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Community members march on Franklin Street to demand local affordable housing

Demonstrators began at the Peace and Justice Plaza and marched to the Marian Cheek Jackson Center on Saturday to bring attention to the town’s lack of affordable housing.

Demonstrators gathered at the Peace and Justice Plaza in downtown Chapel Hill on Saturday to bring attention to the town’s lack of affordable housing.

The “House Us Now” march, organized by a coalition of local nonprofit organizations, drew around 100 participants. 

The group marched down Franklin Street to the Marian Cheek Jackson Center on West Rosemary Street, in hopes of constructing affordable housing units for people who make less than 30 percent of the area median income. In Chapel Hill, the AMI is about $22,500 per year.  

March leader Yvette Mathews is the office and community organizer of the Chapel Hill branch of the Community Empowerment Fund, a local nonprofit dedicated to alleviating homelessness and poverty.

Matthews said Chapel Hill does not provide enough housing for individuals living on or under 30 percent AMI. Kristina Smith, program coordinator, said the housing that currently exists is too expensive for these residents, and mostly luxury apartments are under construction. 

She said those who earn minimum wage or live on disability checks are especially affected by the housing shortage. 

"The people that are not being serviced are the people that service people every day," she said. "We're talking about waitresses, people who work in restaurants. We're talking about low-income people." 

When Quinton Harper, a voting rights advocate and manager at the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, moved to Carrboro 12 years ago, his rent was $550 dollars per month. 

Since then, it has risen to $1000. His story is not unique. 

An April 2022 report found that rent has risen by nearly 20 percent across North Carolina in the past year. In Durham, the median rent for a two-bedroom is $1,416 per month — which is above the national average of $1,306. 

Since demand for housing is so high, developers are able to charge more than they could previously.  

“A lot of people are being priced out,” Maria José Chapa, a civic engagement director at Action for the Climate Emergency, said.  

Carrboro Town Council member Barbara Foushee said that there is a severe lack of housing for people earning less than 30 percent of AMI. 

The Town of Carrboro has approved a strategy to construct affordable housing on town-owned land, Foushee said. Though some land has been selected for potential construction, a site survey has not yet been conducted to determine how much is viable for development.

Foushee said specifics have not yet been determined because the plan is still in its early stages. 

However, the Town’s options are limited. For example, the Town of Carrboro does not practice inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to build a certain amount of affordable housing with every project, Foushee said. 

Chapel Hill Town Council member Paris Miller-Foushee said that even with inclusionary zoning, the Town of Chapel Hill has little leverage. North Carolina law currently bans city and county governments from regulating rent prices.

Local efforts

According to Harper, who is on the Carrboro Affordable Housing Advisory Commission, the Town contributes $337,500 to affordable housing projects every year.

“That could easily be a million dollars,” Harper said. “It just means that our elected officials have to say that this is our priority.”

To fill the gap, community organizations like EmPOWERment Inc. have partnered with local governments to address the need for affordable housing. Headed by Executive Director Delores Bailey, the organization manages 58 affordable rental properties in Orange County to address high demand. 

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Harper also called on UNC to pay workers a living wage, stating that many local UNC employees are forced to spend more than the recommended 30 percent of their income on housing. 

Bailey said building more student housing would take pressure off of communities like Northside, which have been gentrified by students moving off-campus

In the 1990s, developers began buying properties in Northside and selling them to investors who then rented them to students at prices local residents could not afford. Due to this, some longtime residents have said they no longer recognize the place they grew up in. 

“I would really love to see UNC step up and build more student housing,” Miller-Foushee said.

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