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No-Rent Party

A cooperative-minded Carrboro crew, aided by affordable housing advocates, buys a homestead

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It's Thursday night, potluck time at 621 Hillsborough Road in Carrboro. A dozen or so friends in their early-20s pull up chairs in a dimly lit kitchen and divvy up the salad, jalapeno cornbread, lentils and rice. It's tasty but the rations are meager, not quite enough to satisfy.Then a late arrival bursts through the door hauling a giant bowl of banana pudding. Nobody's going hungry tonight.

Funny how things work out in collective living situations like this one, which are common in the Triangle, with its surplus of current and recently graduated students. For this particular crew, christened recently as the "Hillsborough Road House," the potluck's a familiar, oft-repeated exercise in sharing resources.

Still, this time it's different. This time, they're eating in their kitchen in their house. From now on, they own the joint.

The realization is just starting to sink in--closing day was Jan. 7. "For several years, we've been talking, fantasizing, about having a property in Chapel Hill or Carrboro that was affordable, where we weren't just making a landlord rich," says Dawn Peebles, one of half-a-dozen leaders of the co-op project. In her last group house, she says, "one day we were adding things up, and we realized that together, over the course of a few years, we had spent about $50,000 on rent, and we really didn't have anything to show for it."

There had to be a better way, some like-minded friends reasoned, and last year they formed an ad-hoc group, the Objective Collective, to find it. Surveying co-ops around the United States and in Canada, they discovered that, at least outside the South, people are succeeding in a variety of cooperative ownership arrangements.

But back at home, as months ticked by with no leads for affordable property, hopes were beginning to wane. Then last September, at the "Carrboro Visioning" workshop in the town's Century Center, the connections that would seal the deal were made.

Before the workshop, the group had consulted extensively with local civic leaders who support affordable housing. One of them, Weaver Street Market general manager Ruffin Slater, introduced them to developer Tom Whisnant, a co-op enthusiast who happened to be selling a one-acre, two-house property that fit the group's criteria. It's close to town--a 10-minute walk--but still has plenty of land for gardening, and the houses contain both private rooms for the residents and public meeting space.

Problem was, the asking price, $325,000, seemed way out of range. But when Whisnant learned that the group was serious and informed, he came down to $250,000.

It took three months to get the financing together. "Developing a brand new model of home ownership is a lot more work than we thought," Peebles says. "It became a full-time thing for me, convincing people we could make this work."Community institutions became convinced and chipped in. The Self-Help Credit Union in Durham provided the lion's share of the financing, covering a $180,000 mortgage. Weaver Street Market loaned $12,000, because, Slater says, the store's mission includes promoting housing alternatives for local service-industry workers. "For it to continue to be affordable to live in this town--including for a lot of Weaver Street employees--we need creative solutions like this one."Gail McCormick, the loan officer at Self-Help, acknowledges that "there are risks" to setting up such an unconventional mortgage, with six owners invested in one property. "Eventually people age out of these kinds of arrangements. The question is, can they attract replacements with the same level of commitment?" Given the co-op members' newfound familiarity with the details of equity, insurance and interest rates, she's optimistic. "We lent to very mature people who happen to be young," she says. "I'm 50, and if I'd have known at their age what they do about home ownership, then I could retire now."

The Road House is gearing up for years of fundraising to cover the loans and keep the project afloat, and they are forming a mutual housing association with other co-op backers that will purchase additional properties. They hope to be granted some of the Orange County affordable housing funds that were approved as a bond issue last November, and they're soliciting donations--tax-deductible ones, they note--from co-op supporters around the Triangle. EndBlock

The Hillsborough Road House will hold an opening reception for the public on Feb. 24, from 4 to 6 p.m. For more information about that event and other cooperative projects, e-mail triangle_collective@hotmail.com.

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