Opinion

How African-American home ownership increased in this changing Chapel Hill neighborhood

For 70 years, Ms. Thelma lived in the same house in Northside, the oldest historically African-American neighborhood in Chapel Hill. A fourth-generation resident, Ms. Thelma’s church was two blocks away from her home and her social network was thick.

As she reached her late 80s, though, Ms. Thelma’s health began to decline. Unable to afford out-patient or home-health care options, she was forced to sell her house and move from her neighborhood into substandard institutional care.

The story of Ms. Thelma (not her real name) is not unique. A recent report from UNC-Chapel Hill professor Jim Johnson shows that African-Americans over the age of 65 who pay more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing are the least likely population to age in place.

Gentrification has compounded the problem. For homeowners like Ms. Thelma, property taxes went up more than 500 percent from 2000 to 2016. Student rental properties increased by over 300 percent during the same time period. This has put significant financial strain on the community, particularly on its most elderly residents. In Northside, 98 percent of elder households are below 80 percent of the area median income with the majority significantly below 50 percent of median income.

As a consequence, the number of African-American families living in Northside dropped by more than half from 1990 to 2010, threatening the character of the historic neighborhood.

Now, local residents and institutions are working together to stabilize the neighborhood and enable long-term residents stay in the community as they age.

In 2012, the Marian Cheek Jackson Center organized hundreds of residents to advocate for policies to slow gentrification and protect against displacement, which were approved by Chapel Hill Town Council. To protect its most vulnerable residents, the Jackson Center joined a broad set of local stakeholders connected with the Durham-based Center for Community Self-Help to launch the Northside Neighborhood Initiative. This effort has drawn from the leadership of the Northside Compass Group, an association of 22 residents who play a critical role in identifying neighborhood priorities.

With a $3 million, interest-free loan from UNC-Chapel Hill, a land bank was formed in 2015 that has facilitated the acquisition and renovation of 27 at-risk properties. Additional funding from the town and private foundations has supported critical maintenance on 47 homes owned by local elder residents in Northside and neighboring Pine Knolls. A property tax mitigation program was also established for those in critical need.

The coordinated effort resulted in the first increase in African-American ownership and overall population across the two communities in 40 years.

To build on this momentum, the Northside Neighborhood Initiative is now exploring new ways of providing long-term health-care in the community setting.

One strategy is a proposed “Eldercare” program, which would provide a home for up to six residents who are unable to age in place but want to stay in the community. Designed by the Charles House, a nonprofit provider of adult day service programs, the new model would surround the proposed homes with a collaborative care approach consisting of family members, health-care professionals from Piedmont Health Services, and student volunteers trained and coordinated by UNC’s Partnerships in Aging Program.

Another model includes a living-learning household of local elders and UNC graduate students studying health and aging that would provide direct support to local elders, potentially linked together in the same property.

The proposed Eldercare homes are among a number of innovative housing approaches for elders across the state — with the potential to enrich their communities, foster better health care outcomes, and become a model worth emulating.

Christopher Gergen is the CEO of Forward Cities and founding partner of HQ Raleigh. Frederick Mayer is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy and director of the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service at Duke University. They can be reached at authors@forwardcities.org.
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