The residents of Forest Hills Apartments in Garner, no longer neighbors, left the complex for good Thursday and headed to new addresses throughout the Triangle and beyond.
But their story—of being run out of their longtime, subsidized homes—has left a mark on the public debate about affordable housing in booming Raleigh and Wake County. City, county, and federal agencies are involved in the effort to make housing available to low-income people, but the hundreds of units coming online annually can't match the thousands of people who need help.
Even with the combined efforts of government and the private sector, some residents who left Forest Hills as its owner prepared to renovate it couldn't find landlords who would accept their federal Section 8. The complex, under the new name Flats on 7th, was already advertising leases Thursday at monthly prices hundreds of dollars above what the subsidized residents had been paying.
"We are losing more stock than we are creating," says Wake County commissioner Jessica Holmes, who's experienced homelessness and who is now leading the Board of Commissioners' affordable housing efforts.
Community activist Octavia Rainey, who first brought the residents' situation to the attention of the county commission, was at the complex Thursday, when tensions between the soon-to-be-former tenants and landlord Eller Capital Properties came to a boil, presumably for the last time.
The last handful of residents complained of having bleach spray fall on them as they packed to leave, having a tow truck called on a resident who parked on the grass behind an apartment, and being subject to a nondisclosure agreement that kept them from talking to media. (In an email, landlord Daniel Eller said that the bleach washing was routine maintenance and that no one had been forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement.)
"It's been nasty from day one," Rainey says. "I didn't expect it to end pretty either."
It was March 20 when Rainey brought a dozen or so residents to appear before commissioners with their account of being given only days to move out, when some had lived in the complex for thirty years. Within days, Wake commissioners, school board members, and county human services officials met in a Garner church and started working on solutions.
"I think the fact that they were so engaged meant they put a face on a problem that some commissioners had only ever encountered in theory," Holmes says. "It really made us do a double take."
Officials sought to ensure that most Forest Hills residents could move into permanent housing, which often meant navigating complex regulations. The county commission set aside $25,000 so that residents could be put up in motels if housing arrangements weren't ready by the time they had to leave, and Holmes promised residents that no one would wind up on the street.
"There are eight families that are in motels," Holmes says. "They also could use that money for storage units and U-Haul trucks. I feel good in that I kept my promise—no one is sleeping in a car tonight; no one is sleeping outside."
Affordable housing advocates note that low-income residents will also soon be removed from the downtown Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel and from the Wintershaven Apartments on East Hargett Street. Sixty people live in one-bedroom apartments at Wintershaven, where assisted living units for older people cost $515 a month.
With downtown Raleigh and nearby neighborhoods becoming more attractive to young professionals, low-income people have little chance of finding new housing in the neighborhoods where many of them grew up, Holmes says.
Down the street from the Wintershaven Apartments, the Lincoln Apartments advertise units from $1,218 to $2,202, while not far away on South Blount Street, digs at the SkyHouse can set renters back from $1,227 to $3,914 a month.
Older people, like those being evicted from Wintershaven, will likely find that their Section 8 vouchers won't go far anywhere close to where they've lived. Landlords are becoming ever more reluctant to deal with the relatively low payouts and extensive paperwork of Section 8, Rainey says.
"We are in an affordable housing desert," she says. "People are being priced out, forced out, and shut out."