It’s easy to see why a developer would be attracted to the Forest Hills Apartments complex in Garner.
Not far from the heavily trafficked intersection of U.S. 70 and Vandora Springs Road, the apartments are within walking distance of a Food Lion, several restaurants, a church, a dentist, and Garner’s first bottle shop, the Beerded Lady.
Built in 1981 and long operated as federally subsidized housing, Forest Hills, which has about 130 units, has been home to some of the same folks for decades. But on March 15, residents received notice from the Chapel Hill-based Eller Capital Partners, which had bough the complex in February, that they would have to pay market-rate rent that was several times higher than their typical payments for April, then vacate by May 1.
A week after notifying residents via first-class mail, ECP principal Daniel Eller changed his stance on when the residents would have to leave; on Friday, he announced that they could stay put until after the school year ended in mid-June. But the change only occurred after the planned displacement caused a stir from Vandora Springs Road to Chapel Hill, amid increased awareness about the shortage of affordable housing in the Triangle.
“We’ve got people that have been here for thirty-five years,” fifty-nine-year-old Phyllis Williams, who has lived in Forest Hills for seven years, told the INDY. “Where are they planning on going? We cannot afford to be kicked out, because there are no waiting lists for subsidized housing.”
Five days after the notices went out to residents, community activist Octavia Rainey made a fiery speech before the Wake County Board of Commissioners. “There was no human integrity in how they did this,” Rainey told the board. “They won’t even talk to us. This is Wake County, and it should be a place for all of us in here.”
The March 15 letter from the landlord read, in part: “In purchasing Forest Hills Apartments, ECP has made the business decision to completely renovate and rehabilitate the community and its individual apartment homes; as such, Forest Hills will not be renewing any expired lease agreements, nor continuing month to month terms.”
Board members James West, Jessica Holmes, Greg Ford, and chairman Sig Hutchinson told Rainey and about two dozen Forest Hills residents that Wake County staff would explore their situation and see how they could help.
“Within twenty-four hours of the residents’ even notifying us of this situation at this meeting on Monday, we immediately starting calling all the parties,” Ford told the INDY a few days later. “We want to know, what processes do we need to put into place so that we and residents are properly notified? If there is a policy in place, we want to make sure it’s followed. Regardless, there was not appropriate notice to these residents. Common sense tells me we could be doing better on this.”
On Thursday, before Eller announced the delay, the fast-approaching relocation was all the talk among Forest Hills residents. The imbroglio struck Dominique Perry, a twenty-eight-year-old who lives at Forest Hills with her kindergartener daughter, especially hard. She lost a job that she likedloading trucks at a nearby Targetbecause she missed work to attend a meeting about the landlord’s actions, she said. (Target’s corporate office declined to comment.)
Residents there know that society attaches significance to people who get government assistance. But Williams said her subsidized rent allows her to meet other obligations: “With the help the government is giving us, we are able to make it.”
Perry said she was staggered by the news of the rent increase. “They told me I would have to pay seven hundred and fifty-seven dollars a month,” Perry said. Her current rent is a small fraction of that.
Beyond losing their apartments, residents said they would miss the relationships they’ve built in this community. They also worried that, even if they could find new places to live, the community’s children would have to transfer to new schools midway through their second semester.
Two days after the INDY first reported on the matter last Tuesday, Eller issued a statement explaining ECP’s stance. The company’s Eller Residential Living division does not accept government subsidies for residents, it noted, offering a reason for the residents’ displacement: “Through an extensive physical due diligence process, the company determined that many years of neglect and disrepair has contributed to unacceptable, substandard living conditions for many residents of the apartment community.”
Last year, Eller was named one of the Triangle Business Journal‘s “40 under 40,” a designation recognizing “outstanding professionals under the age of 40 for their contributions to their organizations and to the community.” He was also named the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professional of the Year.
But for Cecilia Ebron, who lives with her mother in Forest Hills, Eller was the man who wanted to hike her dementia-addled mother’s rent from $91 to $655 a month. “Some people’s checks don’t even amount to the market rent,” Ebron told the INDY the day after the commission meeting.
On Friday, Eller issued another statement, characterizing it as a change in plans, but not a big one. Residents would be able to stay on until June 15 at subsidized rents, he said.
“There is really no notable change in our plans other than that we agreed with several people who raised concerns about residents having to relocate prior to the end of the current school year and the impact this could have on students. It is a valid concern so we addressed it,” Eller wrote. “We have been and will continue to work very closely with the Raleigh and Wake Housing Authorities to coordinate an orderly moving process for the residents.”
Even though the residents of Forest Hills apartments are getting an extra seventy-five days for their housing search, they’re unlikely to find new homes quicklyat least, ones they can afford. Wake County already faces an affordable housing crisis, with more than a quarter of its families identified as cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing.
In Wake, one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties, situations such as the one faced by the Forest Hills residents are likely to multiply. The apartments they’re vacating are only about fifteen minutes from the heart of downtown Raleigh, and plenty of people who don’t need subsidized rent will likely fill the former Section 8 slots. They’ll come once Eller’s company completes its refurbishing and renovation.
“Generally, the housing stock in Wake County is particularly limited right now,” says Alicia Arnold, housing and transportation division director for Wake County.
Several residents at Forest Hills have disabilities and are likely to experience trauma as they leave places they’ve called homes for decades, residents say.
“I’m there with my mom because she has dementia,” Ebron says. “She’s going to go down a tailspin. People with dementia have a pattern. If I park on the other side of the street, it confuses her.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Nowhere to Go.”