Northside rolls with change, but keeps grip on the past

tgrubb@newsobserver.comJuly 10, 2014 

— Trying to preserve a little of what it was is an ongoing challenge for the Northside community.

Chapel Hill’s historically middle- and working-class, African-American community, located north of West Rosemary Street, has been fighting for years to slow the conversion of its modest, family homes into larger student rentals. Residents worked recently with town officials and community advocates to draft a preservation and homeownership agenda.

The American Community Survey estimates 717 black residents, or about 25 percent of Northside’s total population, live with roughly 1,500 young, mostly white UNC students.

Many longtime residents have left, some forced out by rising home prices and property taxes when nearby lots were redeveloped. Many families can’t compete with the rents that landlords can charge student roommates, officials said.

The town’s 2012 community action plan ( bit.ly/1mjSMmS) is moving ahead, said interim planning director Loryn Clark. It includes a number of goals, such as additional education and outreach to UNC student renters, better town housing policy enforcement, and dedicated funding and home ownership programs.

The Town Council could discuss some of the plans this fall, including how to spend money set aside for affordable housing, Clark said.

Northside residents, meanwhile, are advancing their own Housing Market Action Plan. The plan, approved last year, emerged from meetings with UNC and town officials, Durham’s Community Center for Self-Help, the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, consultants and a 40-plus member group of local officials.

A $210,000 grant from a private, nonprofit UNC real estate group paid for the work, which divides the neighborhood into five zones, based on how much each has changed. The most affected area – from Mitchell Lane to Church Street – was identified as a good place to encourage new families and responsible tenants and landlords.

On the edge

Paris Miller and her husband Gerald Foushee live on the edge of that zone. Their 2-year-old son, Amir, is growing up in the house where Foushee’s father was raised on North Roberson Street. Foushee’s mother and father live on Church Street.

The family’s closest neighbors are UNC students, Paris Miller said, and that’s a concern for two reasons. The biggest is that Amir, unlike his father, isn’t growing up with friends his age, she said.

The other is the noise.

While most issues from student housing, such as traffic and parking, have improved, Miller and others said the students this past year were some of the less-neighborly tenants they had seen in a while. Miller said she called the police several times, because her husband works two jobs and was having trouble getting to sleep.

Town Council member Donna Bell, who lives in Northside, said some parts of the community are worse, but neighbors have “held the line” in others.

Aaron Bachenheimer, UNC director of Fraternity and Sorority Life and Community Involvement, said he hasn’t heard of any problems.

“Long-term residents I have spoken with have said this has been a good year and generally peaceful,” he said. “There are, of course, exceptions and areas that may experience more student rental impact than others.”

Zoning rules

The town’s neighborhood zoning rules control what size and style of home can be built in Northside. It also limits single-family homes to no more than four unrelated people living together and parking to four cars in designated areas. But neighbors have to file a complaint to get the rules enforced.

Bell said that forces residents to “stalk” a house to prove there are problems, when the town should make enforcing its occupancy rules a priority.

Developers have challenged the rules – unsuccessfully so far – and claim they will backfire on residents. Families want bigger houses and modern amenities, and limiting the neighborhood’s growth can make it tougher for families who want to sell and move, they said.

Bell said one developer who built two houses on her street this year remained committed to selling them to families even after receiving a cash offer.

“On one hand, it was very generous. On the other, he wants to take advantage of other opportunities. If he has our support, he can do that,” she said.

Louie Rivers and Whitney Robinson bought one of the Craig Street houses in January.

The young couple – she is a 34-year-old assistant professor of epidemiology in the UNC School of Public Health and he is a 35-year-old assistant professor in forestry and environmental defense at N.C. State University – has lived in Chapel Hill for a few years. They rented a house in nearby Pine Knolls until their real estate agent mentioned the new house in Northside. They bought it within a week, Robinson said.

“It was a good price, a good size for what we wanted,” she said. “It had just a nice feel. It was a beautiful day, the neighbors were out playing, we saw the house, and we really loved it.”

More change

The potential for more change is growing at the neighborhood’s edge.

The historically black Midway business district, south of West Rosemary Street, has experienced a revival since Greenbridge took root there. New stores and services are hip, young and local, and the town wants to build on that vibe with a proposed concept plan for a tech-friendly Rosemary Street residential and commercial renaissance.

“This idea that these kinds of projects are going to relieve the pressure on the community, (neighbors are) just not buying it,” said Delores Bailey, executive director of Empowerment Inc. and a Northside property owner.

The town needs to maintain good lines of communication with residents, Bell said, so they don’t “feel like something is being dumped on them.”

The Jackson Center is helping, residents said. Deputy director Hudson Vaughan said the center’s work is picking up, and a new community action coordinator could focus this year on poverty, food security and housing preservation.

Other programs, such as the Good Neighbor Initiative, continue to bring together UNC students and neighbors for conversation and volunteer work. UNC students also work with Habitat for Humanity’s Brush with Kindness program to give older homes a facelift. The town has set aside $25,000 for that program in next year’s budget.

Still in development is an “early warning” network of neighbors to identify houses at risk of being sold and families that could buy them. They found several new neighbors last year, Vaughan said, and an intern plans could work with campus groups next year to attract more socially minded student renters. A draft “preservation toolkit” due out this summer will share legal strategies that homeowners can use to keep their properties.

Northside Elementary School also has become a vital partner in sharing the community’s history and hopes with students and their parents, Vaughan said. Northside residents are helping to lead those programs, he said.

Miller said she would like to see Amir create his own family history in Northside one day.

“There’s something about being able to look at both (Foushee family) houses and understand it’s more than just a building,” she said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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