Felix Watson was working their regular shift at Starbucks when they received some of the worst news of their life: rent at their studio apartment in Grosvenor Gardens was increasing from $845 per month to $1,100 per month. 

For weeks, Watson had dreaded receiving a letter from their apartment complex. Rent had already gone up by about $50 in the months before, a foreboding signal of things to come. Now, an alert was pinging on Watson’s phone that the news they’d feared had arrived.

“I burst into tears,” Watson says. “I thought, ‘I am being forced out of my home. I am going to be forced back into an unsafe living situation with people who could hurt me. I am not going to be able to afford to live.’” 

The 29-year-old barista trainer has a history of struggling with depression, and the news sent them into a downward spiral. 

“I was extremely suicidal for about a month,” Watson says. “[I thought], ‘I don’t want to exist if I don’t have a home.’ My friends and coworkers have had to spend the past couple of months talking me down.”

Today, Watson’s mental health is better, but their situation is unchanged. Rent is still set to increase for most residents to $1,100 per month, following affordable housing nonprofit CASA’s purchase of Grosvenor Gardens. The Raleigh nonprofit bought the property last year in an effort to keep it affordable, with help from Wake County’s Affordable Housing Preservation Fund.

Felix Watson Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

Even with the loan, however, CASA has a large mortgage to pay off, a consequence of the Triangle’s uber-competitive housing market. Ultimately, the organization is thankful it could prevent the historic building located on Hillsborough Street from being demolished, according to a statement from Emma Hansen Doss, CASA’s director of mission advancement.

“This building and its nearly 100-year-old gardens are a Raleigh Historic Landmark in a highly desirable location that was at risk of being torn down,” Doss wrote. “CASA is proud to have prevented this naturally occurring affordable housing from disappearing and is committed to the best possible outcome for every single person.”

Since news broke of the rent hikes, CASA has reached out to some residents, particularly those making at or below 50 percent of the area median income (AMI), like Watson. For people earning less than 30 percent AMI, rent hikes were canceled. 

For Watson and others, rent hikes were delayed until November. In the past few months, CASA has also given residents applications for other CASA properties with lower rents. CASA offered additional help in the form of “financial assistance, applications for [federal] Housing Choice Vouchers, [and] a list of community resources for additional rental assistance,” Doss wrote. 

But for Watson, none of that has made a significant difference. 

Moving out

As Watson started a desperate search for another place to live, they had to put aside other priorities in life, like focusing on work or going back to college. Watson had planned to return to school through Starbucks’s education program, but “I can’t get my life together when [my landlord] is screwing me like this,” they say. 

Of course, Watson isn’t the only one struggling. Since news of the rent hike broke earlier this year, several Grosvenor Gardens residents have already moved out, such as 27-year-old Alyssa Fisher, who wrestled for months with the decision. Fisher’s Grosvenor Gardens studio isn’t that great, she says, but she appreciated the independence. 

Now, “I can’t afford this $1,100,” Fisher says. “While my income says I might be able to, maybe it’s 30 percent of my area median income, I can’t do it. I’m paying off student loans, I’m paying off credit card debt. I don’t have the extra $255 a month.” 

After getting the news, Fisher looked for an apartment in Raleigh but couldn’t find anything in her budget. 

“At first I was looking to see if I could sublease a place [but] there’s nothing for sublease,” she says. “There’s nothing under $1,100 in Raleigh.” 

Eventually, Fisher and her partner decided to move in together. Today, the only way either of them can afford to live in Raleigh is by creating a double-income household. But that’s not an option for Watson. The Raleighite says they have had some bad experiences with roommates in the past, even friends, which make them reluctant to risk sharing an apartment again. 

Watson is looking into affordable housing communities that serve people making less than 50 percent AMI, but many have waiting lists up to a year long. Even if Watson does find an apartment, they’re scared their rent will go up again. 

“What if this just keeps happening?” they ask. “Even five years ago, I never thought this is what somebody would be trying to charge for a studio apartment of this quality.”

Public housing is an even worse option, Watson says, with a waiting list of two to seven years. Even then, you have to constantly update the housing authority on your income and place of residence, “or they will kick you off the list and you will go back to square one,” Watson says. 

Watson considered moving out of the city to a moderately less expensive Triangle area like Durham, Chapel Hill, or Carrboro, but the move could risk their job. If they end up having to transfer to a different Starbucks location, Watson could end up with fewer hours or worse tips, they say. Their last resort is moving back in with their family in Wisconsin. 

But, Watson says, “I have a life here. I work full-time and I manage my money well. I think I should be able to afford a place to live.”

How much is an apartment worth?

Like many other Grosvenor Gardens residents, Watson has had some issues with their apartment over the years, before CASA purchased the complex. But rent was so much lower than at any other complex, they were willing to overlook it. 

“It’s kind of a run-down building,” Watson says. “But the rent was $795 when I moved in, and that was cheaper than most other things in the area.”

Fisher, who has lived at Grosvenor Gardens for about three years, says her neighbors have had to deal with everything from cockroaches crawling across the floor to leaking pipes. Safety is a concern too, since some windows don’t lock and the surrounding area is dimly lit, Fisher says.

“This place hasn’t been maintained super well, and a lot of us were kind of willing to look the other way because we have such low rent,” says Fisher. “[But] if you’re going to charge $1,100 for this [studio], it needs to be updated.”

Alyssa Fisher Credit: Photo by Angelica Edwards

Since purchasing the building last November, CASA has “invested in long overdue building repairs and necessary safety updates,” wrote Doss. Fisher, however, says she hasn’t yet seen significant improvements. In May, a fire broke out in her neighbor’s apartment. The incident left her entire apartment smoke-damaged and unlivable for weeks. 

Without anywhere to go, Fisher jumped from couch to couch. After appealing to CASA for help, she was finally moved to a vacant unit elsewhere in the complex—but that came with its own issues. 

The apartment was dirty and infested with bugs, Fisher says. She kept asking when her original studio would be fixed, and was put off. She reached out to everyone she thought could help: management company employees, CASA employees, even the CEO. But no repairs were made. 

Finally, at the end of June, a restoration company came to fix Fisher’s apartment. She moved back in, but couldn’t re-settle. Her hallway was still damaged from the fire. Water started running down her walls from her upstairs neighbor’s shower. 

“I’ve gone down every avenue,” Fisher says. “I’ve talked to the management company, I’ve talked to the people at CASA …. I’ve called Raleigh Code Enforcement. Those things are supposed to be helping me, [but] everybody is just playing hot potato.”

A broken system

As a month-to-month renter, Fisher doesn’t have much recourse. She has few rights in North Carolina compared to her landlord, and even fewer housing options in today’s market. 

Since 2019, Wake County has funded the construction or preservation of 3,568 affordable apartments and 21 affordable homes, according to Mark Perlman, a division director in the Wake County Housing Department. About 1,602 (or 45 percent) target renters who make at or below 50 percent AMI. For one person, that’s less than $39,700 per year. 

Growth in Raleigh is so rapid, however, that the county’s many loan, subsidy, and construction programs have only made a small dent in the problem. 

The county is trying to create as many “very low-income-targeting units as we can, with the resources we have available,” says Perlman. The problem is that money only goes so far. If you charge less rent, you can’t build as many apartments. If you build more apartments, you have to charge more rent. 

“We are trying to create units to accommodate those renters [who make 50 percent AMI or below],” Perlman says. “The Raleigh Housing Authority is trying to expand the availability of resources as well, as far as rental supports.

“We are absolutely sympathetic to the situation that these renters are in. We recognize that the stock of rental units that these workers can afford is dwindling, and so we’re trying to keep up.”

Doss echoed Perlman, writing that “the entire team at CASA understands and empathizes with the residents at Grosvenor Gardens.”

“We will continue to work around the clock to find solutions that are impactful and lasting for the community we serve,” she added. 

Grosvenor Gardens residents, though, are angry. Watson and others feel that the efforts of CASA and Wake County leaders to keep them in their homes have failed. CASA may be keeping Grosvenor Gardens affordable for hypothetical future residents, but it’s become out of reach for 22 current, low-income residents, all of whom need a place to live. 

“They’re straight gaslighting us,” Watson says bitterly. “They’re trying to make us feel good about hurting us because they’re not hurting us worse.”

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