Chapel Hill: Opinion

Guest column: Mother, sons and dogs struggle for housing

“I’m sorry, your money is no good here.”

This is what Martha and her family have heard over and over from landlord after landlord in Orange County, as landlords refuse to accept her family’s application for tenancy.

Why? Because a portion of Martha’s rent is paid through a Housing Choice Voucher (commonly known as Section 8). Many landlords in Orange County refuse to accept Housing Choice Vouchers as a source of income.

Born and raised in Chapel Hill, Martha is the proud mother of five amazing children. She and her family have lived in her current rental for over seven years, but no longer; the ownership recently changed and her voucher will not be accepted. She and her children must find a new place to live and have started packing up their lives.

“I have been in Chapel Hill all my life. My kids were born here. I’ve never lived anywhere else,” says Martha. Martha began receiving a voucher in 2006. “My health failed. So I went from working two jobs to not working at all. If it weren’t for my health, I would be able to do it by myself. But when you feel kind of stuck, this is pretty much all you have.“

Before receiving assistance through the Housing Choice Voucher program, Martha and her kids experienced homelessness – living in the shelter, staying in a hotel in Hillsborough, and even living in her car at one time.

But since acquiring a voucher and moving into their apartment in 2006, Martha has not missed a single rent payment and her family has enjoyed the benefits of stability. Her three oldest sons have graduated from high school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

“They love reading, they love poetry, they write, they draw,” says Martha. She wants the same for her two youngest sons, who attend Culbreth Middle and Carrboro High School.

Martha makes it clear: If she had a choice, she would not use assistance, but in order for her to give her sons the education they need to succeed, along with a safe, suitable living environment, her voucher is necessary.

“I don’t want to have my kids not staying in a decent place. I am not wiling to sacrifice that.” And Martha takes fabulous care of her home, saying “I have asthma and allergies, so I keep my home very clean. We have dogs we love and who are a part of our family, and they are very well taken-care of. I take care of my dogs like I do my children.”

So why is it so hard for Martha to find a home to rent as a voucher-holder? Well, on top of the limited supply of housing in the price range permissible for voucher-holders ($1,087 including utilities for a three-bedroom, $711 for a one-bedroom), very few landlords are willing to accept Housing Choice Vouchers. You might ask, “Why? Is it Monopoly money?” No, it’s normal money; in fact, voucher rent payments are direct-deposited into the landlord’s account.

The trouble is, in Martha’s own words, “the landlord hears voucher and weeds us out automatically.” In her experience, many make assumptions about how she will treat their property without reviewing her personal rental history. All Martha is asking of landlords is to instead, “think about the person as an individual. All (voucher-holders) are not the same, just like all students or any other tenants are not all the same.”

Martha’s advocates at the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) have been assisting her to find a new place to call home, but with so few landlords willing to accept her voucher her family may face difficult choices and changes.

Maggie West is the program coordinator of the Community Empowerment Fund. Contact her to volunteer or about available properties for rent at 919-200-0233 or