With the Triangle’s steadily increasing reputation as a great place to live, work and/or retire, home prices have risen accordingly. For longtime residents, especially those in the lower-to-middle income bracket, this means trying not to get priced out of your neighborhood while bidding against developers and investors in an area with a limited number of existing neighborhoods and a growing student population. That’s where Empowerment Inc. comes in.

“We try and stay one step ahead of the developers,” says Empowerment’s executive director Mark Chilton, an attorney and former Chapel Hill town councilman who took over last September from Myles Pressler, the agency’s founding director.

Empowerment assists prospective homeowners who meet certain criteria in buying affordable housing. (“From our perspective,” says Chilton, “a $70-$95,000 home is considered affordable housing.”) And in selling to individuals rather than developers, Empowerment also helps residential neighborhoods retain their existing character.

To be eligible, buyers must make less than 80 percent of that area’s median annual income, with factors such as family size weighing into the equation (a family of four, for example, would need to make less than $52,000). But Empowerment’s clients generally fall in the 50 to 60 percent median income bracket. “I’d say our typical homebuyer is a single mother making close to $30,000 a year,” says Chilton.

In operation since ’96, Empowerment has thus far placed over 75 families and individuals in homes, working to preserve the character of neighborhoods such as Northside, Chapel Hill’s only historically African-American working-class neighborhood. For the most part, they buy and rehabilitate existing structures, although they’ve also built several homes that qualify as affordable housing.

At the moment, Empowerment’s got six homes in various stages of renovation, overseen by project director Terry Carver. “By putting people in there that actually own the homes, you increase the quality of the neighborhoods because the homeowners are interested in their neighborhoods,” says Carver. “There’s less crime, and altogether they look better.”

Homebuyers and home sellers alike have been drawn to Empowerment’s mission.

“We have people that come to us and offer property before they sell it–they want to keep it community and family property, keep it family oriented,” says Sharron Reid, a former Empowerment client who enjoyed the home-buying process so much that she went on to join the organization as their housing counselor. “I think I liked the hand-holding–the support that we got from the organization,” she says.

Empowerment works with banks to secure loans for prospective buyers, encouraging them to get their credit in order by offering counseling and a five-week homebuyers education class that walks clients through the often confusing maze of paperwork and procedures involved with establishing credit and securing a mortgage.

Empowerment’s role doesn’t end with the homeowner’s closing day; they’re available to counsel buyers on any of the problems that come up with home ownership. Reid has 250 active clients in her files, “folks that are in different stages.”

“We’re very, very detail oriented and focused on the individual. Our work is one on one,” says Reid. “We also have a budgeting program to help them save, pay off debt and prepare for the down payment–at least a thousand dollars–and get in the habit of saving for an emergency. If the roof needs to be replaced in 10 years, they’ll have enough money in place.

“We all work together as a team. There are so many different components and all the support that plays into helping these folks. Mark’s always open to the opportunity to make something better for someone else, even if it’s something that doesn’t fit our general pattern,” she says of Chilton. “He’ll venture beyond the box to make it happen.”

Chilton, a 10-year veteran of local politics, still holds the distinction of being the youngest elected official in the history of North Carolina: He was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council as a 21-year-old senior at UNC-Chapel Hill (my first senior year, he quips). During his tenure, funds allocated to human services increased 100 percent.

Chilton went on to earn his law degree from North Carolina Central University. Following a stint in Vancouver, British Columbia, while his wife completed her medical residency, the Chiltons (they have two young boys) returned to make their home in Carrboro. Chilton knew Pressler from their student activist days, and worked with Pressler and director Kyle Tremaine for several months before assuming the executive director position.

Last December, Empowerment moved from a funky space above a Rosemary Street barbershop to its new home in the Midway Business Center, which Empowerment also uses to provide incubating space for small, local start-up businesses. The organization also sponsors a “Neighbors United” program, a coalition of neighborhood associations that offers leadership-training initiatives for youth, as well as emphasizing business skills and GED training.

By ensuring that homes are bought by people who are actually going to live in them–people who care enough to plant gardens, get to know their neighbors and such–Empowerment is tackling quality-of-life issues. With two shootings on Northside’s Sykes Street last summer, problems like drug dealing and community safety are very real concerns.

“I heard it used to be a crack house at one point,” says activist Ruby Seinrich of her Northside Empowerment home, a cozy house that features a screened-in porch and an ample backyard. “I don’t think there’s a street in Northside that Empowerment doesn’t have a house or two on.”

Chilton says they also work with neighborhood watch groups and the police to identify–and ultimately shut down–buildings that serve as hubs for criminal activity.

“The town has benefited dramatically from having a group like this present,” says Chapel Hill Town Councilman Bill Strom. “It’s a great partnership between different government branches, the police, city council and community organizations.

Strom is a carpenter-turned-contractor who’s collaborated with Empowerment on two projects: one in Chapel Hill in ’97 (before he was a council member), and one in Carrboro in ’99. Prior to joining the council, Strom, a housing activist, served eight years on the Orange County Economic Development Commission.

“He demonstrated that it’s possible to build an $85,000 home in Carrboro and still make money as a builder,” Chilton says.

“The town’s not in the business of buying and selling property,” says Strom, “so having folks in the community that have their eye on neighborhood revitalization projects, like Empowerment, allows the council to funnel assets to preserve neighborhood character.”

But Empowerment’s work is also about making dreams come true–taking people who never thought they’d own their own homes and going the distance with them to make that dream a reality.

And that’s what keeps the Empowerment employees going: “It’s the kind of job where you get to see grown people cry,” says Chilton.