GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The Greensboro Housing Coalition had been concerned about the Avalon Trace Apartments in East Greensboro for years.
"I used to get called out to this property all the time for things like roof leaks, mold, roach and mice infestation and it came very disheartening that we couldn’t get much done to get those tenant problems resolved," Executive Director Brett Byerly said.
Until new ownership came along.
"Avalon trace had a bad history so I wanted to have a new name to indicate a fresh start," new owner Brittany Kielhurn said.
Keilhurn renamed the complex Cottage Gardens. She knew what she was walking into at the time of purchase back in March.
"If you came here a year ago, the roofs were leaking, the windows had been broken, the plumbing wasn't working," Kielhurn said.
And that doesn't even describe the half of it.
"I remember being out here, there was a baby less than a year old that spent more time at the hospital due to respiratory conditions than he spent at home the first year of his life," Byerly said.
"We lifted up the blankets in the crib, the crib could have crawled away that was the level of cockroach infestation."
Byerly knew something had to be done because he believed the horrific conditions were directly linked to dozens of complaints he got about breathing problems from residents at Avalon Trace.
"We were lucky enough to get a grant called Invest Health, and they put community development people and hospital people in a room together to talk about projects."
That's when the Greensboro Housing Coalition partnered with Cone Health on a health study.
"You would expect in a 170 unit apartment complex to get 2 or 3 annual visits for an asthma diagnosis, what we found was there was 30 patients producing 120 visits," Byerly said. "It was 120 times what you would expect statistically so the health system had an 'aha' moment in working with housing people."
Cone Health gave their compiled data to UNCG Housing and Community Studies for a further breakdown on the location of where the respiratory problems stemmed.
"There are two elements to this: there's the data on respiratory illnesses that came from Cone Health, and we looked at patient level individual admissions to emergency rooms in 2016," Stephen Sill said. He is the Center for Housing and Community Studies Director at UNCG, and Associate Professor of Sociology.
"When we merge two data sets which are neighbor level and neighborhood housing conditions, we saw hotspots that correlated bad housing and high spikes in asthma cases," Sill said.
He was able to narrow the research down even further.
"There were individual properties like Avalon Trace where we saw a single property with a spike in admissions," Sill said. "If we take CDC figures we should have one hospitalization per 1,000 people in Greensboro, but in this apartment complex we were seeing 120 annual visits for the 1 apartment complex so a much higher rate than would be expected."
Cone Health says it's too much of a blanket statement to say that Avalon Trace apartments were the source of asthma, but it's fair to say that asthma triggers were found in units.
"While you can’t say a particular thing causes the hospitalization, we can say from previous studies when we remove things like pests and rodents and smoking conditions, those hospitalizations go down and that is something we researched as well," Sill said.
Keilhurn says the newly named and renovated complex is undergoing a lot of positive changes, but there's still a lot of work to be done.
"We’ve already replaced 650 windows," Keilhurn said. "We probably have 50-60 more apartments we’re going to be turning around and re-renting so we’re expecting probably the end of February, end of march to hit 100 percent."
She says health problems should go down because of the changes she's implementing.
"We have instituted a regular pest control system, have replaced the roofs and treated water damage and one of the most important things: replacing all the very old carpet with solid surface flooring, and not having to worry about keeping a carpet clean which is going to be good for respiratory systems."
The City of Greensboro is helping with the cost of renovations, specifically working on energy efficiency within Cottage Gardens.
The previous owners of Avalon Trace were an out-of-state company from Georgia. The City of Greensboro was going to fine them for code violations, but they ended up selling to Keilhurn.
Byerly said there are few real repercussions for bad landlords unless tenants sue in civil court.
The City of Greensboro says the apartment complex was never condemned, but 11 individual units were at one point. That number of condemned units has gone down to seven, but Keilhurn says they are vacant and she is working to repair them.
"It’s already quite gratifying to see what we’ve done..we still have a ton of work to do."