CHAPEL HILL -- Henry David Thoreau wrote, "What is the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" Some residents of the Cameron McCauley neighborhood may have been thinking the same thing in recent years as an influx of student rentals began to change the character of their historic district. Now, the purchase and "green" renovations of two former problem houses have neighbors hoping the tide has turned.
Broken beer bottles, late-night parties, cars littering the lawn. Homeowners in the Cameron-McCauley Historic District had become fed up. "Our neighborhood has been abused by unconcerned landlords," said Marc Pons, owner of Chapel Hill Car Care Center. "The landlords seem to suck money from the student renters, and then put none of it back into their property."The problem got so bad Mallette Street resident Caroline Spencer organized a Cameron-McCauley meeting with Town Manager Roger Stancil."Let me be clear," Spencer said, "I love students. The energy they bring is a big reason why my husband Jim and I moved to Mallette Street in 1999. However, we are looking to balance that energy with stable owner-occupants who help put the 'neighbor' in neighborhood."Spencer's feelings are common in the neighborhood. Permanent residents say they enjoy the vibrancy the student population has brought over the years, but most feel that the negative aspects were getting out of control. "Frequent noise ordinance violations and six cars parked in the front yards of historic homes are not exactly appealing," Spencer said.But if students were causing the problem, they weren't the only ones to blame. "Students get a bad rap for neighborhood problems," said resident Kurt Ribisl, 42, an associate professor in UNC's School of Public Health. "Many of the issues we are experiencing are the landlords' faults," he said. "Poorly maintained property and ignoring essential repairs are not necessarily the renters' responsibilities."
The 'green' solution
Many Cameron-McCauley residents hope things are changing with the purchase of two houses by families with children, said Vance Street resident Jane Stein, owner and managing partner of The Chapel Hill Institute for Cultural and Language Education. "I'm pretty sure that this is enough to reverse the trend towards a purely rental neighborhood," she said.The two homes, 405 Ransom St. and 216 Vance St., were purchased in April and June by Kurt Ribisl and Jon Rucker respectively. Interestingly, both families are renovating their homes the "green" way. "My wife Erin and I wanted to 'go green' because we have a strong belief in the need to do things more sustainably," said Ribisl. "Green construction is also safer for children, and I know that renovating in this fashion will pay off in the long term because our home will be much more energy efficient than it once was." The Ribisl family is using non-toxic paints and reusing most of the existing materials in the home. "We are also planning to install a green roof carport and a rainwater capture system," Ribisl added. The Ribisls recently moved into their home. "It is a work in progress," said Ribisl's wife, Erin Adkins.For Rucker, deciding to sustainably renovate was business as usual. He is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accredited professional and licensed general contractor. Like the Ribisls, Rucker and his wife, Karen Regan, are reusing almost everything. "We are gut-renovating our house, and are even reusing the old nails," Rucker said. "We are also using ultra low-flow and high-efficiency appliances and plumbing, as well as LED [light-emitting diodes] lighting. We'll likely use less than 50 percent of the electricity used by the previous owner. " The Ruckers, who plan to move into their Vance Street home next month, are including Breathe Easy Cabinetry, which uses formaldehyde-free glues to permanently improve indoor air quality. They also plan to use reclaimed old-growth lumber for their countertops.
Nothing is perfect, and residents of the Cameron-McCauley Historic District know that. There are still student rentals that are run down. But voicing their concerns has resulted in action. The Town of Chapel Hill's senior code enforcement officer, Maggie Bowers, is currently helping conduct a "sweep" of properties in the area. "Students add a lot of character to the neighborhood, but I hope that these renovations and the permanent residents' pride in ownership will help send a message to delinquent landlords," Rucker said. "I hate to see beautiful historic homes beaten down by poor care, and would love to see more of them restored to their old glory."