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Pandemic crises generate progress in Orange County’s Emergency Housing Department


A resident of the Northside neighborhood reclines on their porch on Feb. 8, 2021. Chapel Hill's affordable housing plan continues to focus on Emergency Housing, public housing communities, and rehabilitation projects during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Renters and landlords alike are struggling to keep up with the turning tides of the housing market in a pandemic. The Orange County Emergency Housing Assistance program has stepped up to accommodate those in unpredictable living situations. 

Delores Bailey is the executive director of EmPOWERment, Inc., a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit that helps renters who are fearful of eviction and homeowners who cannot pay their mortgages. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on renters and homeowners in Orange County, Bailey said. 

To help solve the looming housing crisis, the Orange County Housing and Community Development department coordinated with the towns of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough to pool housing funds and coordinate aid guidelines.  

What the Orange County Emergency Housing Assistance program is

The goal of the Emergency Housing Assistance program is to help people stay in their housing and avoid increased homelessness, Nate Broman-Fulks, affordable housing manager for Chapel Hill, said. He said affordable housing is a long-term need that will outlast the pandemic due to a nationwide trend of increasing rent and home prices. 

The program provides emergency funds to help Orange County residents with low incomes prevent eviction and homelessness, as well as secure and maintain stable housing.

“As housing practitioners, it’s our dream to build these programs up, it’s a dream to be able to provide a more researched and higher level of service to people in need,” Emila Sutton, director of Housing and Community Development for Orange County, said. 

Sutton said the office is now receiving 300 applications a month, compared to 34 applications in April 2020. The increase in applications is in part because of how the program has worked to lower the access barrier for residents in immediate need of housing aid. 

Prior to the pandemic, while Sutton was transitioning into her director position in September 2019, she said there was only a shell of what would become the Housing and Community Development program. $75,000 of local funds had been allocated by the department in 2017 toward risk mitigation and housing stabilization.  

With few to no guidelines for utilizing these funds, Sutton said her department agreed the best use was to help individuals calling their offices for aid to avoid eviction when they couldn’t make rent. Driving emergency checks to landlords to prevent renters from sliding into further debt was one of the few things their department focused on at the time.

But Sutton said the housing practitioners throughout the towns of Orange County realized that their department guidelines did not coordinate with each other efficiently. For example, Sutton said services Chapel Hill provided may not have been offered in Carrboro or another town. Additionally, she said the programs were not advertised very well, so they were underutilized. 

Sutton said when the pandemic hit, the departments realized the most effective way for the programs to function together would be by combining funding and guidelines. 

The department utilized local funds from Chapel Hill, Hillsborough and the county housing aid, along with the CARES funding that ran out in December. 

“It was really cool how the community came together to help people remain stable in their housing,” Sutton said. 

What comes next

Bailey said she predicts a mass eviction when the federal eviction moratorium is lifted, as landlords are also struggling to pay their bills. 

“We have HUD-certified housing counselors that work directly with Orange County and the emergency housing fund that Orange County has,” Bailey said. “So we're connecting people, helping them get their paperwork together and get letters to landlords to let them know that the money is coming in.”

Sutton said these issues are constantly on the minds of her and her staff. At this moment, the staff awaits funds from the Community Development Block Grant and Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which will be the next phase of development for their department. 

"It's been really crazy how we've been able to kind of shoe-string it and keep helping people,” Sutton said. “I have to say that the really unique thing about Orange County is its discipline and rallying that has really allowed us to keep eviction numbers low.”

Those in need of emergency housing aid can find more information about the Emergency Housing Assistance Program here

Alexandra Myers contributed reporting. 

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