Chicken plant opening shines spotlight on Chatham County’s affordable housing crisis

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The eviction of more than two dozen families from a mobile home park near the new chicken plant  — and those families’ struggle to stay in Chatham County — points to a persistent housing issue.

SILER CITY – Chatham County’s housing shortage is expected to be exacerbated by the influx of workers that have already started to arrive at the city’s new chicken plant, testing the county’s housing supply and the ability of officials to plan future development as more arrive.

One of the first moves of chicken plant owner and operator Mountaire Farms in November 2017 was to evict 28 mostly Latino families, more than 100 people, from the nearby Johnson Mobile Home Park. Close to Mountaire’s new Siler City plant off U.S. 64, Mountaire bought the mobile home park as part of the plant’s expansion plans.

As those families looked to find another place to live, the county’s affordable housing crisis came sharply into focus.

Bryan Thompson, the Siler City town manager, said officials have been working with the intergovernmental advisory group Triangle J since 2016 to assess the housing crisis. The city is working with developers and there is a new fund to encourage affordable housing development.

Still, he said the evictions emphasized the importance of the housing crisis.

“It brought front and center what those implications can be,” Thompson said of the demise of the mobile home park. “As we grow economically, are we as a local government and a community able to absorb those impacts? Clearly we were not. It more or less put an exclamation mark on an existing issue that we had already been discussing.”

Experts say the housing crisis in Siler City and Chatham County will continue to be tested as Mountaire Farms brings in hundreds of new employees, an estimated total of around 1,500, that are expected to earn an average annual salary of $28,000.

Ilana Dubester, director of the nonprofit immigrant advocacy group Hispanic Liaison, said the issue of housing in the county has become more visible since the mobile home evictions. City and county officials, though, haven’t made many meaningful changes despite ample discussion, she said.

“I don’t think the process revealed anything to me, but it might have revealed more to the town commissioners than they were aware before,” Dubester said. “Siler City has had an affordable housing shortage for many, many years. It was no revelation.”

The expected influx of immigrants will test the county “in bigger ways than we’ve seen in a while,” she said.

The chicken plant’s opening — for many, offering a welcome surge to the overall county’s economy — highlights both challenges and opportunities for county officials when it comes to those who take jobs at the chicken plant and where they’ll live.

Mark Reif, who handles community relations for Mountaire Farms, told OurChatham on Wednesday that affordable housing was a “top of mind issue” but requested questions in writing before responding further.

Renters struggle to find adequate housing in Siler City

Siler City is made up of many low-income renters who want a place to live. There is an estimated gap of around 2,000 affordable rental units in Chatham County, according to Triangle J, an intergovernmental organization that helps local officials address regional issues.

According to a 2018 Siler City Neighborhood Assessment by Triangle J, more than one-third of Siler City residents are cost-burdened, meaning they pay 30 percent or more of monthly income on rent.

Further, around 50 percent of those in Siler City rent, the survey said, but a good portion of the units available aren’t in good shape.  According to another 2017 Triangle J report, nearly a quarter of Siler City housing is considered to be in “fair” or worse condition.

When Andrea, who asked for her last name not to be used because of her precarious housing and immigration situation, and her family were evicted from Johnson Mobile Home Park, they had three options: rent an expensive apartment, rent a house or mobile home with a negligent landlord or buy a used mobile home with their savings.

Andrea chose the third option.

“We just had to grab what little we had saved,” she said.

The eviction from the mobile home park meant more than the temporary loss of a place to live, Andrea said. While families did pay relatively small rent on their mobile home lots, the vast majority in the park also owned their mobile homes.

Dubester said most of the mobile homes, built in the 1970s and 1980s, were too old to be accepted at other local parks. Only three of the families had mobile homes new enough to move to other parks in Siler City, but they ended up borrowing money to cover thee high expenses associated with moving.

Andrea, though, considers herself one of the lucky ones. Seven families had to move to Randolph County because they could not find a place to live in Chatham.

Aspen Romeyn, principal planner for Triangle J, has worked with Siler City and other local governments in Chatham County on improving affordable housing since 2016. She said the evicted families quickly realized their limited options when they began looking for new places to live in Siler City and Chatham County.

“They saw themselves as homeowners, and all of a sudden they would have to go out and be renters again and pay a lot more money,” she said. “There were 28 families affected by that, and it’s really hard to find that much housing in Siler City at one point in time that’s available, not to mention that they would be eligible for or could afford.”

There are a few reasons why those families have struggled to find another place to live. Romeyn said the 2008 financial recession exacerbated Chatham County’s housing shortage when development stalled. Also, many people have moved to the county in recent years, but construction has yet to catch up. With the high demand and short supply, prices have increased. Mirroring a national trend, wages for low-skilled jobs have yet to catch up too.

“We’ve seen a large increase in lower wage jobs but haven’t seen large wage increases,” Romeyn said. “For lower income families, it’s really hard to compete in the housing market.”

The families from Johnson Mobile Home Park, along with the nonprofit Hispanic Liaison, negotiated their eviction terms in a settlement with Mountaire so they had until the end of July 2018 to leave. They secured nine months of reduced rent, from $250 to $210, and $8,300 in financial compensation from Mountaire Farms.

Most of the families ended up losing money. Many had invested thousands into fixing up their dated mobile homes, Dubester said.

Andrea’s situation offers a window into the dire situation faced by the familied in the mobile home park. During the majority of the four years she lived in Johnson City Mobile Home Park with her husband and four kids, Andrea paid $170 a month for the space in the lot until the park owner raised rent to $250 in 2017. Now, she pays $235 monthly in a new mobile home park in Siler City, plus the $7,000 her family spent to buy a used mobile home.

One family purchased a home, seven bought used mobile homes and 17 are renting houses, apartments or mobile homes. The Hispanic Liaison helped them navigate the challenging process.

“We were helping people make phone calls and trying to get lists of houses in Chatham, which is woefully incomplete and hard to come by, and trying to call places to see what the prices were,” Dubester said. “A lot of people had difficulty finding anything.”

Many of those who struggle the most to find housing are undocumented workers. Romeyn said Hispanic residents who are undocumented have even more limited access to housing since some property owners and subsidized low-income housing units require applicants to provide documents proving legal status.

Andrea said the apartments she considered around town and in Chatham County cost $800 to $900 a month. That was out of her budget, but she also refused to consider many of the cheaper rental houses and mobile homes—she had heard horror stories about landlords refusing to fix leaks, broken air conditioning and allowing the homes to deteriorate.

“The trailers, the houses—they weren’t in conditions that one could live in,” she said. “We’re humble, but we’re also not going to live in those conditions.”

Romeyn said Siler City should address neglectful landlords and rental units that are in bad shape.

“It’s cheaper to renovate what you have than it is to build new in many cases, and so focusing on housing quality and making sure the housing we do have is safe and health for folks to live in is a really important part of thinking about affordable housing,” Romeyn said.

With the Mountaire chicken plant opening, Dubester said she is worried about the housing shortage growing even more severe.

“We’re heading towards overcrowding again, probably,” Dubester said.

Solutions on the horizon?

Thompson, Siler City’s manager, said the affordable housing shortage should get better as the county works with two new developments and announced last year a new way to provide low-interest loans for affordable housing crisis.

A development will repurpose the Henry Siler School next year into subsidized housing for low- to moderate-income households. Another developer is currently tearing down the old Chatham Hospital to build affordable town houses.

Thompson said it’s still being discussed whether the county will subsidize the hospital development.

Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, a Chatham County policy analyst who works with the housing advisory committee, said Chatham County started a $200,000 housing trust fund last summer. The fund provides low-interest loans to encourage development projects that preserve or create additional affordable housing.

Watkins-Cruz said the county’s housing advisory committee created guidelines for the fund – developers can apply for financing if they want to build, rehabilitate, or purchase and convert affordable housing. To be considered eligible, the development project must be affordable to households earning income at or below 120 percent of the area median income, currently $66,035 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Henry Siler School project will be one of those subsidized housing developments. The project’s developer which will construct 44 affordable units beginning this year, received money from the housing fund last August, said Watkins-Cruz.

Watkins-Cruz said the eviction of the Johnson Mobile Home Park pushed Chatham County officials to keep working on solutions to the shortage of affordable and quality housing.

“I think a lot of our efforts have an undercurrent of inspiration based on the Mountaire situation because that’s unacceptable that citizens found it super challenging to stay in the community they wanted to stay in,” Watkins-Cruz said.

In December, the Siler City board of commissioners adopted housing code recommendations based on Triangle J’s 2018 housing assessments. Those changes to the housing code include  stricter standards to define a dwelling or roof and a better inspection system.

Under the amendments, if an owner or landlord of a building has three or more verified violations of the housing code within a year, they will have to enroll in a periodic inspection program. Previously, housing units were only inspected if a complaint was filed.

“It might be a tenant files a complaint, the landlord decides to evict them or not renew their lease, and so that tenant moves out,” Romeyn said. “The next tenant might not feel comfortable filing a complaint but still is living in a poor condition property. Having periodic inspections can help really break that cycle and incentivize landlords to keep those properties in good condition.”

But Sergio Borrayo, the Siler City housing code enforcement officer, said he doesn’t think a stronger minimum housing code would be a silver bullet to create better quality rentals. The housing market plays a big role, he said.

“If we had more [quality] available rental units, landlords would have to invest money to improve their rental units to compete for tenants,” Borrayo said.

For Andrea, the housing crisis, in some ways, has already come and gone. The community she had found was wiped away, and she misses her tightknit neighborhood.

“This harmed a lot of people,” she said.

GOING DEEP: The numbers behind Siler City and Chatham County’s affordable housing crisis

There is a shortage of roughly 2,000 affordable housing units in Siler City.

According to Triangle J’s 2017 Affordable Rental Housing Report, Siler City has a large proportion of one-person and four-or-more person households, but the housing stock primarily consists of two- and three-bedroom units.

The Siler City neighborhood assessment reported a housing vacancy rate of 10.2 percent in 2016, with 324 vacancies. Out of those 324, only 65 units available for rent and 19 units available for sale. The remaining 214 vacant units were dilapidated or uninhabitable.

The assessment surveyed 191 properties across nine neighborhoods, with 90 percent of the households being renters. The report revealed 21 percent of the properties were in substandard condition, but Justice Mobile Home Park and the 12th to 15th Streets neighborhoods contained 40 out of the 50 properties deemed “uninhabitable” by the assessment.

The neighborhoods of West 5th Street and West Dolphin Street also had overall substandard scores based on the assessment, meaning many of the homes were in poor condition.

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