A year-and-a-half after the Town of Chapel Hill designated public housing community Trinity Court for redevelopment, the apartments still sit vacant.
A chain blocks off the road leading to the community, whose windows are boarded up. Refrigerators and furniture are strewn about the property and Trinity Court is more of a home to roaming deer than it is to Chapel Hill’s housing-insecure residents.
In January of 2019, the Town of Chapel Hill held a public meeting on the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program, which is intended to improve local public and affordable housing properties with assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Trinity Court was designated as the first site for redevelopment due to structural damage that rendered it uninhabitable.
The community was built in the Northside neighborhood in 1975. With its 40 units, it’s one of the largest of the Town’s 13 public housing communities. Trinity Court was vacated in 2018 due to damages from leakage and mold — a common problem in the Town's older public housing units — and subsequently slated for redevelopment under a Rental Assistance Demonstration Conversion.
Redevelopment, however, is no quick process. Chapel Hill Town Mayor Pro Tem Michael Parker said construction on the project is not set to begin until 2022. After weighing various options for redevelopment, the Council decided the best course of action was to demolish and rebuild Trinity Court, ideally with more than 40 units.
“We are committed to doing (redevelopment) at the highest standard that we possibly can,” Parker said. “Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a lot longer than any of us would like.”
Implementing Rental Assistance Demonstration will allow the Town to integrate private and public funding to redevelop Trinity Court through partnership with a developer, preferably one who has experience with affordable housing, Loryn Clark, executive director of the Chapel Hill Housing and Community Department, said.
Currently, 296 units are occupied in Chapel Hill, while 251 families were waiting for public housing as of Aug. 31. Movement in and out of units is minimal, as only a handful of units open each year, Clark said.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the housing insecurity crisis nationwide, Clark said the length of the waiting list has not changed much. She said the Emergency Housing Assistance fund, administered by Orange County, provides relief to those experiencing housing insecurity because of the pandemic, and further referenced a moratorium on evictions.
Clark said the Town also works directly with families to avoid evictions, particularly given the loss of income due to the pandemic.
“Our goal, first of all, is always to work with families and work with people to try to adjust their rent if necessary, but to do what we can to keep them in their housing,” she said.
Regardless, the waitlist remains long, and public housing is not accessible to everyone who needs it. Elizabeth O’nan, a Chapel Hill resident and disability rights activist, said she has given up on accessing public housing due to its inability to meet her specific needs.
“I have a unique disability,” O’nan said. “I was in a very, very severe toxic exposure that disabled me and the housing that's available doesn't meet my disability needs.”
The exposure to chlordane, a pesticide now outlawed in the United States, left O’nan with a condition called toxic encephalopathy, as well as severe intolerance to a number of chemicals. The presence of all manner of compounds, found in items like pesticides, dryer sheets and air fresheners, can cause harmful reactions.
“We need a buffer zone so that we’re not constantly getting anaphylactic responses,” she said.
But that kind of chemical control is hard to implement in public housing, where units are often close together. Additionally, chemicals used to treat construction materials and build the units can endanger people like O’nan, as can the presence of mold.
Clark said the Town does monthly pest control in their public housing units, but upon request will leave individual units untreated.
Individuals with chemical sensitivity often have to search for housing on their own, O’nan said, which can be difficult to afford when their conditions prevent them from working a stable job and living in and around certain areas. Additionally, the demand for student housing near the University and downtown in neighborhoods like Northside limits the availability of housing to permanent residents.
O’nan uses Social Security and financial help from her daughter to pay rent.
To provide alternatives to public housing, the Orange County Housing Authority has administered over 600 vouchers under the national Housing Choice Voucher Program, which allows participants to choose housing that suits them, provided the owner agrees to participate in the program.
The Town also partners with non-profit organizations who work to create more affordable housing, like EmPOWERment, Inc. and Community Home Trust. With a slow-moving waitlist for public housing, such organizations help to alleviate housing insecurity.
“That’s really a big reason why we’re really interested in not only rebuilding more units at Trinity Court or Craig-Gomains,” Clark said, “but also working with our partners in the county to try to increase the number of affordable rental units that exist in general or trying to support families who are currently in rental housing.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.