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'I want to move over here': Community members reflect on cost burden in Chapel Hill


About one in five homeowners and more than half of renters in Chapel Hill are cost-burdened – meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, mortgage or other housing-related needs – according to Chapel Hill Affordable Housing's most recent quarterly report.

Thousands of people who work in Chapel Hill live in surrounding areas and commute into town because they can not afford the rental or purchase costs. 

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Debbie Everly is the chair of the board of directors for Orange County Living Wage and said that, most of the time, landlords want to see that a renter has three times the income of their monthly rent.

“At a minimum wage per hour in Orange County, I mean, you’re not qualifying, at all,” she said. “So that means you’re having to go farther and farther out of the area in order to find someplace that’s affordable to live.”

She said the Orange County Living Wage recalculates the living wage on a yearly basis with the standard that nobody pays for more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing.

It is a huge hardship for people to find affordable housing in Chapel Hill, and there are not many houses for sale in the area for under $300,000, Everly said.

Janine Brignola, a stylist who works in Chapel Hill, lives in Apex because she can’t find an affordable place to live in town.

“I think for me, I want to move over here and I've been looking for a place that I could afford,” she said. “I am a single mom. I'm in college full-time right now. I'm taking classes through UNC-Pembroke online, and then I'll be going to law school next year and I work full time.”

Brignola works at Syd's Hair Shop, which is an Orange County Living Wage-certified employer. She said it is her first time working for an employer that claims they offer a living wage and actually offer it.

Brignola said she’s heard some community members say the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the cost burden facing many people in Chapel Hill, while others think Orange County has always been a very expensive area to live in.

Rental unit monthly prices in the Chapel Hill area have increased roughly $400 to $600 in the past few years, Sharron Reid, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development housing counselor at EMPOWERment, Inc., said 

“We've seen the steady increase and that has caused a burden for families, some paying more than, you know, 40 or 50 percent of their income trying to stay housed,” she said.

Linda Ellison is the case manager at the HomeStart women and families shelter and said many women coming into the shelter cannot afford daycare for their children. 

“A lot of people don’t have the proper transportation, even though Chapel Hill has a bus system,” she said. “Sometimes it's kind of hard for a mother to put children on the bus and give them to daycare and get them to work and things like that.”

Ellison added that some people are unable to find work because they have backgrounds that make it difficult for them to get hired. 

She also said it is important to know that many unhoused people are simply down on their luck.

“I work and everything, but when COVID hit and my better half lost his job and I had to come to head of the household, it was hard,” she said. “Everybody goes through all types of situations and things happen, and so we’re a paycheck away from being homeless ourselves.”

Reid said she and her coworkers at nonprofit organizations feel the effects of the housing crisis along with their clients. Those who work at nonprofits in the area also have to decide whether to stay in Chapel Hill or move farther out due to the increased rent prices, she said.

Reid said more subsidized housing and more landlords who accept vouchers are necessary steps to assist families experiencing cost burden. 

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“A solution needs to be made, not more conversation on what can happen and what can change it and make it more affordable,” Brignola said. “Some hard policy needs to be put into place that will actually offer a solution.”

@DTHCityState |

Lucy Marques

Lucy Marques is a 2023-24 assistant city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She was previously a city & state senior writer. Lucy is a junior pursuing a double major in political science and Hispanic literatures and cultures.

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