The struggle for a neighborhood

Apr. 14, 2011 12:36 am

With the St. Joseph CME Church nearly three-quarters full, the March 22 Northside community meeting could have been easily mistaken for a Sunday church service. Instead, on that Tuesday afternoon, community volunteers replaced altar boys, newsletters replaced hymns and even smiles couldn’t hide the tension in the atmosphere.

Residents, students and community organizers discussed the problems facing their neighborhood. Expensive housing, rapid development and tension with student renters are only some of the issues that residents have had to continuously confront, and residents are bent on overcoming them.

Almost all residents at the meeting had similar hopes for the future — a return to affordable housing, a renewal of the community and a chance for self-determination.

They discussed their rights in dealing with realtors and developers — situations most have already grown accustomed to. Ever since developers first set their sights on the traditionally working class neighborhood, residents have felt constant pressure from to sell their homes.

Residents were informed of Section 13 of the Chapel Hill’s Code of Ordinances, which regulates peddling and soliciting. The ordinance makes it illegal for realtors and developers to knock on doors in an attempt to sell a house for a resident if there is no invitation or “For Sale” sign.

Northside residents have come together before to take a stand: in the Civil Rights movement, during the establishment of the 2004 Northside Neighborhood Conservation District and in the Greenbridge debate. While there is no clear solution to Northside’s predicament at this point in its history, long-term residents remain united in voicing their frustrations and their hopes for the future.

“I hope that this is not going to be a one or two-time thing for the community,” said Romona Morrow, who attended the meeting and whose mother lives in Northside. “I hope that they continue to speak together. The town wants all of this to die down, but the meetings need to continue, plans need to be made.”

What is gentrification?

Facing the pressure of constant redevelopment

It’s no secret that Northside isn’t the neighborhood it used to be.

The change is visible in the increased diversity of its residents and the ten-story high-end condominiums that tower across from the traditionally working class neighborhood, where massive duplexes are replacing single-family homes. Change is also evident in  the growing tension and frustration of residents in a neighborhood plagued by the effects of gentrification.

The pressure for development is taking its toll on the historically black neighborhood, and the town is struggling to balance the need to grow with the needs of neighborhoods like Northside.

Since 2010, the town has been working with the Raleigh-based consultant KlingStubbins to develop a Downtown Framework and Action Plan, which could revise and redevelop parts of downtown Chapel Hill and the surrounding areas.

The downtown proposal could have significant effects on Northside. In its current draft, the framework suggests building new road connections and parking decks in areas where homes currently stand. It also underscores certain areas of Northside as prime for redevelopment.

At the request of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, a center of public history and community organizing, the presentation of the downtown development framework to the Town Council was postponed until after the consultant and town officials could meet with more Northside residents.

At the resulting meeting in February, town officials decided to postpone the presentation of the plan due to visible frustration and anger among residents who didn’t feel included in the process. While no date has yet been set to present the framework to the Town Council, the community is staying alert so that residents might have a chance to raise their concerns directly to the council.

One concern, raised by residents in a March 28 petition to the council, is that developers are finding ways to skirt the 2004 Northside Neighborhood Conversation District regulations . The regulations include design and building standards which prohibit the construction of two-family duplexes in the neighborhood and limits multistory apartment complexes. However, some have alleged that these types of units are still being built. The petition asks for an emergency freeze on new development.

“I agree that whenever rules are adopted, some will find a way to get around them,” Town Manager Roger Stancil stated in an e-mail. “When creating development rules and regulations, it is almost impossible to consider every consequence and response.”

In response to the petition, Stancil said the Town Council has directed a review of the Land Use Management Ordinance, which regulates neighborhood conservation regulations. A response to the petition is scheduled to be issued in May.

“We believe improved two-way communication about all of these issues will ease the frustrations of not only the community, but also the dedicated town employees who are seeking to serve the Northside community,” Stancil said.

Mark Patmore, the owner of Mercia Residential Properties and a longtime resident of Northside, said that the conservation district could be having unwanted effects on the neighborhood. He said that in his experience, most families want houses that are larger, have several bathrooms and a garage. But because of the regulations, he said, those types of houses can’t be built — instead, they attract students.

“We have limitations that are put on us which I feel are going to be counterproductive,” Patmore said. “We’re putting in a school over here, but we don’t have any kids in the neighborhood because no one’s gonna want to buy a 1,000-square-foot house for themselves and their three kids, so they kind of shot themselves in the foot by creating these restrictions.”

Patmore, who owns more than 40 rental units in Northside, said that because of conservation rules houses in Northside have become even more costly per square foot since they cannot be expanded to bring the cost down.


“All it did was it ran the house prices up, because now you can’t do anything here,” Patmore said. “So now these houses are worth even more than they were before because no one could come in and buy up a whole block, bulldoze it and put in a highrise building.  You can’t do that now, so this property has become even more prime and it has driven the cost of real estate up.”

Eyes on the price

Rumor has it that on North Graham Street, a little old lady loves to bake banana bread and give it to away to others.

But in a community where residents said they used to know everyone on their street, many said they now feel isolated in their own home. With the neighborhood shifting from homeowners to renters, residents are losing their sense of familiarity.

Romona Morrow was forced to leave Northside when she could no longer afford to live in the neighborhood she grew up in. She now lives in a house built by Habitat for Humanity.

Though her mother’s house is fully paid for, Morrow said that she is determined to prevent the home from ever being sold to developers.

“As long as I’m alive, God give me strength, I’m going to prevent that from happening,” Morrow said.

Many residents leave their properties to their children after passing away; oftentimes, these children have moved away from Northside. No longer invested in the community, they sell their homes to developers who turn them into rental units.

When Morrow tried to move into the house of a relative who had passed away, she discovered she would have to pay $1,500 a month, a price difficult for most working-class or single-family households to afford.

In the past thirty years, property values in the neighborhood have exploded. Priced at $30,000 in 1985, one property’s value on Lindsay Street increased to $180,000 by 2010 — a 500 percent increase from 15 years prior. The increase in property values has raised property taxes to levels that have made some homes unaffordable for residents.

Rental agencies are able to pay the property tax by renting their properties to college students who can afford them by splitting the rent among several roommates. For this reason, the community is seeing more students move in every year as longtime residents vacate their homes.

“Students have to realize that people born and raised there take top priority,” Morrow said. “My most favorable childhood memories were on Gomains, and I would hate to see people pushed out with nowhere to go, wondering ‘Where am I going to live?’ It’s not right.”

EmPOWERment Inc., a local organization working with Northside to increase opportunities for homeownership, has tried to address affordable housing concerns by buying properties in Northside and turning them into affordable housing units for rent or sale.

However, some residents feel that EmPOWERment is not doing enough to help the community. Morrow said that her only experience with the organization was when she inquired about an affordable unit — one that she found to be not affordable enough.

“I remember I inquired about one to rent it, but I think I was told it was between $1,300 and $1,500 a month, so I said that’s not really affordable,” Morrow said. “After that, I just left them alone because I didn’t want to deal with them. I knew what was affordable for them wasn’t affordable for low-income blacks.”

One resident at the March 22 community meeting complained that EmPOWERment gave affordable units to applicants coming from outside of the neighborhood. While not all houses are occupied by former Northside residents or relatives, director Delores Bailey said that the low-income units were primarily built in and for Northside.

“People are not stepping forward to buy the houses, and we can’t discriminate and we can’t hold them, and that’s part of the problem people don’t know and understand,” Bailey said. “We intentionally buy them for people from Northside or with relatives in Northside, but the reality is that those people aren’t buying the homes.”

The organization currently has 33 units, two of which are vacant. Bailey said that the organization plans to put three or four more houses on the market, hopefully in the upcoming year. Rental units currently listed on the website range from $600 to $750 a month — Mercia Rentals’ units average at $1,200 to $1,300 a month for two bedrooms.

Bailey also said that many aren’t aware of the full scope of EmPOWERment’s activities. She said that while they are admittedly short-staffed, they still organize monthly neighborhood watch meetings, help people with taxes and home reevalutions, maintain a working relationship with the town police department and act as a small business incubator.

EmPOWERment also helped schedule the first Northside meeting with the Downtown Framework and Action plan consultant, Bailey said.

“I do know that we’re the only organization that has been fighting this battle for a while, and it’s easier to hit the target out there first and foremost,” Bailey said. “Right now we’re short staffed, and there’s a lot to be done. On the positive side, if we can get half the people in those rooms to work with us and SOS (SustainingOurSelves Coalition), we can make changes.”

Bailey said though she understands most people work regular jobs, the more people volunteer their time with the organization, the easier it will be to make changes.

“EmPOWERment is the only organization doing community organizing, so the hard part is getting everyone to understand how hard it is to fight this fight. We get the notices about new buildings and parking meters, but we can’t stop it.”

Bringing back community

Northside is historically a working-class, black neighborhood. In 1980, 59 percent of its residents were black, according to Jackson Center estimates. This percentage dropped most dramatically in the last ten years, and by 2010, only 23 percent of the neighborhood identified as black. These new statistics reflect the increase in students and other new faces as more homes become rental units.

As a landlord and resident, Patmore said he has seen a dramatic change in the past fifteen years, but that the neighborhood has changed to reflect the changing demographics of Chapel Hill. If the university is 75 percent white, then residents will reflect that; as long as the number of longtime residents continues to diminish and student demand grows, the community will continue to move in this direction, he said.

“You give me a greater customer base of people who want to live in a place for numerous years, and then that will transfer over to the real estate where that tenant may stay around for two or three years,” Patmore said. “But as long as the customers are students, it’s going to be high turnover, and there’s nothing I can do about that.  I can’t create new customers.”

Jackson Center Associate Director Alexander Stephens said that if there was more university housing available, students wouldn’t be as likely to move into neighborhoods such as Northside. He also acknowledged that students, usually unaware of the underlying issues facing longtime Northside residents, are often the target of resentment.

“Students are the face of the development, but they’re not the cause of it,” Stephens said. “The students provide the demand that enables developers to make money, but the students aren’t necessarily what’s causing the changes — they’re not demolishing houses . . . and building new ones.”

To change this, Stephens hopes to educate incoming freshman about the neighborhood — whether through the center’s documentary videos or through informational packets.

Evan Tasios, a UNC senior living in the community, said he hopes to see other students reach out to their neighbors.

“I think the neighbor we’re closest with is the one that’s to our left; she’s an elderly woman and she lives alone, so we always talk with her whenever she’s outside and she comes over and talks with us,” Tasios said.

However, Tasios said he also understands that the rate at which students move in and out could hinder relationships from forming.

“Permanent residents, their mentality is, ‘Why get attached and involved with the students who are only going to be here for 4 years?’ because you invest into a relationship and then it just dissipates.”

Matthew Faerington, a long-term resident who lives just outside of Northside on Starlite Drive, also acknowledged this divide. His Neighborhood Association fell apart when its members left the neighborhood or passed away, and he said that nobody takes the initiative anymore to welcome students that move in.

Part of renewing the community also means tackling crime. In 2000, only 73 police reports were filed with the Chapel Hill Police Department for Northside. By 2006, this number peaked at 378 filed reports, decreasing to about 200 in 2010, according to the Chapel Hill Police Department.

A study of Northside showed that crime rates in 2005 were on average higher than in other Chapel Hill neighborhoods, averaging 8.04 crimes per 1,000 people compared to 2.46 crimes per 1,000 people in the rest of Chapel Hill. Many of the reports were noise complaints, which peaked during the academic year and fell during breaks and holidays. However, the study showed that efforts by the police department to increase community policing have helped improved crime rates and drug-related activity.

Tasios said in his experience, larceny is also a significant problem in Northside. His roommate’s iPod was stolen from her unlocked vehicle.

“We’re college students — they know we have a lot of electronics, and if someone’s throwing a party, it’s very easy to walk in and out and take something without anyone noticing,” Tasios said.

An uncertain future

The town is currently working to develop a response to complaints about student rental properties. A memorandum to Stancil on April 5 showed that complaints include late-night noise, illegal parking, litter and “a general decline in the appearance and maintenance of a property.”

A student rental work group, represented by town employees, town advisors and UNC representatives, was formed to develop a response to these issues. The group will issue a report to the council in May that will suggest possible steps to address these complaints.

Stancil said that the town is also working on creating a new Comprehensive Plan — a document that explores the community’s vision for the future of the town — to update the one implemented in 2000. Topics under discussion will include community priorities, land usage, neighborhood conservation and policy issues.

“The best way to understand the plight of the Northside neighborhood is in the context of the entire town,” Stancil said. “There will be multiple opportunities for people to be engaged in the process, and the town has committed to experimenting with and learning from new means of resident communication.”

Because of its close relationship with Northside residents, the Jackson Center has also been an intermediary between the community and the town government. Stephens said that while there have always been groups involved in community activism, there seems to be a broader coalition forming in the community than before.

“So many people are hurting right now — the recession is triggering other kinds of movement,” Stephens said. “Times are hard so people are more willing to speak out.”

Rebecca Seawell, a senior from Mechelen, Belgium and Raleigh, N.C., is an assistant editor for the Reese Felts Digital News Project.
Sam Ward, a senior from Chapel Hill, N.C., is a multimedia journalist for the Reese Felts Digital News Project.
Kristen Long, a senior from King George, Va., is the director of interactive design for the Reese Felts Digital News Project.
Alena Oakes, a senior from Kinston, N.C., is a multimedia journalist for the Reese Felts Digital News Project.