Carrboro leaders propose taking over a contentious low-income housing complex

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Former Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Dan Coleman proposed on Dec. 17 that the town take over Collins Crossings under eminent domain.

Two months ago, Juan Cervantas left his apartment in Collins Crossing Apartment Homes in search of cheaper rent — and better management.

“They don’t like anyone,” Cervantas said of the complex’s primary owner, Alcurt Carrboro LLC.

Cervantas, a day laborer in Carrboro, said rising rent pushed him out of his apartment.

A MOUNTING CONTROVERSY

Collins Crossing management has recently evoked reactions from renters and the town:

Nov. 3: Collins Crossing residents protested rising rents at the complex.
Nov. 24: A 10-year-old boy fell through a deteriorating stairwell.
Jan. 8: The town of Carrboro mandated 24 or the 25 stairwells be fixed by March 4.

His story represents an ongoing struggle in Collins Crossing between improving the complex and maintaining its affordability. And now, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen is stepping in to protect residents like Cervantas.

In a Dec. 17 email to the board, former Alderman Dan Coleman asked if the town could take over Collins Crossing under the eminent domain provision of the Constitution.

His proposal — which has yet to be legally vetted — met support from Aldermen Sammy Slade, Michelle Johnson and Lydia Lavelle.

The eminent domain clause allows governments to take over private property without owner consent. The clause has historically been invoked to take over property for the construction of projects like highways and railroads.

But Coleman argued that per the Kelo decision — a 2005 Supreme Court decision which upheld the use of eminent domain to transfer ownership of private property in the interest of furthering economic development — Carrboro’s transaction might be legal.

Representatives from Aspen Square Management, the property’s managing company, could not be reached for comment.

The proposal surfaced alongside a decision by the Old Well Owners Association, the homeowners association for Collins Crossing, to raise a $5,406 special assessment for each unit.

While the fee only applies to owners of the units, town officials worry the fee will be transferred to the complex’s primarily low-income residents through higher rents.

Alcurt owns more than half of the complex’s units.

Lavelle said she is excited at the prospect of protecting one of the few remaining affordable housing locations in Carrboro.

“We have been placing a lot of time and attention on the different groups that have owned the complex and helping them try to maintain affordability,” she said.

Lavelle said while she thinks taking over the property is a good idea, it still has to be explored legally.

“We aren’t sure what’s permitted,” she said. “But it’s something we are all interested in.”

Carrboro attorneys Michael Brough and Robert Hornik said they haven’t been directly contacted about the idea yet.

“Our involvement has been dealing with the enforcement of building codes (at Collins Crossing),” Brough said.

“I have not seen any such email, nor have I heard any discussion about the town taking over the property yet.”

Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton said he is interested in looking into the possibility.

“It’s an interesting idea, and I think it’s worth looking into, but I’m not sure it’s all that likely,” Chilton said.

But he said even if the town doesn’t move to take over the property, he believes Alcurt might still see some lawsuits from individual unit owners who are upset about also having to pay the new fee. Alcurt, as a primary owner, has considerable sway in setting homeowner’s association policies.

“It’s hard to expect owner occupants at Collins Crossing to come up with $5,000 when it’s probably the lowest income neighborhood in Carrboro,” he said. “I think the individual owners will seek some legal remedies.”

The town of Carrboro has also said it will pursue litigation against Alcurt if it doesn’t repair the complex’s 24 hazardous stairwells in a timely manner.

Chilton said he was disappointed with the way Alcurt reacted to the town’s mandate to fix the stairwells.

“I certainly agree that improvements are needed and that unit owners should pay for those, but N.C. law requires procedures,” he said. “This would not be a big deal to me if it was clear they had followed those procedures.”

Finding a precedent

Carrboro wouldn’t be the first town to provide local government-owned affordable housing options for residents.

In Aspen, Colo., many of the town’s full-time residents live in affordable housing units provided by the town.

“Affordable housing has been fundamental in keeping this a town that you can relate to,” said Tom McCabe, the executive director for the Aspen-Pitkin Housing Authority.

“Without our affordable housing program there would be very few full-time workers within city limits.”

But McCabe said he thinks Carrboro should not rush into this decision.

“Being dedicated to the process is a critical part,” he said. “They really need to think hard about their long-term objectives.”

Contact the desk editor at city@dailytarheel.com.

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