Homeowners and absentee landlords: Here’s how property ownership in College Hill stands today

College Hill mapThe January neighborhood association meeting on Monday will include a discussion of how to better engage College Hill’s many landlords in maintaining and improving the neighborhood. It’s a challenge that has been addressed with little success and varying degrees of enthusiasm and frustration since the association was established more than 40 years ago. But it’s an issue as relevant today as ever. Property ownership in College Hill is still tilted toward rentals and threatens to become even more imbalanced as the neighborhood’s home prices soar beyond the reach of most families but not of many “real estate investors.”

Absentee landlords have made up a large share of College Hill’s property owners since the Depression. Today, the mix is about 53 percent rental properties and 45 percent owner-occupied homes (the other 2 percent are vacant1Oddly, a total of 15 properties, almost 4 percent of the neighborhood’s residential properties, have achieved the ultimate in absentee ownership and are now owned by landlords who have died. The nine houses owned by James Dutton have been listed for sale by his estate. Nothing appears to be happening yet with the six owned by Jeff Towne.).

The numbers behind the 53 perent-45 percent figures:

  • 494 total properties
  • 412 residences (83 percent)
  • 73 commercial or institutional
  • 9 other non-residences2Six are open spaces at condo developments, which have separate deeds held by the homeowners associations, but aren’t really separate properties. There are also three tiny vacant lots owned by adjoining landowners that for some reason haven’t been merged into the larger lots.

The breakdown on residential properties:

  • 218 rental3The number of rentals includes the apartments in the Tate Street business district above Sisters and Tate Street Coffee and the four remaining properties on McIver Street not yet swallowed up by UNCG (three apartment houses and a house divided into at least two units). It doesn’t include The Province, which has a capacity of several hundred and an unknown occupancy rate.
  • 186 owner-occupied
  • 8 vacant

Some notes on how those numbers were determined:

Note that this is a count of properties, not the number of separate living units in those properties, which would require a door-to-door census to determine. Dozens of single-family houses were divided into apartments from the 1930s to 1970s. There’s nothing in public records specifying the number of units in those houses.

A spreadsheet from the city planning office, provided several years ago, showed 494 total properties. Those addresses were compared to current property records to boil the figure down to 412 residential properties.

The city’s spreadsheet and county property records provide a good start, but they’re somewhat confusing. For example, the owners of 102 and 110 S. Mendenhall have merged them into one property in the records, but they’re still two separate residences. Similarly, 900 and 904 Spring Garden and 544 S. Mendenhall have been merged into a single lot in the records but are three separate commercial buildings.

The actual number of properties changes over time. For example, the house at 824 Rankin burned down in 1999, and later the lot was merged into neighboring 129 Tate Street. In 2018, the lot was split off again, and a new house was built in it. Similarly, the house at 923 Carr Street burned in 2020, and the owners of 925 Carr bought it and merged it into that lot.

Identifying properties as owner-occupied or not requires a bit of guesswork, so the actual numbers may be off slightly. Properties generally were identified as owner-occupied if the owner’s address in county property records is the same as the property address, but some such properties were listed as rentals if the owner has other local properties with other addresses of record.

The 412 figure includes 25 structures designed to be duplexes, triplexes and apartment houses, all counted as single properties. Houses that were built as single-family residences and later divided into apartments also are counted as single properties.

The totals are affected materially depending on how to define three particular projects, all originally sold as condos.  McIver Court at 1117-1121 McGee Street was built as 32 condos; 30 are now owned by a single company. The nine townhouses at 517-521 Tate were originally condos, but now are all held by a single owner. The six apartments at 315 S. Mendenhall were sold off as condos years ago, but now five are owned by a single company. Those three properties operate effectively as apartment houses and are counted as single rental properties. (This methodology is debatable, of course, but for this purpose it seems to offer a reasonable consistency since there’s no feasible way to determine the total number of dwelling units in dozens of other multi-unit buildings.)

The 28 condos at Wafco Mills, though, have 25 different owners, so the building itself can’t be described as purely owner-occupied or rental. So Wafco is counted as 28 units.

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