The Community Empowerment Fund’s small basement office in Chapel Hill bustles with activity as Yvette Matthews scurries in and out, racing to pick up an incessantly ringing phone between guiding those looking for help and sharing a joke with students passing through. She deftly switches from task to task, directing the flow of people into and out of the office like an air traffic controller.
While it looks like she’s moving one hundred miles per hour, this is more or less a normal Thursday for Matthews.
“I’m a pretty good multitasking kind of chick,” says Matthews, a sixty-year-old office manager with short, slightly graying hair and a narrow face that usually frames a smile. “So I can hear you talking here, hear them talking there, and still do what I need to do.”
The office is colorfully decorated, with walls covered in handmade cards and signs, photos of CEF volunteers, and a series of portrait sketches along the back wall. A large “Happy Birthday Yvette!” sign drapes from the ceiling above her desk, a gesture of appreciation from weeks ago that no one has the heart to take down. In one corner, a “Declaration of Financial Independence” is written across the wall in neat, Carolina-blue handwriting.
“We, the People of the Community Empowerment Fund, declare our independence from the oppression and tyranny of the unjust financial system, whose banks are built on the backs of the poor,” it reads. “This system has turned us against ourselves, our brethren and our sistren, putting individual property ahead of community well-being.”
Hyperbole aside, this declaration ably sums up the CEF’s mission, which is to help the homeless, jobless, and otherwise at-risk citizens of Chapel Hill establish financial independence. From her desk in the front room, Matthews—known as “Miss Yvette” in the office—sees all sorts of people across all sorts of life situations: students, activists, volunteers, local officials, and most of all, the downtrodden of Chapel Hill.
“I think when most people come in, they come in with a
This March afternoon is unusual in one respect: Matthews is embarking on her first vacation in more than four years with CEF, taking a few weeks off to visit family in Michigan. As she prepares to leave, she gives detailed reminders to volunteers, attempting to distribute her collected knowledge
Throughout the afternoon, a few dozen locals come in and out of the office. Matthews greets them and hands them off to one of a dozen college-aged volunteers in the office—CEF calls them “advocates”—to meet one on one and help fill out paperwork for benefits, apply for jobs, look for affordable housing, or reach other personal goals. The people seeking help—”members”—have already gone through an orientation, and now meet with their advocate regularly as they progress toward their goals.
Everyone in the room describes Matthews as the glue that holds this community together, the person who knows everyone and welcomes each person who enters the door with a smile. Between welcoming members and giving instructions to advocates, she also attends to the small details that keep the office functioning: making sure the coffee pot is full, handing out mail, making small talk with the handful of people who’ve come for a safe space and a warm cup of coffee. She clearly loves her job—she’ll tell you so herself, enthusiastically—but sometimes disappointment surfaces when she talks about the world outside.
One of the most intractable issues CEF has confronted is the affordable housing crisis in Chapel Hill, which Matthews deals with directly. Homeless people come through her door every day. She says she’s confused as to how Chapel Hill, an affluent community that calls itself the “Southern Part of Heaven,” could be so paralyzed by a problem in its own backyard.
“If you’ve never experienced it, you don’t know what it’s about,” she says.
People live in cars and tents, but most folks don’t notice. And the town’s public officials just talk.
“We have talked this thing to death,” she says. “It is time to do something.”
Matthews was born and raised in a suburb of Detroit but eventually made her way to North Carolina, where her mother was raised and her grandfather was living. She raised her own family in the Chapel Hill area and spent twenty-two years working at a K&W Cafeteria nearby.
In 2008, after what she describes as a mid-life crisis following the death of her uncle, she quit her job at K&W to look for something that offered more purpose. She spent almost a year unemployed, applying for everything she could think of, to no avail. Eventually, a friend advised her to go to CEF, at the time a one-year-old organization, to see if it could help. There, she became a member and met Jon Young and Maggie West, who became her advocates. She met with Young and West each week and came to CEF’s office every day to apply for jobs and visit other members.
“I could see from the office that they were overwhelmed with a lot of stuff,” she says, “because they had no one to do it.”
She began volunteering at the front desk every day. As CEF grew, the small nonprofit, which is primarily funded through individual donors, found enough money to start paying Matthews for one day, then three days, then five days a week. Now, Matthews is the first one to open the office at 10:00 a.m. and the last to leave at 3:00 p.m.
Matthews says she manages to scrape by with her small salary from CEF, a second part-time job at a women’s shelter, and her husband’s income as a town employee.
In her time at CEF, Matthews has learned that there are thousands of families in Chapel Hill—even those with stable employment—who struggle to find housing they can afford. As of 2015, of more than fifty-six thousand housing units in Orange County, only seventeen hundred are affordable for families living below 80 percent of the area median income—about $58,640—according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Another survey found more than thirteen thousand households with income below that figure, which indicates that there are thousands who struggle to afford to live in and around Chapel Hill.
Matthews and other activists point to UNC-Chapel Hill as the main driver of the affordable-housing shortage. One analysis from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that 40 percent of the demand for rental properties in Orange County is from UNC students. The university has increased enrollment and brought more highly paid academics into town, driving up competition for a limited housing supply. Meanwhile, over the last few decades, zoning laws and attempts to preserve the historic downtown have prevented development and reduced supply.
Today, Chapel Hill’s zip code, 27516, has the fourth-highest average rent in the state and the highest in the Triangle, according to the apartment-listings site RentCafe.
As the March 21 Chapel Hill Town Council meeting crossed the one-hour mark, the room was quiet. Eyes drooped and people slouched in their seats while the nine council members on the dais discussed recent sidewalk improvements—dull, quotidian stuff.
The room buzzed. Papers rustled. People whispered to their neighbors.
The town manager had recommended letting voters decide on a $10 million bond, which would likely be paid for by a one-cent increase in the property tax. During the public comment period, speaker after speaker asked council members to increase the bond to $15 million, which would require a larger tax increase or a decrease in other expenditures. Over the next few hours, eighteen community members—from academics to activists to residents of a local homeless shelter—delivered impassioned pleas for the higher amount.
Young, a CEF founder and co-director (and Matthews’s advocate), was among them: “I understand that there are prior obligations,” he told the council, “but I don’t understand why housing isn’t held parallel to all these other priorities. … What is an amazing school if there’s not a safe house to go back to? What is a great park if a family is working five jobs collectively and they don’t have time to take their families to the park?”
In the end, though, the council didn’t budge. The $15 million amount, council members said, was too much. The measure for the referendum passed on an 8–1 vote and will go to voters in November.
“Politically, that meeting felt very bleak,” Young told the
Council member Allen Buansi, who was elected in November, argues that this was just the first step in a bigger process of making Chapel Hill more inclusive.
“I think we did the right thing in putting [the bond] forward,” he says. “Unfortunately, the town doesn’t have unlimited resources to devote to affordable housing, and folks will understandably get frustrated with this result.”
This isn’t the first affordable-housing bond proposal Chapel Hill voters will vote on. In 2016, a smaller countywide bond—$5 million—was approved partially due to Matthews’s advocacy. She realized the referendum would need more attention in order to succeed, so she organized a group to campaign for it in a unique way.
“I really wanted to pull together and organize people who feel the same way I feel,” says Matthews, who was on vacation when the March 21 meeting took place. “I felt like people would get it more if they could hear it musically instead of talking about
That September, Matthews organized the “CEF Advocacy Choir”—a group of CEF staff, advocates, and members who toured the county singing songs about affordable housing. They performed at churches, community groups, town events, a local newspaper, and a radio station, singing both original compositions and well-known songs with new lyrics relevant to the bond proposal. One example: “We call on you brother/ to help with the struggle/ We all need somewhere to lay our head,” they sang, to the tune of “Lean On Me.”
“We went to every single church in the area, to make sure every single person knew about the bond,” she says. “And guess what: None of them knew about it.”
In November, the bond passed 66 percent to 34 percent. Matthews celebrated that success, but she’s nonetheless frustrated by what she perceives as the confusion in priorities of people who fully grasp the problem. As an example, she points to a plot of land the town recently purchased on Legion Road, which some residents are campaigning to use for a thirty-court pickleball complex to extend the town’s existing six courts for the sport, a hybrid between tennis, badminton, and ping pong.
A group of more than two dozen pickleball players—mostly retirees—came to a town council meeting in October to ask for new courts that would make Chapel Hill the “East Coast destination” for the “life-changing” sport. The group is well connected: Brad Hemminger, a certified USA Pickleball Ambassador and one of the group’s leaders, is Mayor Hemminger’s husband.
Matthews would rather see affordable apartments built on the property.
“Why not take one pickleball court and put it in the corner and use the rest of that land for somewhere people can live?” she asks. “Some people need to realize they’re not here alone.”
Subsequent planning sessions have focused on using the land for some sort of public park, but a town spokesman says planning is ongoing and details will not be determined until after the town manager presents his recommendation at an upcoming town council meeting.
The town is moving forward with other projects, including building public housing, partnering with community nonprofits, and collecting almost $1 million in property taxes for its affordable-housing fund. Matthews and other activists say these are good steps, but not nearly enough.
“The [government] system sometimes fails to look at the individuals they serve as human beings. They get a number when they walk in,” says Chinita Howard, who lived in her car for months after she was priced out of her home in 2016. Howard became a CEF member and found a new home with CEF’s help. Now she volunteers with the organization. “I think [CEF] does it right because they consider the whole person, not just one issue.”
When Matthews arrived home at the end of March, the office was busier than ever, so she threw herself back into her work. CEF has recently started a number of initiatives to organize the community around affordable housing, hoping to bring forward voices that aren’t always heard in the political process.
“Issues that affect people with money and time are the ones that people get really angry about, and they have time to show up,” says Young. “We have to make sure people are brought into those spaces so they can speak directly to those issues and so they can have a voice in developing solutions.”
CEF and the other affordable-housing organizations have tried to better strategize their work in Chapel Hill. CEF, along with Interfaith Social Services and Orange County Justice United, organized “Meeting of the Minds,” a monthly event that brings together community leaders and advocacy groups to talk about the issue. Another group, the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition, held a summit in February. The goal, as these groups describe it, is to better coordinate their political activism and work together to educate citizens of Chapel Hill about the need in their own backyards.
Young says these initiatives give him hope. “We’ve seen more collaboration,” he says. “As things have gotten worse, nonprofits have started working together.”
Matthews is already working on songs for the Advocacy Choir to promote the new bond referendum in November. Their first performance was at an April event at the UNC’s Memorial Hall, and now the choir has embarked on six months of musical advocacy leading up to the election.
“It’s inevitable that things have got to change,” she says. “They’ve got to. It cannot continue to be the same as it is.”