Coming home to Crystal Towers means entering an 11-story, yellowish building on Sixth Street— right on the edge of downtown. On one side of the building, a small garden with benches and large planters make the building feel more like home. From here, you can walk to the public library. You might want to walk to Ronnie’s Country Store on Cherry Street or the CVS on Fourth Street. If you need to get anywhere further, you can walk across the street to the bus stop or further into downtown to the bus station. Residents see the lights and hear the noises of downtown through their windows, some with air conditioning units resting on their ledges.
About a month ago, residents of Crystal Towers found out that the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem (HAWS) is putting the 201-unit building up for sale. The building is one of three Housing Authority properties designated for the elderly and disabled. It was specifically built for this purpose in 1970 and has been serving that purpose for nearly 50 years now. It is also the only HAWS property downtown.
According to HAWS, the sale of the building is necessary due to the $7 million-worth of needed maintenance. This means that all the building’s residents will have to relocate when it is sold, but HAWS will help residents as they find new housing. HAWS, too, is worried about the loss of low-cost housing downtown.
“We’re brought into this situation where, if you don’t try to do something with it now, and the market tanks– is there anything you can do with it in two years, when massive systems start failing and you’ve got to invest a million dollars [fixing the elevator in the building, among other failing plumbing systems and roof systems]?” Kevin Cheshire, General Counsel and Vice President of Real Estate Development at HAWS explained. “Then you’re faced with having to do an emergency relocation of 200 residents because the property’s not functioning.”
Some residents say that they have expected HAWS to put the building up for sale for several years. “I’m not upset about it. I’m cool with it. Cause you can always find somewhere to go,” says Crystal Towers resident, David, who was reluctant to share his last name. David has lived in Crystal Towers for 17 years; he likes the building and its location, and he says that all the people who live and work in the building are nice. According to David, most residents he has spoken to who are upset are ones who do not have vehicles of their own and rely on Crystal Towers’ proximity to downtown stores, libraries and bus stops.
Cheshire said that the process for relocating residents is slow. The relocation process, which could take a year, does not even begin until a buyer makes an offer on Crystal Towers that HAWS finds acceptable, a contract is drawn up, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approves the sale. “We’re not sure yet either—is the reason [residents are] not sure,” Cheshire said in relation to the date of the relocation.
During the relocation process, HAWS will work with residents to find new housing. If there is no housing available that fits their needs, the resident will be issued a Tenant Protection Voucher, which is similar to the Housing Protection Voucher (HCV). This voucher allows the resident to pay a discounted rent. The individual will then begin to search for housing that accepts the voucher—a process in which HAWS is still involved. In both of these scenarios, tenants generally pay about a third of their adjusted gross income, Cheshire said.
Doug Hayden, a resident of Crystal Towers, grew up in Winston-Salem and has lived in the building since 2008. He was even president of the building for a few years. Hayden is concerned about what the sale of Crystal Towers means for gentrification in Winston-Salem.
“When you get to be 65 years old, you’re paying attention,” Hayden said, “This is nothing new. [Gentrification] has been going on in this country since it was created when they stole it from the Indians, man. And it’s just getting worse.”
Cheshire confirmed this is an ongoing conversation at HAWS. “It’s been a little bit of a struggle for us, collectively as an agency– acknowledging our role to preserve affordable housing and to kind of fight against gentrification of downtown, while also acknowledging that we’ve got a property that’s losing money and we don’t have [funding] for modernizing it.”
If significant proceeds are made from the sale, Cheshire hopes that, in some cases, Crystal Towers residents will end up with better housing than what they are in now and, in most cases, no worse off than they are now.
HAWS intends to build housing that is not concentrated. “We just don’t think that, as a policy matter, stacking 200 folks on top of each other in any facility is beneficial,” Cheshire said, “We don’t feel like it makes for an integrated community. We feel like it stigmatizes them, and it segregates them.”
The hope of HAWS is that, with the proceeds of the Crystal Towers sale, over 200 units might be rebuilt across the city, some being downtown, though it is likely that most will not be because “the cost of real estate is prohibitive,” Cheshire said.
“I’m not surprised [about the sale],” said Hayden. “I just appreciate what they did for me.” Drawing unemployment for two years was difficult, but living in Crystal Towers meant that his rent was $50 a month. “That was pretty cool,” he said.