An after-school tutoring program for elementary school students, cooking classes using free, local produce and lessons in English and computer literacy are being evicted from one of Carrboro's largest apartment complexes.
A year and a half after it moved in, the Chapel Hill & Carrboro Human Rights Center is being given 90 days, until March 1, to leave Abbey Court, which for decades has housed some of the town's lowest-income and most underserved residents.
UNC sociology professor Judith Blau founded the center at Abbey Court in 2009. Blau bought two condos for the center after she and her teaching assistant, Rafael Gallegos, now the center's associate director, were told by property management to leave the premises because they were distributing information on Latino community services, a violation of the solicitation policy.
Blau estimates that 500 Abbey Court residents, mostly Latino and Burmese, participate in the center's programs. The fact that the center is embedded in the community, not just serving it, provides residents better access to services and is a welcoming environment for people needing help.
But now the Raleigh-based Tar Heel Companies, which runs the complex, says the homeowners' association covenant states the condos can be used only for residences, and the center must leave.
Blau says that on Nov. 16 the center received the eviction notice, which threatened to penalize it up to $300 a day in fines. Blau says she will refuse to pay.
She suspects that the center is under scrutiny from the homeowners' association because she was trying to purchase a three-bedroom unit to start a day laborer center. There, workers could wait indoors for employers, who would also be prescreened to help prevent wage theft.
But Bart White, an attorney representing the real estate company, says the board of directors has been discussing the center's covenant violations for at least a year. Last summer, the board tried to inform the center that it was breaking the rules and needed to leave Abbey Court, and sent the eviction notice in October, White says.
The board of directors of the association voted 2-1 last week not to levy fines for 90 days.
Property owners who bought a condo expecting a residential neighborhood could be turned off by traffic and noise coming from the center, White says.
"There was no blind side here. This has been a dialogue, a board that has showed a great deal of patience and understanding," he adds. "They had to go to this next phase that seemed to get everyone all riled up."
Under homeowners' association rules, each homeowner receives one vote per unit. More than two-thirds of the 344 units are held by Ken Lucas, president and CEO of the Tar Heel Companies, which owns Abbey Court, and his investment company.
Blau contends that the center meets the covenant's rules because its services are free and a resident lives in one of the apartments.
The Town of Carrboro Planning Department issued an occupancy permit for the units, but Tar Heel Companies doesn't consider it valid; the private covenant supersedes the permit, White says.
Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton was able to attend the private board meeting when the vote was held because he works for a nonprofit that owns an Abbey Court unit. At that meeting, he advocated for the center to stay in the complex. He is helping the center look for new housing.
"I think in fairness, Mr. Lucas and his representatives have been flexible about the way in which the Human Rights Center is being kicked out, but at the same time there's just no question that they are being kicked out," Chilton says.
Three years ago, when Gallegos first visited Abbey Court, he says private security guards stopped people from loitering, even outside their own homes. He says security guards would bicker with residents. The environment was oppressive, different from how it is today.
Blau and Gallegos helped get rid of the security guards by bringing the problem to management's attention, and they have assisted residents in navigating paperwork as property managers come and go.
The neighborhood's narrative has also changed over the last three years. As recently as 2008, the only news coming from Abbey Court was about crime. (In 2010, the most recent year for which police figures are available, crimes against persons were down 64 percent from 2008; motor vehicle thefts decreased by half over the same time period; larceny was up 50 percent.)
Now the stories are about Abbey Court residents and their focus on improving End of Grade Test results at Mary Scroggs Elementary School, free Wi-Fi for residents and a repeal of the town's anti-lingering ordinance. The center successfully helped defeat that ordinance in order to support day laborers who waited for employment at a nearby corner.
Nancy Hilburn, one of the creators of the Homework Help program that serves 40 students daily at the center, says her goal was to help children realize that "the school [Scroggs] belongs in their neighborhood, too."
Scroggs is located in the affluent Southern Village in Chapel Hill. Two Scroggs teachers, along with media specialists and dual language assistants, go to the center every afternoon.
"This place belongs to those children and to that community, and you feel that when you are there," Hilburn says. "They are very comfortable and they express themselves differently there than they do at school, although it's carrying over to making them more comfortable at school."
Lauren Kennedy helps run Saludamos, a program with the Sustain Foundation that along with FoodShare brings free produce from the Carrboro Farmers' Market to Abbey Court residents and offers cooking classes.
For instance, when the farmers offer free eggplant, a vegetable that's not eaten in many of the residents' native countries, Kennedy teaches them how to prepare it.
"This is an asset for the community and it should be an asset for (Tar Heel Companies)," Kennedy says. "Sometimes you should make exceptions. Sometimes you need to break rules to make change."