October 04, 2012The High Point City Council on Monday, Oct. 1 carried through with three years of threats to order the demolition of most of an apartment complex in the 500 block of Meredith Street owned by Schwarz Properties LLC of Asheboro.
The City Council had talked for years about demolishing the apartment complex, most of which was vacant and which city inspectors said was not fit for human habitation – a claim backed by photographs of the complex that the High Point Inspections Department submitted to the City Council yearly.
The vote to order the demolition of seven of the company's 10 four-apartment buildings was unanimous. The City Council did not order the demolition of two other buildings in the complex fronting on Leonard Street in which, during the three-year tug-of-war between the city and the company, repairs and renovations had been made.
On July 19, 2010, the City Council voted unanimously to vacate and close almost all of the complex. Councilmembers said that Schwarz Properties had made no repairs to the apartments, most of which were boarded up and crumbling.
City councilmembers and neighbors of the apartment complex have described it as one of the worst slums in High Point. Representatives of Schwarz Properties, who only sporadically appeared before the City Council to promise to renovate the buildings, or to explain not having done so, cited it as an example of the difficulty of owning and managing rental properties in high-poverty, high-crime High Point neighborhoods.
A North Carolina city cannot demolish a privately owned property until a year after the City Council orders it vacated and closed, and that year passed in November 2011. At that time, Schwarz Properties offered to fix a building a month, meaning the complex would have been up to code after eight months of work.
After the City Council gave the complex numerous reprieves, the High Point Planning and Development Department on August 20, 2012 again proposed demolishing the buildings. At that meeting, attorney Ben Albright, representing Schwarz Properties, said the owner of the company, Jeffrey Schwarz, was ill and the City Council unanimously voted to give Schwarz Properties a 30-day reprieve, warning Albright that the City Council was serious about demolition.
On Monday, the City Council proved that.
Schwarz Properties was represented by David Barleycamp, one of its property managers. Barleycamp defended the company as doing the best it could under difficult circumstances. He said the Meredith Street apartment complex is an example of the difficulties landlords face trying to renovate rental units in bad neighborhoods in High Point.
Barleycamp showed the councilmembers pictures of boarded up units in the apartment complex and of a new line of electric meters he said the company had recently installed. He said one of the pictures showed that, only two or three days after the meters were installed, one was stolen.
When Councilmember Bernita Sims asked Barleycamp why the company boarded up the apartments, he replied, "To keep the thieves and vandals out." The apartment complex is only three blocks from the High Point Police Department headquarters at 1009 Leonard Ave.
It wasn't the first time the City Council had accused a landlord of failing to maintain rental properties – or the first time a landlord argued that every time a building was repaired, it was burgled, vandalized and often stripped clean of salable metal. High Point has neighborhoods composed largely of empty houses with such damage.
The City Council's effort to close and demolish the apartment complex has been distinguished primarily by the length of time it has taken and by the size of the complex, which contains 39 units.
Barleycamp said some of the pictures showed damage done to apartments the company had recently renovated. He said the damage included stolen carpets and water heaters and broken kitchen cabinets.
"We rented to them, we evicted them," he said. "We put more people in there and they squatted. They devour the properties."
Councilmembers, however, said that Schwarz Properties had many opportunities and methods it could have used to renovate the apartment complex. Councilmember Chris Whitley, for example, said the company could have fenced in the entire complex until all the buildings had been renovated.
Barleycamp said, "If you want to leave them standing, that may be a thing to do."
Barleycamp had no proposal as to how the company could renovate the buildings, although he said they had sound foundations and roofs and were worth renovating. He asked for more time, saying that only Schwarz had authority to order units renovated.
High Point Mayor Becky Smothers said that Barleycamp's entire argument on the cost of renovations and the difficulty of finding responsible tenants makes it unlikely the company will be able to renovate the buildings.
Smothers said, "You described that at the very beginning, which says to me that there's no sense in doing any of it."
Barleycamp said there was.
Smothers replied, "But I hear you say you can't do it."
Barleycamp said that, since he began working on the complex, progress had been made.
"I can't predict the future," he said. "I can tell you we've kept the buildings secure. We've tried to keep the buildings clean with the yard and so forth … We're doing a lot of things. We're going in the right direction."
Barleycamp said he usually deals with commercial properties and tries to avoid residential ones. He said he has taken on more residential properties only because Schwarz is sick. He said, "It's a whole different animal."
The councilmembers were in no mood for more promises after three years of trying to get the apartment complex either fixed up or demolished.
"You tell us to bear with you," said Councilmember Foster Douglas. "We've done that for three years. It's been two years since those properties were vacated."
Richard Jenkins, a neighbor of the complex, recited a diary he kept throughout the entire month of September on what workers had done on the complex. He said that no work had been done except for lawn mowing and picking up some trash, even though workers showed up on several days. He said that on Sept. 4, "They moved the truck about a foot and no one got out."
Jenkins said he had seen non-residents of the complex entering and leaving closed units, and suspected drug use, although he could not see what was going on inside the building. He described the apartment complex as an eyesore and said he is afraid for his grandchildren.
"I can look out my front door every day," he said. "I can look across and see what's going on."
After the vote, Smothers said, "Thank all you neighbors for your continued and consistent interest in your neighborhood."