Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Guide to Finding (Non-Student) Housing in Chapel Hill

Throughout the month of June, North Carolina Campus Compact will be publishing articles written by our VISTA members. These pieces give readers access to first-hand experiences and reflections of VISTAs serving throughout the state. We are excited for them to share their perspectives on community and service with us! 

Please note: Any opinions expressed on the VISTA VIEW blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, or policies of North Carolina Campus Compact, the AmeriCorps VISTA program or the Corporation for National and Community Service.

By Sarah Cohn, NC Campus Compact VISTA at the Community Empowerment Fund in Chapel Hill

VISTA Sarah Cohn showing
CEF  and VISTA pride
I have so many unforgettable stories to share from my VISTA year at the Community Empowerment Fund. One particular story keeps resurfacing for me, though, at this point in time. This story is of Thomas, age 70, whose search for housing began last August when he found himself back at the shelter. In March, after finally saving up enough to put down a deposit, Thomas found the perfect one-bedroom within his budget. When he brought his application in to the realtor, he was told flat out, “We don’t rent to homeless people.”

My stomach turns even as I write these words. The coldness and lack of humanity are so tangible. How can a fellow human bear to keep someone just out of reach of the most basic of human needs? How can one overcome such discrimination? Thomas’s story brings a much debated issue to the forefront of my thoughts – affordable housing.

Let me explain that a little further. “Affordable housing” is an issue we hear about all the time, in news articles and on campaign platforms. Of course it’s scarce - who has ever had an easy time finding an apartment within their budget that’s perfectly suited to their needs? But in some communities, the lack of affordable housing takes on a whole new meaning. One widely accepted definition of affordable rent is 30 percent or less of your income. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is no stranger to this norm, affirming that “families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care”. For someone who works full time at minimum wage, this should mean roughly $377 per month. And that’s working 40 hours every week of the year, before taxes. In Chapel Hill, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment ranges from $833 - $1,213. This is 2-3 times what that full-time worker can afford, leaving them with limited options: find a higher-paying job, move out of town, or possibly become homeless.

Our country’s paucity of affordable housing is well established, and I could prove so with dozens more numbers. But for a moment, let’s imagine that affordable housing is plentiful. Minimum wage has been increased to an actual living wage, perhaps around $12.00 per hour, and rental prices have come down. That same full-time worker can now put in applications with several rental companies. But what about the other barriers that can prevent someone from finding housing? To name a few, these are: bad credit, a criminal record, negative past rental history, not making three times your rent in monthly income, socioeconomic or racial discrimination, or, if you are a subsidy recipient, landlords not willing to accept your voucher. It turns out that the raw lack of affordable places to live is just one item on a long checklist of barriers to finding housing.

Last year, General Services Corp. (GSC) bought the majority of Orange County’s largest apartment complexes. GSC refuses to accept Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly known as Section 8), HUD’s housing subsidy program designed to supplement minimum wages and benefits to allow community members to rent at market value. The corporate buyout displaced many families last year and will displace dozens more in the coming months. CEF is one of many organizations that will provide services and advocacy to such individuals and families as they begin a complex and trying process. A housing crisis has dawned in Chapel Hill.

And it’s not just GSC – many private landlords don’t accept Housing Choice Vouchers, either. In North Carolina, they don’t have to. Although the vouchers allow tenants to pay full rent, their rent check is coming from the federal government, which means much paperwork and an inspection are required. Why would any landlord, let alone a huge corporation headquartered states away, want to spend time on paperwork and inspections when they can easily target college students and charge even more? It’s a simple business decision, but one that reeks of discrimination.

Did I mention that the Housing Choice Voucher wait list in Orange County has been closed for over two years? If you don’t already have a voucher, your options for assistance are minimal to none. Better get to working that full-time job (if you’re lucky enough to get one – that’s a whole other set of obstacles) so you can start making not nearly enough to pay market rent!

The barriers to finding housing in Orange County are multiple, layered and woven into other systems of oppression and poverty. I am grateful to be part of an organization willing to adapt to changing social conditions and to advocate for others, but there is so much more that needs to happen. For now, I hope that CEF and our community partners can lend advocacy to all those trying to navigate the ever-growing obstacle course that is finding a place to live. For the long-term, I hope we can all invest a little more heart in our own communities.

You can learn more on local and national housing initiatives by watching this video for the Penny for Housing Campaign in Orange County or reading this article about The 100,000 Homes Campaign, a national effort with a task force here in Orange County.