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The need for affordable housing in Orange County rose during the pandemic

The Pine Knolls Community Center sits on Johnson St in Carrboro on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020. Empowerment, Inc., a Chapel Hill-based organization, is looking to repurpose the Community Center and use the land for affordable housing.

Several low-income households struggling to afford rent during the pandemic are facing the threat of eviction as legal protections expire and governmental financial cushions run out. 

Between 2000 and 2011, the median income in Orange County increased three times more than the population during that same time, indicating that a higher percentage of high-income people had moved into the area. This is according to a comparison between a 2000 census and 2007-2011 American Community Survey.

As a result, new housing construction in Orange County has "responded predominantly to a higher income market," causing rent prices to grow and affordable housing units to decline, according to the Orange County Affordable Housing Strategic Plan for 2016-2020. 

When the pandemic hit, the already high need for affordable housing in Orange County flew through the roof as people lost their jobs, said Penny Rich, chairperson of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. These job losses disproportionately affected workers in the retail and food industries, she said.

The average annual salary was $26,930 for a retail sales employee and $20,810 for a food prep employee in Orange County in 2019, according to the North Carolina Housing Coalition. In comparison, the annual income needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Orange County is $39,600, according to the data. 

Delores Bailey, executive director of EmPOWERment Inc., said a part-time job for some families could mean the difference between that family being able to pay rent and utilities and getting evicted. 

“For people living in rental units who were just making it and needed that paycheck every week, now it’s stopped and they don’t know what to do,” Bailey said.

Rich said there was a brief period of breathing room for tenants beginning in April when N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley temporarily postponed eviction proceedings and utility shut-offs in the state until June 1. On May 30, Gov. Roy Cooper extended this moratorium on evictions for three weeks and utility shut-offs for 60 days. 

However, the eviction and utility shutoff moratorium expired in late summer, so Rich said many landlords are beginning to file for eviction in court.

“At some point, the money is gonna run out, and people are gonna run out of money,” Rich said. “The concern is, if we continue with this pandemic, then jobs are not going to be readily available and people are not gonna be able to pay rent, and then we have a big problem on our hands.”

Rich said the issue then becomes the fate of the people evicted because they can’t live on the streets, and having a lot of people in shelters during a pandemic is a concern too.

Nearly $200,000 of the first round of federal CARES Act money in Orange County went toward the county's Emergency Housing Assistance Fund for eviction prevention, and another $100,000 went to foreclosure prevention, according to data provided by Rich. 

On Tuesday, the county will vote on how to distribute the almost $1.7 million in the second round of CARES Act funding, the bulk of which — $965,000 — is proposed to go toward eviction prevention, an area that has received the most funding from the county.

In January and February, before the pandemic, Rich said the county spent a total of about $16,000 per month for eviction prevention, compared to about $71,000 given out in May. This increased funding equated to helping about 60 households, she said. 

“The demand just became overwhelming,” Rich said. 

For help completing the eviction diversion funding application, Bailey said tenants can reach out to EmPOWERment Inc., which provides free housing counseling services.

“I’m worried that half of the Orange County residents who need the fund don’t know about it,” Bailey said.

EmPOWERment Inc. offers free housing counseling services to help people with financial woes related to housing costs, Bailey said. She said there has been an almost 200 percent increase since June in the number of people using the counseling service. 

“COVID just intensified the panic if you were already financially worried for your family,” Bailey said.

Bailey said she recommends people reach out to their utility companies, such as Orange County Water and Sewage Authority and Duke Energy, to see if they can get an extension on their bills. Bailey also said EmPOWERment will begin accepting applications in September for their MOM utility fund, which helps low-income residents pay their utility bills.

Emila Sutton, executive director for the Orange County Housing and Community Development Department, said a landlord incentive program was created in July to provide landlords a $1,000 bonus for signing new 12-month leases, and $500 for each additional lease.

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In June, the county commissioners allocated $50,000 of CARES Act money toward the landlord incentive program.

“It’s a challenge, because it's a fluid situation, there's a lot of moving parts to it," Rich said. "Like the rest of the pandemic, we don't know what the best practices are yet. We are building the plane and flying it at the same time. Usually the saying is you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but this time it’s not — we are truly trying to accommodate a situation that is so fluid."

@DTHCityState | 

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