His apartment was crawling with cockroaches. He’d complained before to no avail. The management kept taking his requests and doing virtually nothing about it. There were other problems with the unit that the apartment’s staff ignored, and finally the father of three was fed up. He took his complaint to Charlotte’s Housing Department.
The powers that be intervened. They investigated, found numerous code violations, and slapped the apartment complex on Albermarle Road with a fine. The man came back to his apartment after the final hearing, a seeming victory, only to find a notice tacked to his door. “You didn’t remove your dishes from the cupboards when we sprayed for roaches,” stated the paper. “You were notified of this in advance and non-compliance of our policy costs $—.”
He was surprised, since he’d received no notification of the roach treatment. He was also scared now. If the apartment complex could retaliate against him, taking away money that he couldn’t afford to lose, he’d rather just stay quiet. Money was very, very tight and if he was kicked out of his apartment, how could he find another affordable place for his family to live? Very soon, the roaches were back to sickening levels.
“How unfair! He should have continued to fight!” might be your reaction. But for many refugee families like this one, standing up alone to housing injustice issues is almost impossible. They don’t know what American laws allow. They don’t have the English skills to deal with technical language their landlords throw at them. They don’t have a plan B if – as in the above case – the landlord retaliates.
This is not an isolated incident. Landlords at certain low-income apartments have regularly cheated and exploited their refugee and immigrant tenants. An American that lived at one rundown apartment on Eastcrest was told she couldn’t open her window blinds anymore. New apartment policy had just been put in place, they said. She ignored them and opened her blinds whenever she wanted, knowing this wasn’t a rule they could enforce.
A few days later, there was a knock at her door. An apartment employee informed her that because the blinds were open, they were asking for a cash fine on the spot. The American was savvy enough to know that this was nothing more than a shake-down. She refused to pay, and the management left her alone from then on. No more hounding her about her blinds or asking for cash fees.
But what troubled her was that her immigrant neighbors were also being asked for cash fees. And they felt they had to pay. They felt helpless and weren’t sure if these fines were usual in America or not. Troubled by the exploitation that she saw in this and other instances, she worked to educate her neighbors and help them stand up.
If she hadn’t been living in that complex, if she hadn’t been present in a place with a vulnerable population, injustice would have continued under the radar.
As gentrification in East Charlotte progresses, there are stark examples of apartments that cater to the high-income moving in while simultaneously oppressing the low-income residents that still live there. In one case in a now completely renovated complex on Central Avenue, a refugee family didn’t have a working stove. The apartment management refused to fix it for this family, so they just ate cold or microwaved food. Yet, in that building, the management was also redoing empty apartments to transform them into trendy residences. And soon, the management raised their rent so high that the refugee family could no longer afford to live there.
What do we tell you all this for? Refugees, immigrants, single moms – they need advocates! Predatory landlords are real and are operating in Charlotte. Housing injustice is happening here. And the examples we share are just the tip of the iceberg.
As a city, housing injustice is a discussion we need to have. How can those of us more fortunate help stop exploitative housing practices? And when families are kicked out for standing up to these landlords, how can we ensure they’ll have another place to live? Affordable housing is so limited in this town as to make it difficult.
There’s no easy answers, but here’s one way to start: Befriend an immigrant or refugee family. Get involved in low income communities. Come learn what the issues are. Talk to the city council. Invest in organizations like Habitat for Humanity or West Charlotte Community Land Trust. Change rarely happens until those with privilege care enough to love their neighbor as themselves.
Share your thoughts about housing issues in Charlotte in the comments below.