An ownership change at three Fort Mill apartment properties has residents concerned whether they’ll make rent, though the new owner says plenty is being done to help them.
County records show three buildings were sold April 7 to LLCs under New Jersey-based Friedlam Properties. Fort Mill Townhouse Apartments on Bollin Circle, across from Fort Mill High School, sold for $2.65 million. Phase two of the townhouse apartments, on Drane Circle near the Tom Hall Street and N. Dobys Bridge Road intersection, sold for $2.37 million. The Edgewood apartments on Banks Street sold for $2.16 million.
The buildings total 144 units, and were marketed with a 95 percent occupancy rate. Nathan Friedlam, principal with the new ownership, said properties will be renovated as they become vacant and leased at market rate. But there isn’t any push to move long-time residents, who pay lower rates and make up the difference with federal subsidies, he said.
“The bottom line is, there are no major rent increases on any tenant who is there,” Friedlam said. “We’re not looking to displace anybody. We’re not looking for a mass exodus.”
The buildings date back to 1987, when they served as low income housing with rent based on a percentage of tenants’ income. That program expired, and the buildings were sold two years ago with the new owners allowed to choose whether to remain low income properties. Friedlam Properties got the same choice when they purchased.
“It’s incredibly low rent,” Friedlam said. “We are sensitive to the residents who have been there a long time. The rent increases will happen, but they will happen over many years.”
With the property sale two years ago, residents who leased through the USDA rural investment program were given vouchers to cover the $200 or more increase. The vouchers were good for a year, but were extended in 2015.
Almost half of the units at the three sites are rented by USDA voucher recipients, with some others in the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Section 8 program. There are also tenants who receive no housing program subsidies.
When the latest purchase occurred, it immediately canceled the USDA voucher program. The new owner had to reapply for more than 60 tenants, which involved those tenants signing new 12-month leases to be eligible. Those rates were slightly higher rates than their previous leases, but allowed for vouchers paying well more than the increase amounts.
But with new ownership and a management company change, the vouchers weren’t in place for April.
“For the month of April nobody got any assistance, just because it took time to do the paperwork,” Friedman said.
The result, for many residents, was confusion.
Residents say they were told only two days prior to rent increasing with the new leases, and that they would be on the hook for between $67 and $200 to make up the gap for April. Residents were given six months to pay off that difference.
Resident Helen Reames Bullock had a one-year lease she signed in December 2014, which she renewed late last year through the end of this one. She didn’t understand why she had to sign another at a higher rate.
“We all have them,” she said. “The dates are different based on when they got here, but they’re all just like this one.”
When residents were told they needed to sign new leases, many of them did fearing otherwise they wouldn’t have a place to stay, residents say.
“If somebody tells you to sign something to stay in your home, you sign it,” Reames Bullock said.
Resident Renee Lewis spent her weekend moving across town. She and two granddaughters are moving in with her son out of concern for rent increases.
“I just couldn’t afford it,” Lewis said. “It would take two paychecks to pay the rent.”
Signing the new leases after the ownership change did result in a small rent increase, but allowed residents to keep receiving vouchers at a much greater difference. Friedlam said his group and the USDA have been working to get the paperwork approved and vouchers will be available for May and beyond.
Only a handful of residents declined signing the new lease, resulting in a greater payment without the voucher, he said. Friedlam said he figures those residents may have been looking to move anyway, and sees the high re-sign rate as a positive for the property.
John Bergin with Fort Mill Portfolio, the company brokering the recent sale, owns apartments himself and said he understands the laws on leases and vouchers. Rent increases only are allowed at the beginning of a new lease term, he said, as would be the case with anyone who signed a new one in the past month. No resident saw a rent increase as part of an existing lease.
“I assure you, that complex has not upped the rent during a lease term,” he said.
As units are vacated, renovated and leased at market rate, eventually Fort Mill will have even fewer low income options. According to its website, Housing Authority of Fort Mill operates 141 apartments. That group, which isn’t affiliated with the recently sold sites, has a waiting list and its Section 8 program is closed, not having taken an application since 2011.
For Lewis, one of the earliest tenants at the site on Bollin Circle, it’s hard to imagine what will happen to families like hers if more subsidized housing is converted to market rate apartments in Fort Mill.
“There’s not enough public housing in Fort Mill to support 150 families,” she said.
Many in the three Fort Mill properties are elderly and there are a lot of single mothers as well. Some are in ill health, residents say. If the amount of the vouchers remains flat and rent increases in time, those on fixed incomes will notice the difference.
Lewis isn’t sure what, if anything, can be done to help people before more of her neighbors make the choice she did.
“These are Fort Mill people,” she said. “A lot of these people have been here a long time. This is home.”