two elevators were constantly out of service.

“To keep [residents] in that condition, we think is unconscionable,” former HAWS director Larry Woods told city councilmembers at a Sept. 2018 committee meeting.

The plan was to sell the building, give each resident a Section 8 voucher and move them to other locations. HAWS would pay for residents’ moving expenses, too.

With some tenants paying rents as low as $50, the operating costs were unsustainable, Woods said, adding that in order to keep up with maintenance costs, the building needs a stream of money from somewhere and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, is not providing it. 

“The money just isn’t there,” Woods said.

High-rises like Crystal Towers have been deteriorating for decades, and there’s a reason for that, Northwest Ward Councilmember Jeff MacIntosh told TCB

“The federal government does not want poor people living in concentrations like Crystal Towers, especially in high-rise concentrations,” said MacIntosh, who has been working in real estate since the 1980s, and has restored at least 30 properties in the city. “The reason that it’s in the shape that it’s in, the reason it’s undermaintained, is because the federal government doesn’t want that facility to exist.”

Between Oct. 1-Jan. 31, HAWS collected $210,898 in rent from Crystal Towers’ tenants.

But the building’s expenses amounted to more than $550,000.

In order to keep Crystal Towers afloat, HAWS would need help from the city, Woods said in 2018. 

“This city would have to make an additional commitment on a subsidy on a federal property forever,” he said. “I cannot ask the city to do that.” 

Woods also warned that the cost could escalate if building and labor costs increased as time went on, and it did. The cost of building maintenance and repair jumped up by 19 percent between December 2018-July 2021 according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Back in 2019, those repair costs were estimated at $7 million. In 2022, Cheshire said the estimate was $10 million, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. At this point, MacIntosh’s guess is $20 million. 

The money they’re losing on Crystal Towers is “therefore not available to spend on other housing for other people,” MacIntosh said. “With $20 million, you could provide a lot of good housing for a lot of people.”

While some residents agreed that it was time to go, other residents and local activists fought tirelessly against the sale of the building. In January 2022, Joines appeared to cave to public pressure and announced that the city would help HAWS finance the renovations.

Joines’ decision was “from the hip, spur of the moment,” MacIntosh said, adding that other city leaders such as himself were not consulted.

“It was not discussed on council prior to; in fact, it never got to committee for discussion,” MacIntosh said.

“I was disappointed that the sale fell apart,” he  added.

Joines told TCB in June 2023 that the city isn’t sure how much money they’ll be giving HAWS for Crystal Towers. 

“We’ve talked in the range of $2 million, but we’re waiting on them to make an official request,” Joines said.

But the building belongs to HAWS and is not within the purview of the city, leaving leaders like Joines and MacIntosh with no real financial responsibility. 

“I’ve never voted on something that says the city is obligated to put money in the hat for that project,” MacIntosh said. 

Northwest Ward Councilmember Jeff Macintosh (Photo by the City of Winston-Salem)

What is life like in public-housing high rises in the city?

The energy around Crystal Towers’ resident activism is undeniable. Resident Michael Douglas worked with local organizations and the county to bring a health fair to the building’s lobby in November 2023, and residents have stormed HAWS’s headquarters on Fourth Street and city hall to demand answers as to why repairs to their building are taking so long.

Due in large part to the residents’ activism, HAWS has renovated the lobby and laundry facilities, but the building still has a long way to go. Once both elevators are upgraded, the building will undergo an assessment and a scope of work will be identified. Currently, the building doesn’t have a sprinkler system or HVAC.

“First of all, everyone has to move out of that building in order to install sprinklers,” MacIntosh said. “You cannot work around the existing tenants.” 

MacIntosh is concerned about the safety of residents with physical and mental disabilities.

“It’s not a good situation for people to live in. I mean, that building is a death trap.”

In 2017, West London was rocked by tragedy when a blaze engulfed the 24-story concrete Grenfell Tower, killing 72 of the building’s 300 residents.

Similarly, Crystal Towers is made of brick, and while it doesn’t have the now-banned flammable exterior cladding that betrayed Grenfell, smoke inhalation is incredibly deadly, and it’s the No. 1 cause of fire-related deaths

During the blaze of Jan. 23, the fire was contained to a single apartment, but the smoke engulfed the fourth and fifth floors. A resident said that while they were evacuating the building, they could hear people who were stuck in the elevator “banging on stuff.”

Some tenants on higher floors had no option but to shelter-in-place during the catastrophe.

Resident Samuel Grier, who lives on the 11th floor, wasn’t able to leave the building until the fire was put out. 

“One of the maintenance men advised me to get on the balcony,” Grier said.

And while that’s terrifying, MacIntosh notes, “I don’t think there’s a better plan.”

HAWS is also upgrading the elevators at Healy and Sunrise Towers, both built in the 1970s like Crystal Towers. And just like Crystal Towers’ 201 units, these buildings were created to house the elderly on a mass scale. Healy Towers has 105 units while Sunrise Towers has 195. There are 3,406 people on the waiting list for a unit in Sunrise Towers, 1,988 on Healy’s and only 360 on Crystal’s.

Healy Towers resident Edith Chisholm suffers from a back injury and has had five surgeries on her hip. She’s lived in the building since 2007.

Once when the elevator was down, she waited nearly two hours in the hopes that it would be fixed, she told TCB. Eventually, she just decided to climb the stairs to her apartment. On her ascent, she noticed one neighbor hauling their wheelchair down the stairs. Then she saw another neighbor, a “very frail person” who uses an electric scooter, taking “baby steps” while Willie, his friend, helped carry his scooter down the stairs.

“I was so frightened,” Chisholm said. “Suppose Mr. Willie had stumbled on those stairs and dropped that thing on him? He could have been dead on the spot.

“Anything could have happened that day,” she reflected.

Chisholm told TCB that she doesn’t feel heard by building management and maintenance workers. She also noted that the building has bedbugs. 

“My biggest concern is how we are treated,” Chisholm said. “We’re not treated with respect, dignity…. It’s the same thing at Crystal Towers.”

But she still loves her home.

“It’s a nice place to live,” she added. “This is a very nice community.”

But MacIntosh feels that risky building conditions outweigh the comfort that community brings to residents of Crystal Towers.

“My concern for their safety and well-being outweighs everything else,” he said. “If somebody dies in that building, if there’s a major fire and we have a real disaster, all the talk about community and wanting to stay there goes out the window.… You don’t want to displace people if you don’t have to, but it’s a terrible place to live when you’re under that kind of threat constantly, and I don’t know that people recognize that.”

But as for the building ever being sold, MacIntosh thinks they missed that “window of opportunity” presented in years past.

“What developer would want to approach that political firefight?” he asked.

Samuel Grier and members of Housing Justice Now collect signatures for their petition to let residents stay in Crystal Towers (photo by Rachael Fern)

Hope for the future?

MacIntosh called TCB on his journey back from Washington, DC, where he and other city leaders attended the annual National League of Cities conference from March 11-13.

“We all face similar issues with housing, and there’s a very strong cry from cities around the state, cities around the country, for assistance from outside,” MacIntosh said.  “It cannot be fixed locally in my opinion; the financing really has to come from state and federal sources.”

According to MacIntosh, Winston-Salem has “struggled with coming up with a coherent and consistent housing policy about how we’re going to participate and how we’re going to fund things.” Even so, he hinted at some future projects.

While he said he couldn’t give details on what council and HAWS staff were planning, he told TCB that they were trying to “come up with a solution to getting people out of that building.”

“It’s not like we’ve thrown up our hands and said, ‘We’ve got to live with this,’” he added.

MacIntosh said that if it were up to him, he’d put the money being spent on renovations toward relocating residents to areas where there are more services.

Downtown is a destination spot for upscale dining, but is lacking in grocery stores. For Crystal Towers’ residents, one of the closest places to get groceries is 4 Brothers, a convenience store in the BP gas station on the corner of Broad and Fifth streets. The Fourth Street CVS shuttered in January, leaving many downtown residents scrambling to figure out where they were going to pick up their medications, according to reporting by the Winston-Salem Journal.

During his trip, MacIntosh said he met people from other cities who had some ideas. He thinks they’re “worth exploring,” adding that there’s “some light at the end of the tunnel.”

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