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Triangle creatives face soaring rent, lack of affordable housing

Artists sell art at a local art show. Photo Courtesy of Natalia Lopes.

In April, cartoonist Max Huffman's monthly rent increased from $800 to $1,400 when the Carrboro apartment building he had lived in for three years changed ownership.

When Huffman started looking for other options, he said he realized that the new price was standard, or even on the low end, for similar apartments in the area.

“Rent had exploded without me noticing,” Huffman said in an email. “I felt like one of those frogs in a slowly warming pot.”

Chapel Hill and the Triangle area are home to a vibrant arts community, but with rents at historic highs and shortages of studio space, creatives are struggling to afford housing and workspaces.

Now living in Chicago, Huffman said his friends were paying less for housing than what is now the standard in Chapel Hill.

“I do think that Carrboro specifically is becoming more and more inhospitable to people who make music and draw pictures — the foundation of the creative identity it’s famous for,” Huffman said in an email. “I love that town and I’m bummed to see it.”

Cartoonist Keith Knight, whose work inspired the Hulu series "Woke," moved to Carrboro from Los Angeles in 2017. He said he has observed a larger trend of artists being driven out of bigger cities.

“The middle class in big towns and cities is just decimated," Knight said. "You can’t be an artist and live in those towns and those cities anymore.” 

Now, rent at his former two-bedroom LA apartment is $3,600 a month.

“If you have to pay that much money just to have a roof over your head, that’s insane," Knight said. "You can’t function.” 

He said he predicts that the exodus of artists from big cities will continue to cycle through places like Raleigh and Durham — and it seems to have already begun.

“Me and my whole generation of friends have definitely struggled with housing,” Natalia Lopes, a digital illustrator and comic artist based in the Triangle area, said. 

Lopes, who recently moved back in with their parents to save money, said that their social media feed is filled with artists struggling to make ends meet. Facing eviction and high rent costs, Lopes said their friends skip meals or go without food for a day or two to compensate.  

It’s difficult to make a living in the arts in the first place, said Jeri Lynn Schulke, a theatre practitioner and Director of Arts & Culture at the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership.

“Most people in the Triangle are not making their living as artists because you’re just not going to make a ton of money,” she said.  

Schulke said that the majority of artists take on a second job or live off of savings to cover their expenses. It's also difficult for artists to find affordable workspaces, she added.

Even though there are spaces available — empty storefronts on the ground floors of new apartments in Durham, for example — rents are so high that they sit there empty, according to Schulke.

“It’s tough for people to make a go starting out with that kind of rent," she said.  "On that end, the practice of art making, art sharing — it’s tough in this community.”

But artists find unconventional solutions, Schulke said. She has a friend who runs a theater in Raleigh. They perform shows in a church's sanctuary and the church holds services on the company’s set. 

Arts hubs, like the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, the Eno Arts Mill in Hillsborough and Liberty Arts in Durham, are a partial solution, providing gallery spaces and some limited studio space for artists. 

Peel Gallery, a retail and community event space featuring the work of emerging local artists, is another community hub. 

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Peel owner and photographer Lindsay Metivier moved from Boston to Carrboro in 2016, where the rent for her first apartment was a third of what she paid in Boston. Now, rents are comparable in both places.

“Multiple artists in our space have been displaced due to the insane increase in rents,” she said in an email. “While I’m happy their work still has a home at Peel, our town is changing. When I moved here there were more art galleries and event spaces. The artists and musicians I was meeting were living more comfortably here than in Boston. That isn’t the case anymore.”

Metivier said she worries that when Peel’s lease is up, they might be unable to afford to stay, too.

“It’s a known reality that artists and cultural activities make a street, town or city more attractive,” Metivier wrote. “As the neighborhoods get more popular, property values rise, rents rise and artists as well as longtime residents get priced out.”

@dthlifestyle |