By AJ O’Leary
Requests for emergency housing financial assistance have skyrocketed throughout Orange County, including a six-fold increase in Chapel Hill, since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic lockdown.
“In April we had about 210 calls [for housing assistance]. That increased to 617 in May,” said Emila Sutton, Orange County’s director of housing and community development. “In June so far we’ve already seen 806 calls as of two days ago.”
Nate Broman-Fulks, Chapel Hill’s affordable housing manager, said the town had been anticipating a spike in requests for housing assistance once the pandemic hit and has continued looking for funding to meet the need.
“We knew given everything going on with COVID and business shutdowns and the whole economic impact of that, that there was very likely going to be an increased need for housing assistance,” Browman-Fulks said.
But Sutton said that though the pandemic has caused a noticeable jump in the need for housing assistance, the spike is also related to pre-existing issues in Orange County.
“The pandemic has sort of exacerbated all of the issues we saw prior,” Sutton said. “It’s just really heightened all of the affordable housing needs and the affordable housing crisis rate that we see.”
In the beginning of the pandemic, Sutton said, the county received significant numbers of requests from service industry workers whose employers had to close. Recently, she said, the county has received more requests from people who are ineligible for unemployment benefits as well as those in precarious housing situations. Normally, Sutton explained, those people would be able to stay with friends or family if needed, but are unable to do so now because fewer people are willing to have another person in their households, potentially increasing their chances of being exposed to the coronavirus.
“Networks are closed off now that usually would be open,” Sutton said.
Because of the expected increase in requests, Chapel Hill officials pivoted the town’s emergency housing assistance fund, which was created in 2015, from an in-person service to a phone-in service. They also broadened the range of income levels eligible for the program, according to Jeanne Brown, aide to Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger.
“This program was already in place,” Brown said. “We just added flexibility to it.”
Chapel Hill’s fund is part of a countywide effort; Hillsborough and Carrboro have established similar funds. All three towns have worked with the county, which has received and allocated funds from the federal CARES Act, to help support the growing need for housing assistance.
Brown said Chapel Hill’s emergency fund allows for assistance of up to $2,000 per household. Not all applicants may receive the $2,000. But the fund also works to connect residents with programs such as the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service’s emergency financial assistance program, or for help with utility payments through OWASA’s care to share program or Duke Energy’s share the warmth program.
Those interested in donating to Chapel Hill’s emergency housing assistance fund can send a check to Town of Chapel Hill at 405 MLK Jr. Boulevard, Chapel Hill 27514 with “emergency housing assistance program” written in the memo. Donations are tax-deductible.