Developer wants to buy Sir Walter Apartments, elderly residents ask what’s next

On her 84th birthday, Elizabeth Carroll leaned on her walker outside the Sir Walter Apartments in downtown Raleigh and wondered where she’d live in three years.

“I cook, clean house, get myself dressed, give myself a bath,” Carroll said Thursday, making it clear she’s not worried about her health. She’s worried about finding a new place to live.

Carroll has lived for five years in Sir Walter Apartments, a senior-housing complex on Fayetteville Street where rent is subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The 140-unit complex is under contract to be purchased by an Ohio-based developer who wants to turn the 10-story building into a hotel, offices or apartments. Residents, all of them age 62 and older, must find a new home by the time the HUD contract expires in 2020.

The pending sale of Sir Walter, built in 1923 and once one of the finest hotels in North Carolina, is another sign of downtown Raleigh’s transformation from a sleepy state capital to a thriving core with luxury apartments. There’s a local push to create more affordable housing as rents continue to rise, but the Sir Walter’s next chapter brings an uncertain future for its low-income residents.

“It’s hard to find a place to live,” Carroll said. “It may take two or three years before we get a place. I’d get out today if I had the money.”

Global X Tax Asset Solutions is under contract with the owners and plans to renovate the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, said David Swentor, president of real estate for the company.

Global X plans to preserve parts of the building, including the Virginia Dare Ballroom and the old-fashioned elevators.

“Raleigh needs to maintain as many of these historic assets as they can,” Swentor said. “We’re stepping into a very expensive, large project to make sure Raleigh maintains some of it.”

Swentor declined to say how much his company is paying for the property or how much will be invested. A flier distributed last year by NAI Carolantic Realty listed the sales price as $16.8 million. The current ownership group paid $850,000 for the 190,518-square-foot building in 1978.

Bill Benton, one of Sir Walter’s owners who converted it to senior housing, declined to comment on a potential sale of the building.

Global X specializes in leveraging tax credits to renovate projects and create “socially desirable” outcomes, according to its website.

“We’re looking to see what best serves the Raleigh community,” Swentor said of potential uses for the building, including a hotel, offices or apartments. “We’ve met with city officials who say there’s a need for all of it.”

Raleigh’s City Council last year increased the property tax rate by 1 cent to generate an extra $5.7 million a year for new affordable-housing units, and a recently formed county committee has a similar mission. Neither can prevent the expiration of a developer’s contract with HUD.

The city isn’t involved with the Sir Walter sale but can help direct the property owners to potential new homes for the residents, said Larry Jarvis, director of Raleigh’s housing and neighborhoods department.

“It’s going to be complicated,” Jarvis said.

The building is 100 percent occupied, and new residents continue to move in, said Mona Williams, regional property manager for Winston-Salem-based Residential Properties Management, which oversees the building.

Global X is working with HUD and Residential Properties Management to develop a plan to relocate tenants. Some have already left.

“The affordable-housing market is pretty scarce,” Williams said.

The law requires property managers to give residents a year’s notice about a pending sale, she said, but RPM is giving a three-year notice.

Joanne Russo said that might not be long enough, though. Russo, 73, has lived at the Sir Walter for 10 years. She said relocating her life will be difficult.

“I just wish they’d build a senior building down here too,” Russo said. “It hurts because I ain’t got the money ready to move out.”

Swentor said he thinks most of the residents will be better off elsewhere. Sir Walter is outdated and lacks many of the amenities that other buildings offer, he said.

“There’s no social programs. No one fills up a bus and takes them into the parks or to the museums,” Swentor said. “There’s no exercise facilities, no dining facilities, no nutrition program. There are other places with more amenities and comforts.”

But such amenities are hard to find in affordable housing, said Jarvis, Raleigh’s housing director.

“Most senior housing would not have cafeterias since they are intended for people able to live independently,” he said. “You would see cafeterias in assisted-living facilities or nursing homes.”

‘The jungle’

C.V. York, father of Raleigh builder J. Willie York, built the Hotel Sir Walter, which became a place where U.S. presidents slept during visits and the state’s elite gathered in the ballroom.

Some state legislators lived there, but the hotel became less popular for them when the new Legislative Building on Jones Street opened in 1962.

There’s plenty of history at Sir Walter. But resident Andrew Taylor, 76, is ready for a change of scenery. He plans to move to east Raleigh.

“I’m tired of the jungle,” he said, comparing Raleigh to New York City. “I’m ready to see some trees and dirt.”

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht