Life in Columbia’s most dangerous neighborhood
Some residents sleep on the floor in fear of gunshots. Others barricade their apartment door at night to keep intruders out.
One woman uses scraps of cardboard to fill the nearly 2-inch gap between the top of her front door and its frame.
It’s hard to believe more than $6.7 million in public money has gone to North Pointe Estates in the past five years. The low-income housing community in north Columbia, with its dingy yellow buildings, leaky HVAC units and defective amenities, isn’t just unsightly, it’s dangerous, posting more violent offenses than any other Columbia block from 2014 to 2016, the most recent data available to the public.
Robbery, shootings, beatings and stabbings account for much of the violence, but it also includes two murders. In September 2014, 23-year-old Migeal Ravennell was shot in the head in the breezeway of Building 30; and two months later, 41-year-old Daryl Williams was fatally stabbed in the chest.
Taxpayers spent more than $1.2 million this year alone to subsidize the 188-unit complex, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That money helped pay apartment management expenses as well as the rent and utilities for the complex’s low-income residents who meet income requirements.
But none of that money was used to hire security guards or make other major safety improvements, according to residents and tax records, raising questions about what is being done to fight crime.
“I’m tired of all this shooting and gangbanging. It needs to stop,” said a North Pointe resident who would only identify herself as Brooklyn.
There should be security guards posted at both entrances to keep the troublemakers out, she added.
“It’s not fair to the residents out here.”
A spokesman for Community Housing Partners, North Pointe’s Virginia-based property management company, said 16 security cameras were installed in the past nine months and a contract has been signed with a professional monitoring service. He did not elaborate on the results of the initiative.
But some question whether that’s enough. A lack of security measures in what is known to be a violent neighborhood could pose a liability, attorneys and affordable housing advocates said.
After The State contacted HUD to see what’s being done to address crime, federal officials contacted the property management company and demanded that they formulate a plan, said the on-site manager, who has since stopped communicating with The State.
“HUD is focused on working with the community and the property management company to ensure that the people there are living in a safe, healthy environment,” said Joe Phillips, HUD’s public information officer for the southeast region. “We’re going to find out what’s going on, and this is part of that process.”
‘Because it’s federal money’
Looking south of the James E. Clyburn Pedestrian Overpass on S.C. 277, thousands of drivers get a view of the low-income housing complex on their daily commutes. But few know what it’s like to live there.
Darlene Morris uses a folded-up cardboard shipping envelop to seal the top of her apartment’s front door and its frame. Without that, there’s no stopping the weather from becoming an unwelcome guest.
A rusted playground with chipped paint and peeling rubber sits by the leasing office, untouched and neglected.
Meanwhile, residents say there is a regular drumbeat of gunfire, sowing fear and resentment among the community.
North Pointe Estates is owned by North Pointe Affordable Housing, a for-profit LLC set up by an Alabama-based private foundation called The Banyan Foundation. The foundation owns five other affordable-housing complexes in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, according to tax records.
In 2015, the foundation secured a tax-free $10.8 million bond through a Wisconsin-based issuer to purchase and renovate North Pointe Estates.
But residents say those renovations never happened, and the only thing that has changed in the three years since then is the management company — three times.
After the purchase, The Banyan Foundation began accepting HUD funding to cover operating expenses — everything from insurance and debt to tenant utilities and maintenance. That same year, the foundation’s president, Rob Coats, received a 63 percent raise, up from $175,000 to $278,000.
Tax filings show the foundation lost money operating North Pointe Estates during the first year of ownership. But in 2016, the foundation had $23,335 left over after expenses and wrote it off as income from charitable activities.
Coats, who is also the president of a mortgage lending company, did not return repeated calls for comment, and the foundation’s 2017 tax filing isn’t due until later this year. So it’s unclear where that money went and what his plans are for the property.
But Coats owns another affordable-housing complex that has recently been cleaned up — Gable Oaks Apartments on Colleton Street in north Columbia.
Advocates say most people who are involved in running affordable housing ultimately want what’s best for their tenants.
“The management companies, the developers, the owners — they all have a vested interest in the property,” said Alisa Mosley, executive director of the Affordable Housing Coalition of South Carolina. “The more maintained it is, the more likely they are to stay fully occupied and that has a positive impact on their bottom line.”
Owners who become aware of crime-ridden properties have been known to hire security guards and let them live rent free in exchange for patrolling the property, she said.
“But there are exceptions,” said Michael Kane, executive director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants. “And there are owners who screw up, including nonprofits.”
Two years ago, HUD officials raided the headquarters of a Tennessee-based Christian nonprofit, Global Ministries Foundation, after lawmakers accused it of stealing taxpayer dollars and forcing people to live in substandard conditions, according to media reports.
Just last month, Global Ministries settled a lawsuit in Florida brought by the family of a man shot and killed at an affordable-housing complex it owns there, The Florida Times-Union reported. The lawsuit alleged that the nonprofit knew the federally subsidized complex didn’t take the necessary steps to improve its security.
HUD was not aware of the violence in that complex because its method of inspection is faulty, Kane said. Inspections are given a score of 0 to 100, with 60 or below considered failing. Officials look for bed bugs and defective appliances, among many other issues, but crime and violence aren’t taken into account, he said.
In the past three inspections, North Pointe Estates scored 80 or higher, according to HUD’s accounting of inspections. But each of those included at least one life-threatening health and safety deficiency. It’s unclear what those deficiencies were because they weren’t noted in the report, and The State has not yet received the records it requested.
The Banyan Foundation was the owner during the most recent inspection in May 2016, and the next inspection will be completed by the end of the year.
“Because it’s federal money,” Kane said, “the taxpayers and the government have a stake in making sure the money is spent well. But most of all, the tenants do. They deserve decent, safe and affordable housing. Their interest is the strongest.”
It will take time
Aside from the rate of violence and inconsistent management, residents have complained about an unwillingness to make repairs and exorbitant fees for everyday items, such as $25 for a stove drip pan and $15 for replacement blinds.
“This neighborhood is a hot mess, and it starts off with that office,” said Kelly Belton, who has lived in North Pointe for six years and works full time cleaning hotel rooms. “We can’t even get work done in our apartments.”
Belton and her neighbors said they feel as though the property manager doesn’t care about their well-being.
The property manager, who only identified herself as Ms. Mary, did not speak directly about these complaints. But prior to ending communication with a reporter, Ms. Mary said she is still new to this community and trying to get a handle on the dynamics. It will take time, she said.
Last month, Ms. Mary announced a new resident services program designed to “encourage, assist, train or facilitate the economic independence” of HUD-assisted families.
“We want to contribute to helping each resident and family become SELF SUFFICIENT!” the announcement reads.
David Rodgers, an investigator with the Columbia Police Department, said the new property management company is “very pro-police” and has been easy to work with. Management has given officers the authority to place people who do not live there on a trespass notice.
“That helps us out a lot,” he said.
But in an effort to consolidate all six properties under one management company, The Banyan Foundation notified CHP that its involvement with North Pointe Estates will end Aug. 31, said Andy Hall, CHP’s chief operating officer.
‘It looked like a war zone’
In 2016, The Banyan Foundation bought another affordable-housing complex in north Columbia — Gable Oaks Apartments.
The once dangerous neighborhood, where three people were killed in the span of three months in 2007 and 2008, has since been cleaned up, said Terri Jowers, director of Healthy Columbia, which conducts free health screenings for residents of low-income neighborhoods, as well as a number of other services.
When she started conducting health screenings in Gable Oaks in 2014, Columbia police told her they could not guarantee her safety there, she said.
“For a while, it looked like a war zone,” she said of the neighborhood that was patrolled by private security guards following the spate of murders. A high-tech camera that can “hear” gunshots and locate them within a few feet also was installed, according to reporting by The State at the time.
When The Banyan Foundation took over, one of the first things it did was renovate each unit and clean up the property. Right away, it looked much better, Jowers said.
Then came a community center, and with it came a sense of pride.
“How your neighborhood looks and how it’s managed, especially in income-based housing, really does have a huge impact on the health and safety of residents,” Jowers said. “When you start looking into the public health aspect of a clean, well-managed neighborhood, all of this starts to make sense. It looks dirty. It feels dirty and you feel unsafe. If you feel unsafe, you’re not going outside. If you’re not going outside, someone else is and they are going to own your neighborhood. We see it over and over again.”
HUD subsidies to North Pointe Estates
* The Banyan Foundation purchased the property.