Challenges Increase for Non-Citizens During the Pandemic


Guest Column By Nathan Boucher

Chapel Hill faces growing disparities in access to housing and transit resources for foreign-born residents, especially non-citizens. 

Sixteen and a half percent of Chapel Hill residents were born outside of the United States. The disparity in income between U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens is vast. For citizens born outside the U.S. living in Chapel Hill, median household income is $106,250. For Chapel Hill residents who are non-citizens born outside the U.S., the median household income is only $46,045. 

In 2016, Chapel Hill released findings from its listening sessions with immigrant and refugee residents; two key challenges identified were housing and public transportation.

These issues are now exacerbated by the pandemic. More than 935,384 unemployment assistance applications were filed in North Carolina between March 15 and April 29. Unauthorized immigrants are ineligible for local public benefits like food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

If non-citizen residents of Chapel Hill have lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus, they have far less governmental support than their citizen counterparts. This compounds the housing issue, as these individuals may be forced to decide if they should pay for their groceries or their rent.

Chapel Hill voters overwhelmingly approved the 2018 Affordable Housing Bond Referendum and the town hopes to begin issuing funds this fall. This support will be crucial for community families. The town plans to develop 400 new affordable housing units and preserve another 300 existing units over the next five years. This will provide some long-term affordability. Chapel Hill Town Council is focused on not just serving vulnerable populations, but also providing housing located near transit services.

A lack of affordable housing near transit services has been a perennial issue for Chapel Hill residents who are not U.S. citizens, especially during this time where transportation is necessary to access basic resources. While there are more than ten food pantries — food insecurity can be yet another challenge — in the Chapel Hill area that provide support for residents, transportation to these organizations can be a barrier. 

While the Chapel Hill Transit Fixed Route Service is the dominant means of public transportation in our community, it can be inaccessible to many immigrant and refugee workers. Inaccessibility is attributed to the remoteness of public housing and mobile homes from Chapel Hill transit — bus routes are not easily useable for individuals who need this service most.

While the defunct GoTriangle light rail project was ostensibly a way to increase transportation to medical facilities and employers in Durham and Chapel Hill, it was discontinued after Duke University pulled its support. 

While the affordable housing bond helps provide greater access to public transport, direct expansion of the public transport system would be a boon for underserved non-citizen residents who contribute to our community. Low cost, accessible transportation is crucial for individuals in need of medications, groceries, medical care and the ability to fulfill essential work duties during this pandemic. 

The disparity in income and access between naturalized citizens and non-citizens in Chapel Hill even pre-COVID-19 was a challenge.  It is our community’s responsibility to continue to understand the needs of all residents and provide fundamental access to resources through expansion of public transportation and housing — two fundamentally linked challenges for Chapel Hill.

Nathan Boucher is a federal research scientist and a member of the faculty at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

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