Saturday, January 05, 2008

Making low-income housing safer

Merry Oaks residents greeted the new year with news of a shooting on Arnold Drive that left one man dead and another charged with murder.
Neither party was a resident of the neighborhood, or of the nearby Hillcrest Apartments where the shooting occurred.

Still, the neighborhood cares: about perception of the neighborhood, about safety and about the family of the victim and about the law-abiding residents of the apartments.
Neighborhood online forum participants are more than tired of the crime in nearby low-income apartments. The regional property manager for Westminster Properties, owners of the Hillcrest Apartments, has responded on the neighborhood Google group, saying recent legislative changes have made it more difficult for providers of low-income housing to control crime by non-residents.

Many questions surface, from a variety of perspectives:
How much money are the owners making from the federal Section 8 housing program? Does that program work when it fills entire complexes with low-income residents and counts on local police to manage the problems? Are there better alternatives to housing low-income people? How can those property owners control non-residential access? How can cities filled with growth and new condos provide low-income housing without concentrating crime and school resegregation? Would increasing incentives for police officers, firefighters and EMT works to live in such complexes help? How can neighbors help?

Charlotte has a history of strong, nonprofit, efficient organizations that make change happen. Perhaps the community can find ways to improve policies and programs to increase safety for low-income housing residents and nearby neighborhoods.

Some resources:
The N.C. Housing Coalition The organization, based in Raleigh, states its mission is to lead a campaign for housing to ensure that working families, people in crisis, seniors, and persons with disabilities may live with dignity and opportunity. Safety is a key part of their efforts.
Housing Charlotte: An initiative to find new solutions to address Charlotte's growing affordable housing problem.

Other references:
Westminster Properties, the owners of Hillcrest. You can get a list of their other Charlotte properties.
Grier Heights Neighborhood Initiative: a pdf document listing community efforts to improve the Grier Heights neighborhood several years back, including the owners of Grier Park Apartments giving the keys to their rental office to the police. I'm unclear whether Westminster owned those apartments at the time. The company owns those apartments now, according to its website.

Text of the note from Bert Wray, regional property manager of Westminster Properties, posted on the Merry Oaks neighborhood Google group:

"Dear Merry Oaks neighbors,

Our new year has unfortunately stepped off with the tragic event that unfolded in the early hours of Tuesday morning. As a representative of the 48 families that reside at Hillcrest Apartments, I, as well as my staff on-site, am just as concerned about the criminal activity that has literally been brought to the front pages over the past months.

As an introduction, as the Regional Property Manager for Westminster Company, I represent the owners of Hillcrest Apartments as part of a nationally accredited property management organization. I oversee the management of seven properties in the Charlotte area. Westminster Company specializes in the management of affordable or subsidized housing. Due to the nature of our mission, security is a major priority for me and my staff. Every resident that enters into a lease with our property has passed a criminal and credit screening, as well as landlord references. We are serious about our stance against drugs and crime and use our contracts that we sign with our residents as our only form of enforcement. Let me emphasize that these steps apply to our lease-signing residents. The violent crimes that have occurred at Hillcrest Apartments in the past months have been at the hands of individuals who do not live in our community. They do, however, visit within the community and have ties to Hillcrest Apartments. It is these “visitors” that are the source of our pain and I have little to no means of screening these individuals or even identifying them.

Our most important ally in our war against crime is the police department. We have an excellent relationship with CMPD and its officers. We have always made proactive strides to improve our security to prevent crime instead of reacting to crime. We have openly expressed our need to ban any non-residents who commit crimes in or around our property. Recent legislation changes have made this process impractical and almost impossible. As the landlord, we must be present with CMPD and the individual to be banned, in order to legally ban them from the property. As we all know, the activity that would lead to these bans almost always occurs outside of business hours when the manager is not on site. In the past, we could enter an agreement with CMPD authorizing any officer to execute a trespass order without our presence. As far as our residents at Hillcrest, everyone who has been arrested for criminal activity, or had direct involvement in such activity has been given a lease termination. However, enforcement of that termination ultimately is in the hands of our magistrates.

Making a long story short, many of our limitations in limiting crime within our community stem from decisions and legislation that are made by municipalities and organizations that like to look at the big picture without zooming in on reality. That reality is that our police force needs the freedom to identify and remove individuals who are known cancers to our community. I have asked representatives of Eastway Division CMPD for a list of apartment managers in the area so we can share information to prevent recycling any poor residents and their guests.

As law abiding citizens and residents, I enlist your help to pressure the powers that be to authorize the necessary power to enable CMPD and landlords to eliminate problems, and potential problems, from our community. Also, understand that we at Hillcrest Apartments have an important yet challenging role to provide affordable housing to families in need as an opportunity to better their lives and positively impact society.

Bert Wray
Regional Property Manager
Westminster Company"

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