By Sarah Nagem
When gunshots rang out from the Sandy Ridge apartment complex in Columbus County last spring, hundreds of children and parents who were at a nearby park for youth baseball games ran for cover. They hid in the dugouts and crouched behind cars.
The gunfire on May 13, which left two people injured at Sandy Ridge, shook the city of Whiteville and brought public scrutiny to the income-based apartments on Nolan Avenue.
But for residents of Sandy Ridge, the shooting was the latest trouble for the 26-unit complex plagued by drugs and violence.
Sierra McMillan, 30, said she has personally seen three shooting victims since she moved to Sandy Ridge 12 years ago. About four years ago, she said, bullets pierced the external brick and entered her apartment during two separate shootings.
McMillan, who works at a local Hills grocery store, said she hasn’t considered finding a new place for her and her daughter, who is now 11. Sandy Ridge is part of the federal government’s project-based Section 8 program, and she knew finding another affordable place to live would be tough.
“As far as my living situation,” McMillan said, “this is what I was able to afford.”
After another shooting at Sandy Ridge in October, Columbus County District Attorney Jon David filed legal action against the complex. A Superior Court judge deemed the complex a “nuisance” and issued a court order that banned all visitors and prohibited new tenants from moving in.
As the rules remain in place, some residents say they are being punished for other people’s crimes.
Meanwhile, there are questions about who is responsible – and who is to blame – for a bad situation at a federally subsidized housing complex in need of upgrades and attention. Answers may lie within a tangled web of bureaucracy that often accompanies low-income housing: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the property owners, the property management company, elected leaders and tenants.
“We’re always caught in the middle,” said 29-year-old Imani Mitchell, who lives at Sandy Ridge with her two sons. “That makes it hard for everybody.”
Police have responded to more than 60 calls at Sandy Ridge in the past four years, according to court documents obtained by The News Reporter in Whiteville and shared with the Border Belt Independent.
About a third of the calls involved guns or reports of gunshots, and about eight involved drugs, records show. Four murders have occurred at the complex since 2014.
Two Whiteville police officers were assaulted at Sandy Ridge in December 2020, when suspects threw rocks and debris at them, said Chief Douglas Ipock. In a sworn affidavit, Ipock said he had “great concern” for law enforcement officers and first responders called to the complex.
Residents say much of the violence has been committed by outsiders. A Lumberton man was charged in the May shooting, when one of the victims was a pregnant woman. A Fayetteville man was charged in the Oct. 25 shooting, which left one person dead.
‘Wasn’t good communication’
Ipock points the finger at the out-of-town owners of Sandy Ridge for not stepping in sooner. “They don’t have any invested interest in the property except for collecting money that comes out of that property,” he said.
Thomas Urquhart developed Sandy Ridge in the early 1980s with two partners, George “Rick” Marshall, who now lives in Florida, and another businessman who has since died. Urquhart said he didn’t know about the issues at Sandy Ridge until the shooting last spring.
“That was our fault, somewhat,” he said. “It just wasn’t good communication going on between the management company and the people looking after it for the limited partners.”
Landura Management Associates in Winston-Salem oversaw Sandy Ridge until the October shooting.
In an Oct. 26 email to the owners, the district attorney and others, Landura Vice President Marty Holbrook said the complex had become a “liability.” He also cited a lack of support from HUD.
The housing agency made it clear that it would not approve a rent increase so Landura could hire a full-time manager and convert one of the apartments into a permanent office, Holbrook said in the email. A mobile office on site had been damaged by gunfire, he said.
Landura had planned to install cameras at Sandy Ridge, Holbrook said, but it struggled to find contractors “willing to risk their life” to do work there.
It’s common for people to blame “evil landlords” when things go wrong at affordable housing units, said Samuel Gunter, executive director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition. But often, he said, HUD doesn’t funnel enough money to properties, so the owners are “trying to operate on rents that don’t sustain the buildings.”
Monthly rent at Sandy Ridge is about $650 for a two-bedroom unit and $730 for a three-bedroom unit, according to the new property management company. Through Section 8, most tenants pay 30% of their income for rent and utilities, and HUD covers the rest.
Urquhart, who lives in Raleigh and has developed affordable housing projects throughout North Carolina, said Sandy Ridge did not see a rent increase for about a decade. The financial stress forced him and his partners to refinance the property, he said.
Urquhart said they would have sold Sandy Ridge 20 years ago, but changes in affordable housing policy made it “impossible.”
HUD regularly inspects Section 8 housing units. In June 2018, Sandy Ridge received a score of 74 out of 100, meaning it would be inspected each year, online records show. According to the score, inspectors found at least one life-threatening issue and at least one inoperable smoke detector.
The following year, Sandy Ridge earned a much-improved score of 96. That means the property will be inspected every three years.
Despite its troubles, the loss of Sandy Ridge would be a blow to affordable housing in Columbus County, where the median household income is less than $38,000. The statewide figure is more than $54,000.
About 186 people are on a waiting list for Section 8 vouchers in Columbus County, said Rebecca Tyson, director of the county’s Public Housing Agency. About 50 people currently have vouchers and must find a place within 120 days, she said.
But it can be tough to find rental properties that accept the vouchers, and Tyson said only about 15 of the current recipients will likely find housing in time.
“The others will probably lose their vouchers and have to reapply,” she said.
New property manager
In court documents, some people described Sandy Ridge as a dangerous place. Marc Whichard, superintendent of Whiteville City Schools, recounted his experience when he rode with other school workers at the start of the coronavirus pandemic to deliver educational tools to students at Sandy Ridge.
“As I got on the bus, someone asked, ‘Do you know where that bus is going?’” Whichard said in a sworn affidavit.
When he arrived, Whichard said, he saw “unsupervised children who were unclothed and people hanging out in the middle of the day.” He said he smelled marijuana.
After the visit, Whichard decided it was not safe for bus drivers to stop at Sandy Ridge to deliver meals to students, so he found an “alternate location.”
“I believe the (Sandy Ridge) owners need to clean up the junk vehicles, fix the lighting, fix the broken windows and maintain the overgrown landscaping … to begin ridding the Property of criminal activity,” Whichard said.
Fayetteville-based Remnant Management took over at Sandy Ridge a couple of months ago and has promised to bring changes. The property management company plans to paint the apartments and replace bathroom sinks and kitchen countertops and cabinets, said Christa Perry, director of operations.
Workers have already added mulch around the property, replaced outdoor lighting and removed abandoned cars.
The goal is to encourage tenants to take ownership of Sandy Ridge, according to Remnant.
“The old adage – if you look good, you feel good,” said Terry Odom, director of security for the company.
Perry said she has noticed a shift in residents’ attitudes since the company took over. When she first arrived, she said, tenants clearly tried to avoid her. Now they stop to chat.
“I don’t believe all 26 households are bad people,” said Perry, who grew up in affordable housing in Fayetteville. “There are some really, really good people in there – just the kindest, sweetest ladies who are offering (me) dinner.”
Shift in attitudes
Gunter said attitudes about affordable housing have shifted over the decades. “It went from being a feature of American life to all of a sudden, ‘This is a place where scary things happen,’” he said.
Build Back Better, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure and social policy plan signed into law by President Joe Biden in November, could help fill some budget gaps in affordable housing, Gunter said. The act includes $170 billion to create, maintain and upgrade units.
It’s important to remember that most people who live in affordable housing work to support their families, according to Gunter. Others are retired or collect disability benefits.
Mitchell, the 29-year-old mother, works as a certified nurse’s assistant. She said she was home during the shootings in May and October. During one incident, she said, her elder son was playing nearby.
“I didn’t want him to try to run home while they were still shooting,” she said. She told her boys that if they ever hear gunshots, they should get on the ground and stay where they are until she finds them.
Billy Shipman, 60, has lived in Sandy Ridge for 10 years. He said he doesn’t allow his young children, who live across the street, to play outside by themselves.
“If I’m standing out here, I’ll let them ride their bicycles,” he said.
McMillan’s refrigerator broke recently, and Remnant told her that workers would bring her a new one. She was happy about it, she said, but she would have made do without it.
“I would have worked with what I had anyway,” she said. “That’s what I’m used to doing.”
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem