From the Front Lines: Greensboro, North Carolina

Conceived and supported by The Kresge Foundation and launched in 2009 to address health issues that deriving from in-home environmental hazards, the Advancing Safe and Healthy Homes Initiative (ASHHI) was a national program that grew from a Kresge Health Program initiative to reduce childhood lead poisoning into a comprehensive effort to address home dangers such as asthma-triggering allergens, fire hazards, substandard insulation, and weatherization; repair problems, like broken steps and railings; and neighborhood nuisances, like abandoned buildings that invite crime. The six ASHHI community sites focused their efforts on local housing units in which they intended to reduce childhood lead poisoning, asthma-related medical events, and home safety hazards through policy making, advocacy/community organizing, and legal enforcement.

People Are Dying

“On a daily basis I have to see moms cry, kids go to the hospital; fathers reach the end of their ropes in frustration because some landlords want to save a few bucks and not make repairs that will turn into much bigger problems later on. I’ve already had one client pass away, I have another one who is dying, and it’s as a result of substandard housing,” said Jana Raczkowski, Greensboro Housing Coalition.

Coalition Gains Advocate, Helps Family, Presses City Officials for Change

In the fall of 2012, a whistle-blowing North Carolina property management employee became the catalyst for a local family getting the relief from inhumane living conditions they were enduring, and the Greensboro Housing Coalition (GHC) got a valuable new employee in return.

In September 2012, Maurisha McGinnis, an employee of Palmetto Equity Group, encountered a family living in a rental house which was infested with mold, sewage backups, and an inoperable air conditioning system. The family repeatedly tried to get Palmetto to fix the problems but was unsuccessful – they turned to GHC for help. As a mother of a young child herself, McGinnis knew she couldn’t simply stand by and let the Mendez family be exposed to such unhealthy conditions and eventually went public with the story.

The Greensboro Housing Coalition was able to get city officials to mandate that repairs be made within weeks. Conditions were so bad, however, that GHC officials insisted the family of five move out immediately, which they did, first into a hotel and a few weeks later into a permanent apartment, thanks to guidance from the Coalition. It’s extremely fortunate they moved when they did, because as of March 2013, the problems in their former residence still had not all been addressed.

The lack of action resulted in GHC officials and the family’s mother appearing before the Greensboro City Council in an effort to seek improved enforcement of the city’s housing codes. “Right now, there are far too many landlords who ignore city mandates to fix problems because they believe they won’t be fined or criminally prosecuted if they don’t,” said GHC Director Beth McKee-Huger. “They are showing complete disrespect for the inspection process.”

Fortunately, city officials agree that housing codes need greater enforcement and new laws should be enacted to ensure that problems are addressed in a timelier manner. It is uncertain, however, when that will become a reality in a city which sees hundreds of violations occurring each year. GHC remains steadfast in the pressure they are applying. “We won’t rest until current codes are enforced and new laws are enacted which prevent families from being forced to live in inhumane living conditions,” said McKee-Huger.

In the meantime, McGinnis left her position at Palmetto and accepted a temporary position with GHC. Her long experience in the property management field then led to a full-time job with GHC, and she couldn’t be happier. “It has been a blessing, and I get to help other people,” said McGinnis, whose helping hand to a family in need resulted in her landing a job she loves and disproving the age-old adage that no good deed shall go unpunished.

Bus Tour Promotes Progress

Each fall, Coalition members take a bus tour to review and shoot footage of programs that are working to make housing healthy. The footage is used to produce a video to show other members of the community about the possibilities that exist if more people get involved. Although much has been accomplished, there is more work to be done to make Greensboro a true healthy homes community.

The Ashley Creek Story

Since 1974, when 225 apartments were built in a flood plain, complicated by highway construction that exacerbated flooding, tenants have suffered deteriorating housing conditions at the hands of a series of owners. Greensboro Housing Coalition got calls from tenants and counted dozens of serious safety hazards, so they produced a video of the situation which they showed to city council members and the current owner. GHC also held signs just outside the property so that tenants could know they were standing up for them (article here). The owner immediately started making some repairs, and an investment company specializing in restoring distressed properties began due diligence to purchase the apartments. Recognizing the severity of the hazards, the new investors asked the City of Greensboro for a loan (article here) and requested that GHC work with them through its Landlord-Tenant Partnership (advising landlords about repairs and tenants about their responsibilities). When this model works, GHC will advocate that the city use the repaid loan to leverage other owners to invest in quality rehabilitation of Greensboro’s other substandard properties.

The Rat House Story

A young mother of three children under six years old rented a house from a licensed real estate broker with a history of discrimination and substandard housing. She called Greensboro Housing Coalition when she fell through the rotten floor while showing the city code enforcement inspector the problems in the house. Rats ran out of the crawl space, across the foot of the inspector. GHC showed a video interview of her story to the city council at the public hearing before the vote on the new code enforcement policy. The policy was approved on a 9-0 vote, after almost two years of negotiations with city council members and rental industry lobbyists.