Just after our wedding last summer, my husband and I set off to find an apartment in Durham. It had to fit our budget, which included one full-time job and plenty of student loans.
After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010, I’d burned out working as a television news reporter. So I left behind working weekends, murder scenes, and fluff news stories to take a job at a Durham nonprofit.
Growing up in Raleigh during the 1990s, I avoided Durham on principle. Fairly or not, my Wake County neighbors spoke assuredly of a crime-ridden downtown, abandoned buildings, and bad schools. During college, I’d driven to and from Raleigh and Chapel Hill but rarely stopped in between.
Just before our move, we explored Durham and found a city where, as the slogan bragged, great things were happening. We were excited to live here.
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Despite the poor-cousin stereotypes of Durham I’d grown up with, we found few housing options that fit our budget. Finally, I found an apartment complex where I hoped the numbers might balance in our Google Doc budget spreadsheet.
We went to see it, and the leasing agent led us out of the office for a tour.
We walked up wooden stairs covered in dark, sticky stains and heaped with trash. Inside, we found a spacious, but lackluster, apartment. My husband and I immediately noticed cracks in the kitchen cabinets and the stale smell of cigarettes. We also found yellowing appliances we hoped would still work. It wasn’t what we wanted, and I immediately felt hopeless.
“I don’t want to live here; this place looked better online,” I whispered to my husband behind the agent’s back.
“Let’s look somewhere else,” he whispered back.
Back at the leasing office, we sat down at the agent’s desk to finish our visit. “Now,” she told us, “that unit is part of our subsidized pricing plan for lower-income families, but, of course, you all wouldn’t qualify since you make enough money to afford our market-rate units.”
She told us the income number. I sat on the other side of the desk, slouched in my chair, and realized we would come up about $100 short to afford market rent.
“Actually,” I said quietly, “we would qualify.”
Just as I had stereotyped Durham, the leasing agent had judged us as soon as we stepped into her office. She had assumed these blonde, fair-skinned, newlyweds could afford a starter apartment in Durham.
The thing is, so had we.
We were intent on moving to Durham – the mecca of technology, entrepreneurship, and revival – and we couldn’t find a safe, affordable, place to live.
After studying the work of Durham nonprofits, I have learned that many of our Durham neighbors know that same feeling. A city increasingly known for its breakthroughs lacks a clear, macro solution to house lower-income families and the hundreds of families who experience homelessness.
Families who have been here generations, rather than one year like me, become homeless because they can’t afford a basic apartment in Durham. I earned more than minimum wage, and I had grown up upper-middle class. What would this be like for a high school dropout, or for a single mother? I’ve found this is a growing problem; census data shows we need 14,000 affordable rental units to meet the current demand.
Housing experts say a safe, affordable home works wonders for families. A home means more stability for children in school, more stable mental health, roots for a more stable life.
Thankfully, a team of Durham’s homeless shelters and affordable housing nonprofits work together to provide a continuum of care for some of our neighbors without a stable home.
I previously hadn’t appreciated the decades of work in Durham that had reached our neighbors. We can all play a part in bringing that work to fruition simply because we all have ownership in the city’s most pressing issues. While we have no big-picture solution, supporting livable wages and mandating that developers designate a portion of their new apartments as affordable are good ways to start.
Eventually, we found an apartment. It’s safe, clean, and affordable. Good thing we have a car; our place is miles from downtown and nowhere near a bus line. It’s actually a lot smaller than the subsidized rental we saw. But finding it gave us hope and a place from which to build our future.
Five years from now, will a college-educated couple like my husband and I be as lucky? Will a household with far fewer advantages?
Elizabeth Poindexter is marketing coordinator at DurhamCares. You can reach her at email@example.com