Loray Mill recovery coming one house at a time

Angela Starnes wasn’t even considering her hometown when she began looking to buy a house earlier this year.

She wanted to move out of her apartment in Fort Mill, South Carolina, while not adding too much to her work commute as a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer. She certainly didn’t anticipate relocating to the same general area where she grew up in Gastonia.

Then her real estate agent clued her in to a model home that had been renovated by a nonprofit, as part of a larger effort to revitalize the Loray Mill village in Gastonia. And once Starnes stepped inside the bungalow, there almost wasn’t enough room to contain her enthusiasm.

“I was super impressed with what they had done on the inside,” she said. “I don’t even think I looked at another house after that.”

A market for success

The residence Starnes has moved into at 906 W. Second Ave. is no mansion. It offers slightly more than 1,000 square feet on a single floor, with one bedroom and one bathroom. It reflects the character of most of the roughly 500 mill homes within the 30-block village, which were built by Loray’s owners between 1900 and the 1930s, and rented to the families that made up its teeming workforce.

But in real estate, size doesn’t always matter. Preservation North Carolina, which works to salvage historic properties across the state, expects Starnes’ new home to serve as a beacon in an emerging success story. The group believes the modestly sized homes and small yards within the village will be popular purchases in a market aimed at millennials and empty nesters.

Over the last three years, the former model’s exterior historic features were preserved. But it also received modern amenities, including classic tile bathroom floors, a contemporary kitchen with high-end appliances, hard-surface countertops, original siding and restored windows. A front deck and back patio provide ample opportunity for relaxing outdoors, and the interior has high ceilings that make it feel more roomy.

“We are close to seeing 70 percent of American households as one- or two-person,” said Preservation North Carolina President Myrick Howard, citing census data and recent trends. “Fairly soon, 50 percent of American households will be one-person. There is a market out there, I think, and we’re one of the ones crazy enough to test it out.”

Sparking revitalization

The recent redevelopment of the Loray Mill itself into an upscale residential and commercial hub triggered an effort to spread that revitalization to the surrounding neighborhood. Preservation North Carolina had a heavy role in coaxing along the mill’s rebirth, and now sees a golden opportunity to springboard off that progress.

Since 2015, the nonprofit has used low-interest loans to acquire 16 different homes within the Loray village. It has already sold six to owners who agreed to restrictive covenants on the properties, such as assuring they will live in and not rent out the houses, and that they will preserve certain architectural features.

A block of Vance Street has received the most attention to date. Preservation N.C. has already acquired and sold three homes there, and is renovating three more.

Residences that in many cases had come under the watch of slumlords, and seen their values dwindle to next to nothing, are now being rekindled. Preservation N.C. bought the property at 906 W. Second Ave. in 2015 for $12,000, and Starnes just purchased it for $115,000.

Howard admitted they were hoping to sell the home for as much as $125,000 or $130,000. But based on their experience successfully restoring mill houses in places such as Edenton and near Burlington, they know this is part of the routine. It’s harder to get a good appraised value on a restored home when there are no higher-priced sales nearby for an appraiser to point to.

“Your first one is the problem when it comes to appraisals,” said Howard. “With that house, we made a conscious effort to put in really nice finishes, because we needed to show what this could all be. It was really an aspirational thing for us.”

‘Long-term deal’

Preservation N.C. is renovating most of the homes it is acquiring to varying degrees. It is selling some as-is, though still attaching covenants to them.

“We’re not trying to have the neighborhood become pricey. We’re trying to have it be stable,” said Howard. “This ought to be a good, stable working-class neighborhood. And when you get down to it, the working class is going to basically be millennials.”

Starnes isn’t in that specific demographic, but she still fits a desired mold as a one-person household. Since her husband’s untimely death several years ago, she has envisioned something small and manageable. And the fact that she grew up just a few blocks away on Third Avenue, before graduating from Ashbrook High School in 1991, made a move to the Loray Mill village all the more fitting.

“I literally walked these streets when I was little, to places like Moss Drug and the YMCA,” she said. “I don’t have any plans for this to be a quick turnaround. This home is a long-term deal for me.”

Starnes is aware of the hesitation some people have with buying a home in a neighborhood that’s still in recovery. But she points to success stories such as the formerly downtrodden NoDa community in Charlotte.

“The only way to get there is to put money into an area,” she said.

Howard said as downtown Gastonia continues to become more of a destination, it will help make the nearby housing market more desirable. The city’s development of the Franklin Urban Sports and Entertainment District will only help to connect downtown with the Loray Mill village, he said.

“We’re still a long way from where we want to be,” he said. “But I’m very encouraged about the way things are going.”

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(The Gaston Gazette, 7/8/18)