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In Carrboro, working-class condo owners must pay $5,400 fee—in three weeks

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Fear, shock and consternation: This is how some condo owners at Collins Crossing in Carrboro feel after learning each of them must cough up a $5,400 assessment fee by early February.

One angry tenant says he can't talk about it because he is afraid of the property's powerful new owners. Another tenant is stunned. He missed the December homeowners association meeting, at which the Massachusetts-based owners of Collins Crossing—formerly Abbey Court—drove through a proposal to force every condo owner, many of them immigrants, to pay the fee.

Still another, Chapel Hill dentist Sae Kim, is disturbed. Kim, who was set to close on the sale of his condo Tuesday for reasons unrelated to the fee, says the new owners are simply asking too much of residents.

"Who has $5,000 in cash?" he says. "Most people in the unit live month to month."

The fees are intended to generate nearly $1.8 million in funds to repair the long-crumbling apartment complex. Many tenants say previous ownership, which sold the property last summer, neglected to maintain it, leaving behind shabby apartments and dangerous walkways.

A 10-year-old boy tumbled through a deteriorated stairway at the complex on Nov. 24, three days after Collins Crossing owners notified condo owners of their plan to impose assessment fees.

Carrboro officials gave owners 90 days to make repairs. In the meantime, condo owners have to find the cash within three weeks. It's unclear what penalty tenants will face if they don't pay, although Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton says management could impose a lien on the condos. Some residents fear foreclosure.

Renters are also vulnerable. As Chilton points out, landlords are likely to pass down part, if not all, of the cost to their renters.

"We're talking about working-class homeowners in Carrboro for whom the prospect of writing a $5,000 check on short notice is not a very realistic possibility," he says. "For many of them, perhaps all of them."

Owners of Aspen Square Management, the group that runs Collins Crossing as well as Carrboro's Berkshire Manor apartments and Hillsborough's Ashford Lakes, did not return multiple phone calls from the INDY this week.

Aspen Square and its partner, Alcurt Carrboro LLC, have been grappling with Abbey Court's failing structure since buying 252, or about 75 percent, of the condos last summer for a reported $7.1 million. That's equivalent to less than $30,000 per unit.

Abbey Court was troubled by crime, shoddy conditions and claims of discrimination under previous ownership, but Alcurt has been revamping the condos to boost the image and, according to critics such as Chilton, the monthly rent, which hovers around $500.

"Between that and forcing a $5,000 assessment, it sure feels like they are trying to force people out," Chilton says.

Chilton—the former executive director and current project manager at Chapel Hill affordable housing advocate Empowerment Inc.—says he has engaged a local attorney to fend off the fee.

"There doesn't have to be a big fight about this," Chilton adds. "But to avoid a big fight, there needs to be a reasonable proposal."

It's unclear what constitutes a reasonable proposal, although Chilton and other local leaders insist it's not the lump sum payment.

Empowerment Inc. has a stake in the fight. The group owns one Collins Crossing unit that it rents as affordable housing. Empowerment also plans to buy another two units once occupied by the Chapel Hill/Carrboro Human Rights Center, a nonprofit which was evicted after repeated squabbles with management.

Chilton says Aspen Square needs to offer residents an extended payment plan, although he estimated it could take some people up to a year to pay the fee.

"People who are low-income homeowners, they can't afford to do that," says Carrboro Alderwoman Jacquelyn Gist. "Even now, I couldn't do it."

The town's legal options may be limited, Gist says, noting Alcurt's property rights could negate any legal arguments against the fee. "There are ethical issues and then there are legal issues," she says. "Sometimes being ethically wrong does not mean you're legally wrong. I'm a little concerned that this may be one of those cases."

Bernandino Sosa, a maintenance worker at UNC Hospitals, and his wife, Maria, have owned a condo for five years. Sosa says improvements at Collins Crossing are long past due, but he agrees some of his neighbors might not be able to pay the bill.

However, condo owner Nancy Barnette backs the fee. "The rent is very low and has been for a long while," she says. "I think that the assessment is fine."

Raleigh-based CASA, or Community Alternatives for Supportive Abodes, also owns three units. CASA, which provides low-cost rentals for Triangle residents with disabilities, will take a financial hit as well. The nonprofit would have to pay more than $16,000 for its four units if the assessment fee stands.

"This kind of unanticipated assessment is really tough for anybody," CASA CEO Debra King says. "But it hits us especially hard. The revenue that we generate from these properties goes back into maintaining more housing."

King says the fee may not force CASA to sell one of its 250 or so Triangle housing units, but it could impede the organization's future activities. "It's sort of like a farmer," she says. "If you're forced to eat your seed crop, it's going to affect what you can grow."

Town leaders, including Chilton, say they're unsure what's next for Collins Crossing. Either way, a compromise must be found, Gist says, or one of Carrboro's last remaining stops for affordable housing could soon be gone.

"These are good people there; there's a real community of families and older retired couples that live on marginal income," she says. "It's not a bunch of degenerates. It's disheartening."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Pay up or else."

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