Affordable housing is a top priority for Charlotte officials, and they want voters to approve a $50 million bond referendum to help build more of it. City officials are also monitoring the condition of existing affordable housing like the Lake Arbor Apartments in west Charlotte, where inspectors found numerous code violations.

Residents have complained of mold, roaches, sewage back-ups, and summertime air conditioning failures. Mayor Vi Lyles said the Lake Arbor complex is an important piece of the city’s affordable housing stock. 

Some repairs being made at Lake Arbor Apartments CREDIT GWENDOLYN GLENN

The 296-unit apartment complex sits just off of Tuckaseegee Road next to large, single-family homes. Those homes are a big contrast to Lake Arbor’s worn-looking apartments that line streets filled with big potholes, uncut grass, trash in places and many unit windows covered with cardboard. Janice Williams has lived at Lake Arbor for six years in two different buildings. “Down there were roaches,” Williams said. “The pipe under my sink was busted and I had to keep getting a wet vac to vacuum. My floor was soaked. And up here I never had air for two-and-a-half years.”

Williams said she pays $650 a month for the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her adult daughter. She said her complaints to management went unanswered until city officials learned about the condition of the complex and sent in code inspectors.

“They put a new window in her room and did my bathroom floor and they painted, but I’ve been here three years and they’re just now doing this stuff when the City of Charlotte got on it,” Williams said. “They haven’t done anything about the mold. They painted, but it’s still gonna be there.”

Janice Williams (left) and her daughter Kristy Bennett have lived at Lake Arbor for six years CREDIT GWENDOLYN GLENN

Others who complained about mold in their units also said bleach or other products were not used to get rid of the mold, and that it was simply painted over.

Andre Thompson has lived at Lake Arbor for two years. He said he has had issues with mold, but his worst problem has been sewage backups.

“They fixed it in five or six days, but it happened again and it was much worse,” Thompson said. “The bathroom — you couldn’t use it. The sewage came out of the toilet. It was creeping close to my furniture in the bedroom so I got all my stuff out.”

Thompson said the air conditioning does not work in the unit he’s in now.

A security guard at the leasing office said management had no comment and I was asked to leave. We were referred to the apartment complex’s attorneys. They did not respond to several phone messages and emails.

Last week, the city’s code enforcement manager Ben Christ made a presentation before the City Council on his department’s findings after inspecting all of Lake Arbor’s units in September.

“Some other common violations that we found were broken door jambs, unclean and unsanitary conditions, inoperable smoke detectors, some exposed electrical wiring, some face plates removed, damaged plumbing, damaged and unsanitary floor covering, rotting window sill and exterior lighting that’s broken,” Christ said.

Residents complain about uncut grass, air conditioners that don’t work, mold and sewage backups. CREDIT GWENDOLYN GLENN

Christ said tenants in nine apartments had to be relocated elsewhere because the conditions were so bad. He said most of the apartments failed inspections and 262 units are still being monitored. Christ said the city’s involvement has led to a couple of decks being rebuilt, some mechanical and HVAC systems being repaired and safety locks were placed on sliding doors. He said the housing code does not cover mold but adds that there are ways they can make landlords clean it up. “Mold manifests itself in other unsanitary conditions — in water-related violations as well as ventilation-related violations,” Christ said. “We do look at all of the components of HVAC and under the mechanical code, we address mold. Our ordinance allows us to address those issues.”

City officials say Lake Arbor is a key piece of Charlotte’s affording housing strategy. The supply is about 24,000 units short of demand. Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said they want the owners to bring the complex into compliance so it won’t have to be shut down.

“That’s a big complex, rents are starting in the $600s and there’s not a lot of that out there,” Eiselt said. “It’s very difficult in this day and age to build apartments that rent at that kind of level without some kind of subsidy. That’s why you’d hate to lose that kind of stock.”

Residents at Lake Arbor say they are not just concerned about the poor condition of their units, but safety is an issue as well. They tell stories of shootings, drug deals, stabbings and murders occurring at the complex.

“The first night we were here, my sister [and I] were sitting on the balcony and my sister ran in the house and she said people are shooting outside,” the tenant said. “A guy came around the corner with a gun that was huge and I said, ‘This is where we moved to. This is all I can afford right now but as quick as I can, I’m moving.’”

The tenant is a nursing student. She’s lived at Lake Arbor for five years and pays $900 in rent. She did not want to give her name because she said she knows of others being served with eviction notices after talking to the media or demanding repairs.

“Evicting a tenant in response to a tenant making a complaint about repairs to the landlord or to the City of Charlotte is a retaliatory eviction, and that is completely illegal under North Carolina laws,” said Isaac Sturgill, the supervising attorney for the housing unit at Legal Aid in Charlotte.

Sturgill is representing several tenants in cases against Lake Arbor. His office also did a presentation for residents on their rights — letting them know that things such as rat infestations, unsafe wiring, and appliances such as air conditioners that do not work are violations of the city’s housing code.

“If the landlord is aware that one of those imminently dangerous conditions exist on the property and refusing to fix it, it is unlawful for the landlord to collect any rent while that condition is still present on the property,” Sturgill said.

Sturgill represented Tonya Burris in her case against Lake Arbor. Burris, a school bus driver, lived there for a year with her husband and children in an apartment that had mold and was without air conditioning. Her rent was $925. She said her children with asthma ended up in the emergency room because of the mold. Burris complained to city officials about that and the lack of exterior lighting. She said soon afterward, she faced an eviction for money they did not owe.

“I went to them because I had to be at work at five in the morning and it is dark outside,” Burris said. “Under the stairs, I had to go down, it was pitch black. So, I felt it was a retaliatory eviction because we called the city on them. They didn’t know that we had copies of all of our money orders and a copy of the email where they accepted the money.”

Burris won her eviction case and the family now lives in a home they bought in Gastonia.

City officials say they have a team of inspectors at Lake Arbor daily to ensure that repairs are being made according to city codes. On Nov. 6, code enforcement officials are taking the complex’s owners to court to get the fixes they want in 11 Lake Arbor units.