Barry Saunders

The poor are pawns in the real estate chess game of the rich

Everyone who’s ever shut down a saloon has heard the bartender snarl, “You ain’t got to go home, but you gotta get outta here.”

For too many poor residents in Raleigh, that old maxim is being changed to “You thought you were already at home, but you still gotta get outta here.”

If you subscribe to a Darwinian model for society – you know, survival of the richest – then you don’t care that poor people are being booted out of apartment complexes so that mercenary corporations can maximize their investment. So what if, in the process, they’re uprooting and discarding poor people as though they were chewed-up pieces on a chess board.

The apartment rental website Rent Cafe lists Charlotte and the Triangle in a dead heat when it comes to the most expensive ZIP codes in the state for apartment rent, with Charlotte having the top three priciest, but Raleigh leading overall with 26 of the top 50. That is one competition Triangle leaders should gladly cede to Charlotte, because who the heck wants its claim to fame to be the highest rents in the state?

Don’t answer that.

A few weeks ago, when I wrote that the recent purchase of the Sir Walter Apartments in downtown Raleigh meant hundreds of old people would be booted out with only perfunctory concern for where they’d go, some tenderhearted souls wrote or called to say, in essence, that those people should have planned better for retirement.

One caller even said, I swear, that people being forced out of the Sir Walter should simply buy their own place.

Was the caller being callous or merely callow? Who knows, but either way, the response ignored an unfortunate reality: finding affordable housing in the Triangle is as difficult as finding a hoops fan who cheers for the Tar Heels and the Wolfpack. And the Blue Devils.

Yolanda Smith, 47, wore my telephone out a few months ago, keeping me apprised of the eviction wolves howling at the doors of her low-income neighbors and her at Garner’s Forest Hills Apartments. All of those residents to whom she introduced me make do with the aid of Section 8 housing vouchers. All, also, received cease-and-be-gone letters in February.

After the second or 10th heartrending story from a desperate mother, Smith said, “Most of these families here are going to have to go to a homeless shelter, if they can get in one, or to pile up in someone’s house.”

In the 16 months Smith has lived at Forest Hills, she said, the complex has been sold twice, making residents there pawns on the aforementioned millionaires’ chess boards. She said she knew eviction was imminent even before she read the notice, though. “Neighbors say the pool has been shut down for four, five years,” she told me as we strolled around the grounds. “All of a sudden, they’re out there fixing it up. They’ve got a renovated library, a new police station, a new town hall coming. We knew they weren’t doing that to make it convenient for our children to walk to the library.”

The cease-to-exist-and-be-gone letter I read stated that residents had until April 30 to split “or be considered a holdover tenant and subject to removal.” George Hausen, executive director of Legal Aid, which is representing some of the tenants, said they’re remaining there while negotiations with the new owners continue. He called the letter a “fear tactic.”

Calls to the complex’s new owner weren’t returned, but I’m going to keep trying so that I can satisfy my curiosity. Is there just a cash register where the company’s heart should be, as comments on its website contend?

When my college alma mater wrote me a letter one summer in Rockingham and suggested I return to Atlanta early to find suitable off-campus housing – it was one of those “you ain’t got to stay home, but you can’t stay here” letters – they included a pamphlet listing neighborhoods one should avoid because they were dangerous.

Those are precisely the places where I find my kind of people, though, and where I found an un-luxurious, two-bedroom apartment for $200 a month. It was so cheaply priced that I remember asking the landlord/owner Fred – who was also a mortician at the family-owned funeral home next door – why rent was so low.

He said, in essence, that if he charged higher rents, two things would happen: the government would just take more money in taxes and poor people wouldn’t have any place to live.

The speculators buying up low-income apartments all over the Triangle, prettying them up so they can jack the rents and jettison the poor would have one word for dear, departed Fred: SUCKER!

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9