Chapel Hill, N.C. — Aaron Sibilla is thankful that he was unhurt when his family’s apartment in Camelot Village flooded during heavy rains last week, but he can't ignore what they lost.
“We escaped with the clothes on our back. We’re alive,” he said. “It’s been condemned completely.”
Sibilla and his wife are now on the hunt for a new, affordable rental apartment. It’s a formidable challenge in affluent Chapel Hill, where census data shows the median household income is $58,415.
“Me and my wife are both disabled and have a very limited income,” Sibilla said Tuesday. “It’s been really hard finding a place, especially in Chapel Hill.”
That’s because the town already had a lack of affordable rental housing long before the flood, which happened after more than 5 inches of rain fell within 19 hours on June 30.
According to the town’s most recent data, the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment was $772 in 2010. The average rent for two-bedroom apartment was $926.
“Many of the units that were affected were some of our lower-cost units, so those families are looking for units that are comparable, and they’re having difficulty finding those,” said Tara Fikes, director of the Orange County Department of Housing, Human Rights and Community Development.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said elected leaders are well aware of the issue and have been attempting to tackle it since the early 1990s.
“Have we been successful? No, I don’t think we have,” Kleinschmidt said. “I think there’s a lot of work to do.”
He said at the heart of the issue is high demand that pushes up prices and the town’s lack of legal authority to control it.
“State law prevents us from setting rent rates,” Kleinschmidt said. “We can’t do that. You can do it in New York. We can’t do that in North Carolina.”
Kleinschmidt created a task force last spring to come up with creative solutions and said he’s optimistic about the results. The Mayor’s Committee on Affordable Rental Housing met Thursday morning to continue working on the goal.
Meanwhile, Orange County authorities have appealed to the public to help find affordable rental units for the 150 residents who were displaced by flooding in Camelot Village and other apartments and town houses in the Estes Drive area. Fikes' department last week requested property managers, apartment communities or homeowners who have vacant units for rent in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area to come forward.
Displaced residents say they have to find what they can and hope the price is something they can live with.
“We really want to get our independence back and start our lives over,” Sibilla said.