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Chapel Hill residents adjust as students move off campus

A "For Rent" sign sits in the front yard of a Pine Knolls residence on Monday, Sep. 14, 2020. Chapel Hill's housing market is in the middle of a significant boom, as students have been given no choice but to evacuate campus and turn to off-campus alternatives.

In the weeks following UNC’s decision to send students home in early August, Chapel Hill resident Janie Alston got some new neighbors. 

Students moved into the house behind hers, she said, adding to the large number of renters surrounding her Lindsay Street home. She and other long-term residents watched as students scrambled to find last-minute housing in downtown Chapel Hill and Carrboro. 

The mass exodus from campus housing created an unseasonal spike in interest in student housing, some realtors said, a boon for real estate companies that hadn’t leased all of their properties. But with new neighbors came new anxiety for some long-term residents worried about the potential of increased exposure to COVID-19.

Alston, who is 75 years old, said her student neighbors are largely respectful of community COVID-19 guidelines, but sometimes they walk around without masks or host parties. That makes Alston nervous.

“These kids are coming from I don’t know where and they’re young, so they can be carrying the virus without knowing, and I could get it somehow,” Alston said. “We have three seniors just in this neighborhood.”

Orange County COVID-19 case numbers shot from 1,555 cases on Aug. 10, UNC's first day of class, to 1,876 cases on Aug. 19, the day UNC moved entirely online. By Sept. 1, county case numbers reached 2,448.

Students and residents have long cohabited in downtown Chapel Hill, especially in the historically Black Northside and Pine Knolls neighborhoods. But close living quarters and interaction between students and elderly residents could be detrimental during a pandemic that is particularly harmful to older and Black communities. 

A student housing boom

Though real estate companies like Mill House Properties, Dunlap Lilley Properties and Columbia and Carr Property Management and Sales regularly lease properties to students, it’s almost never this late in the year. Most leases are signed in the school year prior to their move-in date, with some students committing to housing as early as October of the year before. 

This summer was relatively quiet, Mill House Properties Manager Evelyn Greene said, in part because students and parents were waiting to make housing decisions as they watched the pandemic unfold. She said Mill House Properties still had a few properties available, and some tenants from the spring wanted to end their leases early. It was unclear what the uncertain campus housing situation would mean for the realty company.  

“We weren't sure what way students and tenants would go,” Greene said “Whether everybody, including our current tenants and residents, would try to leave town.”

It quickly became clear that filling their remaining three-to-four bedroom properties wouldn’t be a problem after students could no longer stay in the dorms. 

“We were lucky that we had something to give students,” Greene said.

This trend wasn’t unique to Mill House. Dunlap Lilley Properties President Jim Lilley said he rented seven properties to students after the University went online. Columbia and Carr filled three newly finished homes with students in the same time period, said Chief Operating Officer Angela Huffman. Stratford Hills Apartments Leasing Supervisor Pam Hawk said her office took calls from at least 20 students looking for apartments.

Community and COVID-19

Collaborative projects like the Good Neighbor Initiative were established to increase communication between students and neighbors in areas that have historically been hot spots for loud noise and disruptions. But the initiative’s typical community cookout and door-to-door introductions were put on hold this year because of the virus. 

The initiative, founded through a partnership between UNC, the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, the Marian Cheek Jackson Center and EmPOWERment, Inc., among other community partners, is still working virtually to educate students on how their behavior impacts the communities they live in. The only difference is that their traditional good-neighbor messaging is now paired with public health messaging as well. 

“There’s a responsibility to the community if you think of yourself as an ally, if you think of yourself as an anti-racist activist, for example, if you promote and value movements like Black Lives Matter,” said Aaron Bachenheimer, UNC’s executive director for off-campus student life and community partnerships. “Practicing these things that we’re talking about go hand-in-hand with those values.”

Kathy Atwater, the Jackson Center’s community advocacy coordinator and a Northside native, said the majority of student neighbors she’s been in communication with are following health guidelines. 

Long-term residents and students are figuring out together what their new normal is going to look like. Atwater said neighbors aren’t afraid to ask people in violation of health guidelines to put on their mask or stand farther apart. 

“They have been adjusting, from what I can tell, fairly well,” Atwater said.

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Some residents have expressed their worries about their new neighbors on social media platforms like Nextdoor, while others have gone to realty companies with complaints. 

Mill House Properties received a handful of emails and calls from concerned residents, but Greene said many have been scared by the image of students moving in after the University saw a dramatic spike in cases. 

“It’s not fair to the students to assume all students are going to be causing issues,” Greene said. 


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