On June 30, some residents of University Gardens, an affordable housing community in Chapel Hill, received letters from their landlord stating that they had to vacate their apartments before the start of August.
“I didn't know nothing until I got a letter on my door,” Jay, a resident who requested The Daily Tar Heel not to disclose his full name, said. “It's crazy – what the hell can someone do in 30 days?”
Orange County Housing Director Corey Root said the landlord and owner of University Gardens is evicting some residents because of plans to sell some of the units. The complex did not respond to the DTH's request for comment.
When informed of the pending eviction, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, Town of Chapel Hill, Community Empowerment Fund, EMPOWERment, Inc. and Community Home Trust joined forces to provide aid and resources for University Gardens residents.
According to Renee Price, an Orange County BOCC chairperson, the coalition of these organizations spoke with residents about their needs and then spoke directly with the owner of University Gardens.
They reached an agreement to extend the residents' notices until the end of September if the coalition balanced the outstanding dues of residents being evicted, covered their rent and provided a $500-per-lease incentive, Root said in an email to the DTH.
Although he wasn't prepared to be evicted, Jay said he had wanted to leave University Gardens for a while.
“This was my sister's place before she died, so I decided to stay here even though it ain't much of a home to me," Jay said. "I never felt like this town was my home. There's a community — one that formed with all the people going through hard shit — but the landlords and the town don't care about us."
Another resident of University Gardens, Kevin Nesnow, grew up in Chapel Hill. He said that he noticed a lot of economic growth and an increase in prices with little accommodation for those who have been here for generations.
“I don't think enough emphasis was placed on providing areas of affordable housing," Nesnow said. "The displacement of locals and residents — with property taxes going up and things like this pushing people outside of their hometown — is a common thread. It targets minorities and people of color. It's gentrification that doesn't need to exist.”
Root said the coalition started the process of covering costs for the residents by accessing emergency rent assistance funds.
"I’m very pleased with the collaboration and with people being able to stay in their units," Root said. "Much of this work is still underway, so (I'm) also concerned that we’re able to complete what needs to happen within these tight deadlines."
As they wait for more progress in the negotiation, the coalition has worked to connect families with urgent resources to find new housing — like the county's Housing Helpline, its Emergency Housing Assistance program, the federal Housing Choice Voucher program and the county Eviction Diversion program.
University Gardens resident Latoya Smith said she was pleased with the efforts of the coalition but wasn't satisfied by the state of affordable housing and ongoing displacement in the town.
“This Chapel Hill is completely different from the one that I knew as a kid," Smith said. "I can't call it home anymore, even though I wish I could."
Smith also said she feels there is no room for her and her community, noting that Chapel Hill is not just the University.
“I just feel like if they really cared, they would prioritize housing the vulnerable, historic citizens who are here to stay for the town instead of catering to attracting more who have money and come here for the research,” she said. “That comes before anything.”
Affordable housing in Chapel Hill
The median household income in Chapel Hill is $86,400, according to the Town's affordable housing midyear report. Those whose yearly earnings fall below 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) are classified as low-income in Orange County.
Because of this, Chapel Hill provides living space for its low-income population with about 36 percent of the Town's housing considered affordable.
However, affordable housing for extremely low-income community members — or those who make less than 30 percent of the AMI — can still be difficult to secure.
As of January 2022, only 4 percent of housing in Chapel Hill had prices affordable for extremely low-income community members. Even for those units which are available, there is often a long wait or poor living conditions, Jay said.
Price said there are a lot of barriers in place that disrupt the local government's ability to increase low-income housing.
“The state legislature is not on our side right now, and they aren't really interested in talking about affordable housing," she said. "They are more focused on generating revenue."
To get around their inability to make sweeping mandates, local governments have hired new staff, funded studies, partnered with local organizations, incentivized landlords, applied for grants and spent funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, Price said.
Editor's note: Grant Alexander volunteered with CEF this summer.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.