CHARLOTTE, NC (Ely Portillo and Danielle Chemtob/Charlotte Observer) - As a single mother, Leslie Williams thought she’d never have a shot at owning a home.
But in 2000, when Habitat for Humanity built her a house just west of uptown in Seversville, all of the hours she had worked at multiple jobs had finally paid off. Everything was perfect — from the three, identical-sized bedrooms to the spacious kitchen.
“The American Dream is to own your own home, and I thought I needed a husband to do that,” she said. “But I did it myself.”
Almost 20 years later, Williams, a school bus driver for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, is close to paying off that house. Habitat for Humanity is covering her property taxes until she finishes making mortgage payments. But once she starts footing the bill, she has reason to worry — the house is now valued at $237,500, a 188 percent increase from its 2011 value.
“I was so happy to pay my house off, I thought I was gonna have a breather,” she said. “I see that’s not gonna happen.”
Like Williams, property owners across Mecklenburg County saw sharply higher values when the county sent out revaluation notices last month. But while most property values went up, the increases weren’t spread equally.
An Observer analysis of new property values shows that the most dramatic jumps in residential property values were concentrated in close-in neighborhoods near uptown. That includes historically black neighborhoods such as Biddleville, Seversville, Druid Hills, Optimist Park, Villa Heights, Belmont, Cherry and Grier Heights, which have seen influxes of new residents and investors buying up properties to rent, demolish and rebuild or remodel and flip.
Many of these neighborhoods saw residential property values shoot up by an average of more than 120 percent, with increases of 200 or even 300 percent in value not uncommon.
That doesn’t automatically mean tax bills will increase that much, since tax rates are set separately from property values, and local officials are likely to lower the rates to offset some of the increased home values. But the new values are still stirring fears about displacement in fast-changing neighborhoods. Tax breaks and deferrals for low-income, elderly and disabled residents are also available for people who meet certain thresholds, but not all homeowners are eligible.
‘WE KNEW WHAT WAS COMING’
James Atkinson’s light blue Habitat for Humanity-built house sits at the end of a cul-de-sac of single-family homes in Optimist Park, a neighborhood that stretches north along the Blue Line extension from uptown to NoDa. One day, he looked out his window at the newly opened Parkwood light rail stop, and was confronted with a new reality.
“A hair on my arm came up,” he said, “And I knew that things would change. And things rapidly did change.”
Now, hundreds of apartments are being built next to the station, just across the street from Atkinson’s home. The sense of identity that Atkinson, the president of the Optimist Park Community Association, had been pushing for for years was finally being recognized, but it had an unintended consequence: gentrification.
Atkinson’s house, which his mother moved into in the 1980s, is now valued at over $200,000, a 158 percent increase from 2011.
This is the county’s first revaluation since 2011, and the big increases in assessed values reflect the red-hot real estate market. The median increase in value for residential properties was 43 percent, Mecklenburg officials said. And when commissioners and City Council set new tax rates in the summer, properties with increases above the median rate of 43 percent are more likely to see their tax bills jump.
“I am concerned about the areas that have seen the highest levels of gentrification and the potential impact to residents in those areas,” said commissioner Mark Jerrell.
James Atkinson talks about gentrification as new construction towers right behind his Optimist Park home. New construction is causing higher property values, displacing or burdening many longtime neighborhood residents.
Community activist Colette Forrest paid $100,000 for her two-bedroom, two-bath home in Wesley Heights, just west of uptown, nearly 20 years ago. It appreciated gradually, and was valued at $133,000 in 2011. Now, the county says that same house is worth over $320,000, an increase of almost 250 percent.
The single mother is worried about how high her new property tax bill will be in July. But she’s not surprised. In what seemed like an overnight transformation, a vacant patch of grass down the block turned into condos selling for $425,000.
“My elderly neighbors began to worry when they saw whites moving in at such a quick pace,” she said. “When we saw all of that, we knew what was coming.”
Close to uptown, these neighborhoods have drawn waves of new residents over the past five years. In many cases the influx has been marked by new businesses like breweries, large new apartment buildings where studios start at $1,000 or more, and small mill houses torn down to make way for large, Craftsman-style homes that fill a lot almost to the property lines.
“They make the little bungalows next to them look like toy houses,” said Darryl Gaston, pastor of Smallwood Presbyterian Church and president of the Druid Hills Neighborhood Association. He said rising values can be a double-edged sword in his neighborhood north of uptown, between Statesville Avenue and Graham Street.
“I want my property value to increase because it’s my biggest investment,” said Gaston. He has reason to celebrate, in that regard: His house value jumped about 160 percent from 2011, from $70,900 to $184,500. But he’s quick to add: “I know, too, my family struggled with property tax and keeping it current. I’ve struggled in doing so too.”
A lifelong resident in Druid Hills, Gaston worries about the impact of higher tax values on longtime residents. Even if the ultimate tax bills won’t come out for months, he said people are talking.
“I think there’s a measure of distress among, especially, my seniors,” he said. “They’re proud of the homes they own, but they’re not so interested in paying more in their property taxes. It can be a little frightening.”
In neighborhoods near uptown, properties on each block tell the same story in more granular detail:
- Three houses on Belmont Avenue near Seigle Avenue that were valued at $79,000, $86,200 and $82,100 in 2011 are now assessed at $256,900, $247,700 and $248,000. That’s an average increase of more than 300 percent.
- A row of houses in Biddleville facing Five Points Park went from $73,400, $74,100 and $76,900 in 2011 to $170,700, $271,200 and $190,000 this year, meaning they more than doubled or tripled.
- In the Cherry neighborhood, $800,000 new homes have replaced smaller, older bungalows and duplexes. But homes that haven’t been substantially renovated have also seen their values soar. For example, three Cherry houses that date to the 1900s and 1920s and haven’t been renovated or expanded all more than tripled in value, going from $98,700 to $307,300; $88,200 to $312,500; and from $107,400 to $367,500.
How have property values in your neighborhood changed?
Williams welcomes many of the changes that have come to her west Charlotte neighborhood. She remembers when she called the police every weekend to report prostitution.
“Over time, this neighborhood has gotten better, and I’m glad for that,” she said. “I just hate the fact that it’s gotten better but now I can’t afford to live in it.”
Brandon Miller, executive director of the Youth Education Society, speaks to Charlotte City Council on Monday, Sept. 26, about how Charlotte's changing neighborhoods feed into the root causes of unrest that's rocked the city since Keith Lamont Sco
One reason it could be harder to find a new place for people who move: The average rent in Charlotte has risen by more than a third over the past five years, to $1,175 a month. Landlords who see higher tax bills could pass along the cost to renters.
“We already have a crisis,” said Jerrell, the commissioner. “If landlords have to push the additional costs onto renters, how does that help?”
Commissioner Pat Cotham said during the 2011 revaluation, when the county had to refund $100 million to residents who argued their properties had been overvalued, she spoke with people who lost their homes as a result of their tax bills. She’s pushing the county to lower the property tax rate to a level that brings in the same amount of money as before revaluation. The so-called “revenue neutral” rate would avoid hiking taxes on everyone, but the bills for individual properties could still go up or down.
“I remember hearing those tears on the phone,” she said. “These are the hard decisions commissioners have to make.”
Jerrell said the county needs to find ways to limit the impact of higher values on longtime residents, such as expanding the property tax deferral and reduction programs for low-income elderly or disabled residents.
“We will not fund our priorities on the backs of the poor and our most vulnerable,” said Jerrell.
Picture of a house at the sink window in Leslie Williams’ kitchen. Her house is now valued at $237,500, a 188 percent increase from its 2011 value.
Another factor in displacement: Investors are circling, offering to snap up properties for cash. Several people interviewed different neighborhoods — Druid Hills, Graham Heights, Seversville, Wesley Heights — described the constant drumbeat of offers they receive in the form of letters, fliers left on doors and phone calls.
“The cards come every week. I got a letter last week,” said Barbara Queen, who has lived in the Graham Heights neighborhood since 1968. A retiree and a widow, she said she makes too much in Social Security and her pension from Allstate to qualify for the county’s homestead tax breaks.
“It’s really getting scary to have people pursuing your property like this,” said Queen. Her home value went up about 40 percent. Queen appealed her tax value during the last property revaluation and succeeded in getting her property value reduced. This time, she’s keeping a wary eye out for an increase.
“If you don’t sell your property and the tax value keeps going up, you won’t be able to pay your taxes,” she said. “It’s like you’re being squeezed out no matter what.”
Forrest has seen her neighbors take offers to purchase their properties for cash at below market value, a practice she believes is predatory. She even received a contract in the mail, with an offer to buy her home for $200,000.
“Two hundred thousand seems like a lot of money to some people,” she said. But, “there’s nowhere in Charlotte I can move to, especially with me being a parent.”
On Edison Street in Druid Hills, where Gaston lives, he estimates there are about 20 rental properties, including a second house that he owns that has tripled in value. He’s received offers to sell his property, which he isn’t considering. But Gaston thinks investors who own other properties will be tempted to sell when they see the appreciation.
“I think it will certainly be a catalyst for some people to sell,” Gaston said. “This tax revaluation will play a role in gentrification, especially for renters.”
Williams, 52, doesn’t know where she would go if she couldn’t afford the taxes on her house. She makes $25,000 a year as a school bus driver, and took home only $7,000 from her second job at a transition house.
“I can’t imagine starting over,” she said. “I don’t feel like starting over. I feel like I’m too old.”