It takes a neighborhood

When the UNC chapter of Habitat for Humanity pledged to build 10 homes in the Northside community, co-chair Alex Mitchell knew that the Heels for Homes project meant lots of labor and long hours, but he was surprised to discover the power of people when they work together.

“This is such a big project that one person’s contribution pales in comparison to the power of what many people can achieve when they come together to get things done,” he said.

Throughout the fall, the project has mobilized a growing army of volunteers: student athletes, sororities and fraternities, undergraduates and graduate students, staff and faculty.

Thanks to their combined efforts, construction of five of the 10 homes began in the fall semester as planned. All five are nearing completion, with the first move-in celebration scheduled for three homes on Craig Street sometime in April.

Meanwhile, four more homes will be built this spring, even as new community and campus partners are added and new fundraising events are being planned. The lot for the 10th home is not yet available to build on, so Habitat will have a chance to return to Northside to build that home in the future.

The list of campus partners for Heels for Homes now includes UNC Health Care, Brothers for Habitat, the School of Information and Library Science, Kenan-Flagler Business School and the UNC Greek Unity Committee.

“Everybody wants to help out. I really don’t know anyone at Carolina who doesn’t get excited when they hear the word ‘Habitat,’” Mitchell said. Volunteers on a build site don’t care which group people belong to. “Out there, we are all one.”

Reclaiming a community

Susan Levy, longtime director of Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, points to the Northside Neighborhood Initiative (NNI), launched in March 2015, as a critical step in the reclamation of Northside. Through the initiative, Carolina provided a critical financial boost to the neighborhood with a $3 million, 10-year, no-interest loan to establish a “land bank” as properties in Northside became available.

Of the nine homes that Heels for Homes will build this year, five are being built on lots acquired through this land bank.

But the spirit of collaboration that Mitchell tapped into a year ago is what keeps the reclamation – through projects like the current Heels for Homes – alive.

“Whenever I talk about our effort in Northside, the first thing I do is to talk about how what is going on here is bigger than just one group,” Levy said. “The key to all of these efforts has really been the folks who live in the neighborhood – many of them who have lived there a lifetime and are committed to it. They are the ones who have created the vision for their neighborhood that we are just a part of.”

The Heels for Homes project in particular has not only brought many people together to help rebuild a struggling neighborhood with a rich but neglected history. It has also helped to re-define the relationship between the neighborhood and the University, between the longtime residents and the students living there temporarily.

“When we tell this story to our longtime supporters, they are really moved by it,” Levy said. “They see this as something even deeper that what we normally do that will have a greater impact on more people because it’s really affecting not just the families receiving homes but the whole neighborhood.”

A turning point in history

Lifelong resident Kathy Atwater remembers the neighborhood she grew up in the 1960s and 1970s where the residents knew and looked after one another.

Many Northside residents were African Americans whose families had worked at Carolina for generations.

Atwater, after graduating from North Carolina Central University in 1978, returned to Northside to live and, like many of her neighbors, went to work for the University. But by then, the neighborhood of her childhood had begun to disappear, she said.

“Every month, you heard about somebody’s property being sold to some investor to turn into a student rental,” said Atwater, 60, who retired in 2008 after 30 years of combined service with the School of Medicine and the University hospital.

“It just became overwhelming. It got to the point where we felt we were getting pushed out.”

Over time, Atwater said, the neighborhood began to push back, first with complaints to the town of Chapel Hill about violations of the town’s parking and noise ordinances from student rentals and late-night parties.

Then faculty member Della Pollock began an oral history project that grew into the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, founded in 2008 as a place where Northside neighbors and the University could come together “to connect saving the past with making the future of our communities.”

Since the launch of the Northside Neighborhood Initiative two years ago, the center has convened the Compass Group, a resident-led advisory group to the NNI that helped identify a range of community needs, including repair work to the homes of more than 30 senior residents.

So far, 16 properties have been acquired and five families have already been welcomed into the neighborhood, said Pollock, the center’s executive director. And for the first time in 30 years, the African American population has gone up instead of down.

“One of the wonderful things about the Habitat initiative is they are inviting and allowing people who used to live in Northside to come back, as well as supporting people who work for the University now,” Pollock said.

Atwater said she can already see – and feel – the difference.

“Having all these groups come together is what has really helped us as a community to come together and work on these areas to make it livable for everybody,” Atwater said.

Completing the work

This semester, the work will continue at the same frenetic pace to complete the four remaining houses and raise the money to build them, but Mitchell has passed on his leadership role of the campus Habitat chapter to co-chair Matthew Coleman.

Jennifer Player, the director of development and administration for Habitat of Orange County, said Carolina’s Habitat chapter is one of the strongest in the country because of student leaders like Mitchell and Coleman.

“There is this energy and enthusiasm that you really want to harness and to capture,” Player said. “It is a real joy to work with young people like this. They don’t say no. They don’t see barriers. They see opportunity. And there is so much we can learn from their enthusiasm.”

Mitchell said he is in awe of the fundraising ideas that Coleman and others have planned, including an arts show on Feb. 25 with proceeds to support Habitat. Also in the works is Carolina Blueprint, a weeklong fundraising event in April in which students from various clubs and organizations will design, build and live in a wooden shack in the Pit.

But he hasn’t lost sight of the real heroes of the Heels for Homes project. “It’s not about all the great thing we did,” Mitchell said. “It’s really about all the great people we are doing this for.”

By Gary Moss, University Gazette
Published March 7, 2017