When Juliana Hemela got her rent renewal offer at the end of June, she was shocked. The rent for her single-person apartment was increasing by about $490 per month.
“I didn’t find anything affordable for me and my salary wasn’t increasing," Hemela said. "So, it was hard to keep up with other price increases when I wasn’t getting a pay increase."
She said she was able to find housing by posting on a community Facebook page. The experience, she said, helped her feel validation because other people were going through the same experience.
"I found a place and they seem like really great people who want to help me in my time of need," she said. "If more people were like that, the world would be a much better place."
Although inflation hit a 40-year high and many residents' rent and housing costs increased, salaries have remained the same.
Sharron Weaver, who has lived in Northside for 62 years, said she supports any affordable housing initiatives, particularly for the elderly in Northside and Chapel Hill.
“The neighborhood has changed tremendously because of the students,” she said. “The elderly Afro-Americans who left their homes to their children, with the property taxes going up, they can’t afford to keep the. So, they have to sell them."
A complex issue
For housing to be considered affordable in Chapel Hill, it must cost less than 30 percent of a household’s income.
Less than half of Orange County residents had affordable housing between 2015 and 2019, according to U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey data from the 2021 State of the Community Data Book.
Subsidized housing is available for households with an income under 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) for their household size, according to the Town of Chapel Hill's affordable housing website.
The AMI in Orange County was $80,600 in 2019, according to data from the North Carolina Housing Coalition.
However, the average annual salaries for low-income workers are often much lower than $80,600. For example, food prep and service workers earned an average annual salary of $20,810 in 2019, according to data from the North Carolina Housing Coalition.
Carrboro Town Council member Randee Haven-O’Donnell said subsidization is the most viable way to provide affordable housing.
However, they said it’s complicated to navigate around subsidized housing in a town with little space and money to put towards it.
“The issue of affordability is very complex because it has to do with overall economics, and then it has to do with the added insecurity of addressing homelessness, addressing housing insecurity and addressing the diminishing viability of the middle class,” Haven-O'Donnell said.
Sarah Viñas, affordable housing and community connections director of Chapel Hill Affordable Housing, stressed the importance of rooting housing affordability work in the community while maintaining a partnership between government and private organizations.
"Affordable housing is one of our biggest, hardest challenges that we face as a community and nation,” Viñas said. “It takes federal solutions, state solutions, local, community-based solutions to try to really get at it and bring it to bear.”
Local and community-based solutions
A variety of groups are working to provide and maintain affordable housing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, an area facing increases in market values of homes and rentals.
Community Home Trust (CHT) operates with a land trust model. In this model, the organization owns the land, but leases homes to the owners with a 99-year lease that is 30 to 50 percent below market value.
According to Kimberly Sanchez, executive director of Community Home Trust, when people who own a home through CHT decide to move, they can only sell the home back to CHT. This system keeps the organizations’ houses off the market, which is crucial for maintaining affordable housing rates in a market that continues to get more expensive.
“What matters is the person's income and what they can pay for it – and that’s forever,” Sanchez said.
Habitat for Humanity Orange County is another nonprofit that builds new, affordable housing for residents of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Their mission also includes repairing homes in the area for current community members.
“We look at the homeownership side of things, but also, how can we keep people in their homes?" Kaitlyn Kopala, communications and events manager of Habitat for Humanity Orange County, said.
Both CHT and Habitat for Humanity are working with the Town of Chapel Hill, Self-Help Credit Union and CASA to build Homestead Gardens: a multi-income development at 2200 Homestead Rd. on land owned by the Town.
The development will have 117 units that are a mixture of rentals and home ownership, which will include duplexes, townhouses and apartments.
Habitat for Humanity has also broken ground in the Weavers Grove Community, a similar mixed-income development project they are working on with community partners.
Carrboro Town Council member Barbara Foushee emphasized that advocacy for affordable housing is important within the community and government.
“There has to be a high level of community engagement to, one, know what you’re doing and, two, hopefully buy into it and support it,” she said.
“House Us Now!” are rallies for affordable housing in Chapel Hill co-sponsored by the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, EmPOWERment, Inc., Community Empowerment Fund and the Inter-Faith Council. The next rally is taking place on Saturday, Sept. 24.
“There’s so much strength and healing, the amplification of voices," Jennifer Gill, development and communication director at IFC, said, "when we come together as a group of people instead of being in isolation in our individual jobs and our individual homes."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the date of the next "House Us Now!" rally. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
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