In the 1990s, Chapel Hill town staff noticed an uptick in new building permits issued in the Northside neighborhood — it went from two issued in 1997 to 16 issued in 1998.
And then it was out of control.
Investors were buying single-family homes in the Northside neighborhood and converting them into housing for students who could often afford to pay upward of $500 per bedroom — pricing out many of the longtime residents.
In the decade leading up to 2010, 20- to 24-year-olds went from making up 34 percent of the population of the Northside neighborhood to making up more than half of the historically black, low-income neighborhood that stretches between North Columbia and Lloyd streets along the north side of Rosemary Street.
For many college students, the ultimate sign of adulthood is leaving the comforts of the residence halls to the freedom of an off-campus house or apartment.
But there might be unintended consequences of moving off campus.
“Over the course of the last few decades, the changing demographics show a high displacement of African-American and long-term residents and a sharp increase of student rentals,” said Hudson Vaughan, director of programs at The Marian Cheek Jackson Center, a group that works to preserve the history of the Northside neighborhood.
In the 10 years after 2000, the black population decreased by almost 25 percent to fewer than 700 people.
“Long-term residents are greatly challenged when houses are over-occupied by students, and the houses ... don’t recognize and respect the neighborhood,” Vaughan said.
“The best way to fix this is both to maintain a balance of student and long-term residents and for the student houses that are in the neighborhood to be occupied by students who want to live in a neighborhood of connectivity, respect, history and diverse families who want to be in relationship with their neighbors.”
For a long time, Chapel Hill had to play catch-up.
The Chapel Hill Town Council approved the creation of a Northside Neighborhood Conservation District in February 2004. The district gave the council the ability to impose special rules on the Northside neighborhood.
The Town Council quickly began working on enacting laws that said residents could park no more than four cars at their Northside homes. This, on top of the town’s existing rule that wouldn’t allow more than four unrelated people to live in a home together, drew criticism from student renters.
During the 2013-14 academic year, students started a petition against the town’s occupancy rules. The petition was unrecognized by Town Council members, who said they still prioritize preserving the neighborhood’s historic character.
“Your stereotypical example of gentrification is of a big, urban neighborhood that’s gone through several decades of disinvestment to the point where prices are very low,” said Michael Webb, a research associate for the Center for Urban and Regional Studies.
“Typically, you don’t see it in college towns like Chapel Hill because they’re smaller. They ... often times don’t have the housing associated with gentrification.”
The town isn’t alone in battling students’ sprawl into historic neighborhoods across Chapel Hill.
In 2012, the University announced it would spend up to $210,000 to study the impact students have on the Northside neighborhood. And the University’s Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life and Community Involvement has long tried to better educate students about the effect they can have on longtime residents.
“Our hope for the future of the Northside neighborhood is the full implementation of the Northside and Pine Knolls Community Plan,” said Sarah Vinas, a planner in the town’s office of housing and community.
“(The community plan) is a collaborative action plan that articulates specific solutions to community issues, like affordable housing, cultural preservation, enforcement and parking.”
But private market renters will still be more at risk of gentrification than homeowners because renters are at the whim of their landlords to raise the rent, Webb said.
“Places change. And you can’t put the world in a snow globe and say that this neighborhood is low income now and is going to be low income forever,” he said.
“The difficulty is always bringing in some folks who are of a higher-income cohort, while also providing policies that will protect some residents that will want to stay.”