Winston-Salem council pauses on rezoning that would displace poor residents

Spencer Drummond, a resident of West Side Apartments, told members of Winston-Salem City Council that rezoning the property and displacing tenants runs counter to the city's goal of eliminating homelessness.

Winston-Salem City Council called a “time-out” on a rezoning that will displace about 75 families — many of them elderly, poor, sick and disabled — to allow a developer to build new, more upscale apartments.

Several residents of West Side Apartments, located on the north side of Business 40 across from Baptist Hospital, described hardships associated with relocating in remarks to council members on Monday night.

“I have been under so much stress,” said Janice Faust, a resident. “I am on fixed income. I am disabled. I am very sick and I have nowhere else to go.

“I don’t want to go to the shelter,” she added. “I don’t have nowhere else to go. I don’t want to be homeless. Whoever’s buying all this property, think about us. There’s 75 of us. Where we gonna go [to find] affordable housing?” 

After the hearing, Faust said she gets by on her current rent of $440, but she has only been able to find one apartment community with comparable rent. But she can’t afford rental application fees, which run from $25 to $40. Other residents said moving costs, first-month deposits and fees for water, electricity and gas hookups are financially out of reach. 

To compound the difficulty of relocating, City Manager Lee Garrity indicated that the residents at West Side Apartments were the last to know about the owner’s plan to sell the property. 

“The tenants were not notified initially,” Garrity said. “The neighbors were notified.” 

Rob Hildebrand, president of the West Highlands Neighborhood Association, said his membership favored the rezoning because they want to keep the area residential although they hold some concerns about the height of the proposed buildings, called the Edge Apartments. 

“It’s deplorable the way we’ve been treated, the way that this has been handled,” Roderick Robertson, another West Side Apartments resident, told council. “It’s a mark that says something about the integrity of this city. We’re your constituents. I also need help. We all need help. There is no affordable housing in this price range. I implore you to have some compassion.” 

Residents received a letter from BCBB LLC, the current owner, on Sept. 21 stating, “We will also provide each tenant with a package of information on available units in the vicinity of West Side Apartments and the names and phone numbers of agencies that may offer assistance in the relocation effort.” 

Doug Stimel, a landscape architect speaking on behalf of the developer, said residents will have five to six months to relocate before construction begins in the spring. He said the current owner has identified upwards of 100 units priced between $325 and $525 per month within a two-mile radius of the site, adding that the current rent at West Side Apartments is about $460 per month. Stimel also said the developer is “willing to provide some moving assistance to those folks who are either elderly or handicapped or can’t move themselves.” 

“I’m disabled,” Ivan King said. “I had five heart attacks. I moved to West Side because it was all that I could afford…. I’m particular about where I move. Drugs — I really don’t want to be around bad neighborhoods.” 

Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, who represents the Northwest Ward where the apartments are located, said she had come to the meeting prepared to support the rezoning request, but after hearing from the residents suggested that the item be tabled for two weeks to give staff time to compile a list of social service agencies that could help residents with the transition. Council members unanimously supported the delay. 

Councilman Dan Besse, who chairs the council’s community development and housing committee, asked Garrity to direct staff “to identify appropriate resources and opportunities,” adding that under the rubric of homelessness prevention there might be federal funds available for rapid re-housing. The city manager agreed: “Short of financial assistance, we’ll use all the staff time that we need to assist the residents.” 

 Despite the pleas of the residents, there is little doubt that the rezoning will meet with eventual approval. 

“Rezoning considerations, as grounded in state law, focus on land use, density, traffic, environmental impacts, site design and consistency with adopted plans,” City-County Planning Director Paul Norby instructed council. “Those are the factors that have to be brought into consideration with a zoning. The city doesn’t have any authority to go in the relocation business or to require as a condition of rezoning to conduct relocation activities.” 

One council member indicated he might break ranks. 

Noting that almost a quarter of the city’s residents live in poverty, Southeast Ward Councilman James Taylor Jr. said he was not confident that all the tenants would be able to find affordable, comparable housing, and said he might not be able to support the rezoning request when it comes back to council in two weeks. 

Besse said the new apartments might conceivably be marketed to staff and students at nearby Baptist Hospital, a research facility. At a time when the market for high-end housing in downtown is growing, poverty remains persistent and political support for public housing appears to be waning in Washington, Besse said the city has no obvious solutions – or “no magic wand,” as he put it – for creating affordable housing. He wants to expand public transit so that more areas of the city have access to transportation. 

“Long term, we need to build in incentives for developers to include a percentage of affordable housing,” Besse said. “The clear tool you have to do that is to allow developers to increase density, but then you run into resistance from neighbors.” 

The council also voted unanimously to continue a request to rezone property on the corner of Clemmonsville Road and Hastings Avenue from residential to offices and services. The matter will be heard again on Nov. 5. 

The 0.37-acre parcel was once the site of a grocery store at a time when it was in an unincorporated part of the county. Norby said when the property was annexed by Winston-Salem, it became nonconforming. The property had a variety of retail uses from 1968 to 2010, when it closed. 

Upwards of a dozen residents from the area showed up at the council meeting to express their opposition to Julio Pando and Diego Rangel’s rezoning request. 

“This is a fight to restore and improve our neighborhood,” said Jesse Adams, who lives on Hastings Avenue. 

Carolyn Highsmith, president of Konnoak Hills Neighborhood Association, said her organization wants the property to remain residential because of concerns that commercial use would increase traffic congestion and cause accidents and that another business area would attract crime. Representatives of the Winston-Salem Neighborhood Alliance and the South Winston-Salem Community Alliance also went on record against the rezoning request. 

Staff members said the zoning designation requested by Pando and Rangel could include coin-operated laundries, dry cleaners, barbershops, computer repair services and internet sweepstakes parlors. 

Council members seemed sympathetic to the residents, but received conflicting information from legal staff about whether the property’s nonconforming status had expired. Typically, if a property with a nonconforming status such as a business in a residentially zoned area discontinues its use for more than a year then it loses its protected status. But Assistant City Attorney Jerry Kontos said it’s possible to interpret the city and county’s Unified Development Ordinance as saying that a property can maintain its nonconforming status as long as it’s on the market. Legal staff will research the matter before the next hearing.

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