Soon after they got the news five months ago, Betty and Gary Greves started packing.
The boxes stretch up toward the living room ceiling now in their rental off Player Avenue. They’ve called this place home for over 23 years.
It was a place the Greveses hosted family reunions. But now, their landlord’s son is moving into the house and the landlord, Mark Blasingim, said he’s signing it over to him.
By default, the Greveses have to go.
The couple has been searching for a new place to live ever since, and they say their hunt has been far from easy.
Local housing options are limited, and what’s available goes quickly. Data from LongLeaf Pine REALTORS, a trade organization for realtors in Eastern North Carolina, shows that as of May 19, there were only 485 residential, single-family homes on the market for sale with another 69 available to rent, Stefany Ayerbe, the organization’s membership services director said. LongLeaf Pines serves as many as 16 counties spanning from Wake to Brunswick, including Fayetteville and Cumberland County.
Ayerbe said that in January 2020, that number could’ve been upward of 5,500, and that houses in the area typically spend no more than five days on the market.
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The lack of housing stretches into the affordable options, too. Representatives from Triangle J Council of Governments analyzed the area’s census data as a part of a housing study to help determine solutions for affordable housing. They determined that to best meet the needs of low-income renters, another 20,000 affordable rental units need to be built in Fayetteville.
The organization’s estimation could be lower due to scant data on single-family homes, mobile homes and some apartments, its housing program manager Erika Brown said.
Fayetteville officials have been working to alleviate the issue. Additional funding has been allocated over the past several years to build more affordable housing and do repairs to help with preservation, the city’s director of economic and community development Chris Cauley said.
David Sattelmeyer, president of LongLeaf Pines for 2021, said everyone from city officials to builders are working to get more homes built and on the market. But the issue won’t be solved overnight, and Sattelmeyer ventured to say it’ll be like this for years based on national and local data.
Until more housing is built and options open up, families like the Greveses are left grappling with what to do and where to go next.
Betty and Gary’s relentless search has led to dead ends. Immediacy is their main issue.
When they find a place, sometimes they can’t come up with the money quick enough, Betty said. The couple lives on Social Security checks and Gary’s military disability and retirement, and she said the checks arrive at different times.
Other times, they’ll try to go through with a deal and find the house they wanted has already been sold or is listed as pending. It’s happened at least 50 to 60 times, their daughter-in-law Tina Seymour said. Accommodations are another issue: Places with stairs are a no-go, Betty said.
Betty, who has multiple sclerosis, uses a wheelchair. Gary, 85, relies on a cane after jumping from planes during his 30 years in the Army.
“If I knew where to look, I would do it,” Betty said.
They’ve tried to get a loan through Veteran’s Affairs, but both Gary and Betty say neither of their credit scores is high enough.
The Greveses are running out of time. Betty said Blasingim and his son have both been accommodating, and Blasingim said he’s been willing to work with the couple, including helping them find a place. Betty said Blasingim’s son has tried to help them find a place, too.
The couple say they’ve been told that they have to be out of the house early next month, but their situation is further complicated by Betty’s health.
The expanse of the problem
The housing shortage isn’t just a Fayetteville problem, Sattelmeyer said: What was already a seller’s market across the nation was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Work from home led to more people wanting to get into bigger places and establish workspaces, especially now that remote work may continue even once the pandemic’s over, he said.
What’s specific to Fayetteville, Sattelmeyer said, is the trend toward those at Fort Bragg planting roots here once their service is over and more people deciding to move here to get more for their money. Fayetteville and Fort Bragg have historically been among the cheapest housing markets in the nation, Sattelmeyer said.
Adding to the issue is the construction slowdown due to the rise of material costs and not being able to find the workforce to get it done, Sattelmeyer said.
In Fayetteville over the past 10 years, the population has grown 5.5%, and households have increased by 7.9%, according to data presented to City Council by Triangle J.
Home construction has seen a 68.2% decrease across the region since 2010, according to the same data.
In 2021 so far, LongLeaf has closed on close to 3,300 properties, according to data from the Fayetteville Regional Association of Realtors. This time last year, it was at more than 2,900.
Over the course of last year, Longleaf sold more than 10,700, according to the same data. In 2019, they sold more than 9,400.
The consensus among those stepping in to help is clear: Fayetteville needs more houses.
Brown said the main issues are the lack of units, and the difference between available affordable units and the number of low-income renters.
The problem lies with those who make below 60% of area median income, but mainly with those who make less than 30%. She said units that may have been affordable have had the price increased because others have the ability to pay more for them.
Katrese Hall, a planner in housing and community development with Triangle J, told the council in April that the county’s area median income for a family of four making 80% of the median income was $46,500, which allows a $1,163 monthly rent payment. Options are there for those making 80% of the median income, Hall said. Those at 60% or below are the ones having a difficult time and have few options locally. In Fayetteville, the biggest gap is among people making less than $35,000 a year, she said.
There were 20,088 affordable rental units on the market that include both subsidized and naturally occurring affordable housing, according to the 2014-2018 census and housing data presented to the City Council last month by Triangle J. The data showed there’s a total of 21,255 people here whose rental costs would exceed the federal guidelines of 30% of their monthly income, which means there need to be 41,343 affordable rental units in the market.
A typical healthy housing market, Hall said, provides enough supply for six to seven months. At the beginning of the year, she said Fayetteville had a 1.4 month supply.
If there were more units built for those in the 30-60% area median income range, Hall said it would help solve the problem for people of all income levels.
What’s available could still technically be considered affordable to those who are low income, Brown said, but they’re on the higher end of low income. Those with fixed income coming in from Social Security or disability have few options, she said.
There’s also a lack of diversity in the housing available here, Brown said. Mainly, it’s single-family homes and larger apartments.
“We know, at the end of the day, there’s not enough affordable units, and it’s just for the extremely low-income folks, especially,” Brown said. “You can’t build something in the market without subsidy that’s gonna serve them, and it’s hard to find enough money to build those units because it’s expensive. And because of that, that’s why we’re in this situation.”
Sattelmeyer said summer, typically a peak season, might turn the market around, as may lifting the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.
‘It’s just so much of us’
In their hotel room, Jackie and Ronald Dillard drowned out the noise.
The TV blared in their room at Ambassador Inn off U.S. 301. The couple’s seven children clustered together on the bed in front of the TV, with others on the floor.
Outside, there was a grassy patch to run if the kids wanted to, along with a small swing set. But between the virus and the potential crime in the area, Jackie was afraid to let them out.
While they lived at the hotel, the couple and their children spent most of their time in their room watching cartoons.
Along with the family, their five cats and a gerbil lived in the room too. The hotel was aware of only four children, Jackie said, and two of their pets — the others were kept as secrets to save money. Jackie feared they’d be kicked out if the hotel knew.
Their last hotel made them go because of their size. With thin hotel walls, it’s hard to mute their noise, Ronald said.
The couple was taken to court for staying over their lease at their old apartment and not paying rent, according to court records. By the end of January, they were in their first motel. Ambassador Inn was the family’s second.
Their search for a place to live has gone on for eight months, Jackie said.
The family was at Ambassador until they could no longer afford their room. They left and stayed at Knight’s Inn for over a week, paid for by one of Jackie’s coworkers, before the hotel had another reservation come in that needed it.
The family has been at the Salvation Army shelter for a little over a week, making trips back to Ronald’s mother’s house to cook meals and do laundry. Four of the cats went to a new home since the shelter doesn’t allow pets. The family kept the gray one, and the gerbil.
The family’s search for somewhere to live hasn’t been successful yet. When Jackie called a list of potential places to stay, she’s told the family is too big, or that there isn’t a unit available. She keeps an eye on Zillow and Trulia and she’s told to wait, or that they don’t make enough income to rent.
Money for the family hasn’t been an issue, Jackie said. The family brings home checks from Jackie’s job working the night shift at Taco Bell and Ronald’s job in security at local libraries. Bad credit and the family’s size are what have left them with few options. Jackie said they’ve looked everywhere for a place: in trailer parks, near where Ronald’s mother lives, Spring Lake, Hope Mills and all over Fayetteville.
“It’s just so much of us,” Jackie said.
Since they’ve been at the shelter, the Salvation Army has been trying to help them find a place, as well as the [email protected] program, Jackie said. The goal is to find something more permanent, but they’re willing to rent if needed.
Jackie dreams of a place with a yard where everyone has their space. She said she wants something permanent they couldn’t lose. Mostly, she wants to decorate for holidays.
The couple got married earlier this year. Jackie’s looking forward to having an address, she said, so she can change her maiden name on everything at the DMV.
Sattelmeyer said builders are working to construct houses and get them on the market to help address the need.
For affordable housing, there are various steps the city’s been advised to take.
At a City Council meeting in April, Triangle J identified four goals for affordable housing: increasing access to resources, increasing housing options, focusing on quality and preservation efforts and supporting community partnerships.
In early April, Pathways for Prosperity also made a recommendation to the city and county to put American Rescue Plan funding toward affordable housing.
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Cauley said he didn’t find the recommendations Triangle J made surprising. What goes through will be a City Council decision, he said.
He described affordable housing like a math problem: On the city’s end, doing things like increasing gap financing and creating a trust fund can help work it out.
Funding the city gets to help build affordable housing and make repairs on existing homes for preservation usually amounts to anywhere from $2.2 million to $2.3 million, Cauley said. It’s not enough.
“The demand outstrips the funding every year,” Cauley said.
Cauley’s department has made efforts to get more funding, he said, though he knows grants won’t be the solution.
“It’s hard to take a problem as big as affordable housing in a community and boil it down to, you know, mission accomplished,” Cauley said. “But I think you can continue planning for a future where you have a varied mix of housing types and price points, and you provide avenues for folks who want to rebuild their credit and save up for a down payment on a house to be able to afford to buy that house.”
“And I think if you can get a community where people who want to can become homeowners, and people will have a decent place to live, that’s as close as you get to solving that problem.”
Betty saw a house online one night with everything they could possibly need. Even then, there were barriers: its size and its price tag.
As the Greveses and Seymour sit at their kitchen table one afternoon, Sheryl Dean, Betty’s physical therapist, walks in.
“You guys know there’s a sign for rent on Tanglewood?” she said. “Two streets back behind you?”
Dean says that as she travels for work as an at-home therapist, she’s on the lookout for them. Seymour and Betty’s niece pitch in to help too.
Until luck strikes, Betty holds out hope.
“Maybe somebody will recognize this poor soul and give me a call,” Betty said, laughing. “Maybe. Now, there’s houses out there if we can find them. There’s got to be.”
Dean and Seymour respond:
“There’s not, Betty.”
Government watchdog reporter Abby Church can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @abbschurch.
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