Burnetta Smith, CEO of Wake County Housing Authority
Residents of Forest Hills Apartments in Garner appeared March 20 with little fanfare to tell Wake County commissioners their story: they’d received short notice that they’d have to pay much higher rents and/or move out of the place that had long been home to many of them.
By Wednesday night, ten days later, dozens of Forest Hills residents, led by community activist Octavia Rainey, drew a notable crowd to a meeting in a Garner church on the issue. And action at the federal and local level was underway to help residents who had been dismayed by their imminent removal.
“To have done us this way was inhumane to us,” sixteen-year Forest Hills resident Janice Williams said during the meeting.
Those who showed up included an aide to U.S. Representative David Price, six of the seven Wake County commissioners, the chair of the Wake County Board of Education, the director of Legal Aid of North Carolina, Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams, and numerous city and county housing officials.
“I have never seen the kind of passion that I have seen tonight,” Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes told residents gathered at Wake Baptist Grove Church. “All of these people are here tonight because we care about you. We're not promising hotel space, but we are going to do everything that's within our power to make sure your head doesn't hit the street.”
Despite the turnout of people in power, obstacles remain, both for the residents of Forest Hills and for other low-income people in an increasingly pricey Wake County housing market.
“As our county grows, it’s going to put the squeeze on the poor,” Commissioner James West said before the meeting. “This gap between the haves and the have-nots must be corrected.”
Chapel Hill developers ECP LLC bought Forest Hills Apartments for $7.2 million in February, with the intention of renovating the complex at U.S. 70 and Vandora Springs Road and attracting renters at market rates. After initial pushback and publicity, company principal Daniel Eller agreed to extend renters’ stays until June 15
and to allow them to keep paying subsidized rents.
The complex needs extensive repairs, which cannot be completed with residents in place, Eller said in a statement. ECP does not accept housing subsidies, he said.
“This was a wake-up call for Wake County,” said Sig Hutchinson, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
The agenda for the meeting involved finding solutions for residents of Forest Hills, who have gotten an extension from the original forty-five-day notice but still need new places to live. But it was clear that the residents had gained attention that should help their cause.
“Once this hit the news, my email, my Facebook, my Twitter were all being blown up,” Holmes said. “People in Cary were calling me.”
George Hausen, executive director of Legal Aid of North Carolina, called the response from public officials “extraordinary.” “I've never seen anything like it,” said Hausen, who has had extensive dealings with the federal Housing and Urban Development department, usually in adversary proceedings. “HUD itself in Greensboro contacted me.”
Tenants who receive housing assistance occupy 113 of the 136 apartments at Forest Hills, with the remainder paying market rent.
After hearing about developments at the complex, HUD offered special vouchers to twenty-eight residents whose assistance was tied to living at that location, which was built with government financial backing. Now, like other residents, they can use vouchers at any housing where the landlord accepts subsidies.
“In my experience, it’s extraordinary for HUD to step up like that,” Hausen said.
Residents had the chance to question representatives from the Wake County Housing Authority, the Raleigh Housing Authority, Wake County Human Services, Veterans Services, the Partnership to End Homelessness, and Wake County schools. About sixty-six students are affected by residents’ removal from Forest Hills, school board chair Monika-Johnson Hostler said. She assured parents that the system will work to make sure children have a smooth transition.
“We will make sure that you have everything you need available to you,” she said.
After the meeting, Commissioner Matt Calabria discussed the rationale for housing assistance for low-income people.
“Having adequate housing is the foundation of responsible citizenship,” he said. “If we can help folks get a stable situation, this really benefits the entire community. A weakness in any one link creates weakness across all the links.”