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Cornelius News

Smithville will ask County for $3 million

Smithville includes a park, modest homes, an old Rosenwald School

May 8. By Debbie Griffin. Save Our Smithville advocates are expected to attend the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners en masse May 9 to ask for $3 million for its neighborhood revitalization plan.

Smithville is the historically black community just east of I-77 on either side of Catawba Avenue. Gentrification is under way, which means a piece of Cornelius history is at risk. Fewer than 500 people—some the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers, some newcomers—live in what is fast becoming prime real estate.

Neighborhood organizers plan to leave together at 4:30 p.m. from the Union Bethel AME Zion Church on Catawba Avenue. The group plans to have stickers and signs identifying them as supporters of the Save Our Smithville plan.

Along with its regular activities such as ​a community garden and annual Jazz Festival (May 18 at Smithville Park), the coalition has been working for years on a solution to prevent gentrification and encourage revitalization of the neighborhood. Grant funds paid for a conceptual plan, which gained a lot of attention and momentum after the group presented it at the first coalition meeting of 2019.

Supporters of a plan say it could help control gentrification, which causes a few concerns:

  • Residents can be displaced due to increased taxes if expensive homes and businesses drive up property values.
  • Savvy investors will prey on owners who are ignorant about how much a property is worth.
  • No open-market developers will care about Smithville’s African-American history.

Coalition board member and affordable-housing expert Willie Jones said everyone has been working to identify and secure funding since capital is needed for action. The conceptual plan for revitalization is estimated to cost about $6.5 million, but real costs will become clear after detailed specifications are drawn.

Smithville consists of the first several streets east of I-77 ​on either side of Catawba Avenue. The streets south of Catawba, from South Hill Street to South Ferry Street – comprise the most “at-risk” area that will be addressed first.​ A century ago, the neighborhood was on the outskirts of Cornelius.​

The​re is some blighted ​and​ vacant land ​in​ Smithville ​which experts say ​could accommodate 155 affordable housing living units. Apartment rents are likely to be priced between $450​ and ​$900 per month and homes will be in a range between $175,000 and $250,000.

Plan progress

SOS held small-group informational sessions in April that drew more than 50 people, Jones said. At least 15 owners have made verbal commitments related to property acquisition. He said the majority of owners are seniors who don’t trust investors and don’t want to hurt Smithville.

“They’re house tired and they’re looking for help to find solutions,” said Jones.

Residents can choose to do nothing and not participate in the plan. They can choose to support the plan by subdividing or selling their property to generate funds for it or give plan developers the “first right of refusal” on a sale of their property, if and when that time comes.

Eventually, there will be funds in the plan for things like home-improvement loans to current residents. Jones said as soon as this summer, the SOS group will offer financial-literacy classes and a program with pro-bono staff to help people research properties owned by multiple heirs.

With the Save Our Smithville plan poised to start bringing in funds, many wonder how they’ll be managed. Jones said Habitat for Humanity has agreed to administer a $250,000 portion of the program that includes a right of first refusal on 25 homes.

An owner would receive a $10,000 loan in exchange for the right, they’d use the money to improve the home, and then the coalition would buy it at market value later. The loan could be forgivable if the home ends up benefitting someone who makes 80% or less of the median income.

“The goal here is to create a neighborhood around workforce income,” Jones said, explaining it would help current owners and future families.

Residents could take advantage of the new housing options. For a hypothetical example, an older resident might want to have a new and small apartment with no yard instead of a large older house with a big lawn.

Property acquisition funds, said Jones, will be administered through a trustee account at a law firm. While nothing is decided yet, Jones said he’s talked to the Town of Cornelius about the possibility of managing the infrastructure-improvement funds.

Chasing dollars, saving history

Mecklenburg County has identified five priorities for 2019. The first is “reducing racial disparities” and the third is to address the affordable housing crisis. In its proposed 2020 budget to be passed in early June, the county designates $11 million to fund an affordable housing subsidy program.

Jones said the plan has been presented to the county manager and shared with the commissioners. A few SOS representatives will speak at the meeting about the importance of Smithville and its history. They will also emphasize how the county will get a great public return on its investment.

Smithville in Cornelius, Pottstown in Huntersville and Crestdale in Matthews are three local neighborhoods settled by former slaves, Jones said, and many current residents are their descendants. Smithville has the most intact heritage and the best chance for preservation, and that includes the Rosenwald School, which many want to see converted into a community facility. Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, a founder of Sears Roebuck, built state-of-the art schools for African-American children across the South during the early 20th century.

Not everyone is in favor of the coalition-backed plan, believing gentrification will happen whether it’s organized or not. People have also been confused and doubtful about the various options.

Jones, who said he’s done affordable-housing, redevelopment and revitalization projects for the past 30 years, said questions and confusion are all part of the communication and education process. He calls the Save Our Smithville plan a “well-supported initiative.”

“This is an opportunity to preserve this neighborhood and help the people who live here,” Jones said.