On a Friday afternoon at a mobile home park in Cary, dozens of children spill from a beeping yellow school bus, skipping up to meet their parents who are huddled around an intersection.
An elementary schooler in a pastel pink sweater and purple backpack runs to her mother who greets her with a warm hug and a kiss on the forehead. A middle schooler walks past them to the parking lot where his dad waits with the car.
It’s a scene that plays out in suburban neighborhoods across Cary. But here at Chatham Estates mobile home park, the daily routine may soon come to an end if, following an impending sale, the community is broken up and families are forced to move.
“I don’t want to leave, but … if they kick us out, there’s no choice, right?” Nelida Arana Gaona, a stay-at-home mother of three, says through a translator. “My only hope is that they say they want to build, perhaps, some low-cost houses … I hope I can move on to that.”
It’s a sentiment that many residents at Chatham Estates repeat. When asked what they’ll do if they have to move, the answer is always the same: “I don’t know.” Many families struggled for a long time to find a safe place to live, and now that they’re here, they want to stay. They hope that something—anything—will change their circumstances.
Chatham Estates is slated for redevelopment. The 37.8-acre property, also home to a strip mall, was put up for sale by owner Curtis Westbrook Sr. in March. Initially listed for around $50 million, the sale price is now “subject to offer,” according to commercial real estate broker Lee & Associates.
Despite the fact that the property is currently occupied by hundreds of families and business owners, it’s marketed as a “redevelopment site in downtown Cary,” with “favorable landlord lease structures.” In other words, it would be easy for a buyer to evict the current residents and turn the property into an expensive apartment complex or high-end shopping center.
Just down the street, a new “work-live-play” space, Fenton, opened last year. Surrounded by restaurants, stores, and a movie theater, a studio apartment in the complex rents for at least $1,820 per month. Other apartments in the area have rents ranging from $1,600 to $1,900 per month.
That’s far beyond the means of these families, who spend about $400 per month renting the land their mobile homes occupy. Many spent thousands of dollars just to get here, paying for moving costs, repairs, and utility hook-ups.
Enir Oseguera, who’s lived at Chatham Estates for about five months, saved for two years to pay for his move. At his old apartment in Durham, he and other residents from Central America weren’t treated well by management, he says.
Here, it’s much better. The rent is cheaper, he says, and there’s more space for his kids to play. He’s also surrounded by a community that speaks his language.
“[It was] shocking, because we were happy to have found a place to live,” Oseguera says of his reaction when he learned the land was up for sale. “By staying here, the truth is that we are being left without a roof. From here, I don’t know where to go.”
Guadalupe Perez, a mother of three who cleans houses around the Triangle, has lived in Cary since she was 11 years old. Her children, like many in the neighborhood, attend Mills Park Elementary School, and she usually walks to the grocery store nearby. The community is home to her.
If displaced, the Chatham Estates residents might be able to move their mobile homes to another park, but it’s far from guaranteed. Many of these homes are so old that they’re likely to fall apart in transit, says Katia Roebuck, an organizer with ONE Wake.
“If 10 can be moved, that will be a blessing,” Roebuck says. While she was knocking on doors earlier this year, Roebuck woke up parents who were asleep because they’d worked the late shift. She met children sorting produce at the kitchen table.
“They’re already poor,” she adds. “Where are they going [to go]?”
Private sector solutions
In Cary, recently ranked one of the most desirable places to live in America, the risk of eviction or rent hikes for non-homeowners has become almost an inevitability. As longtime property owners decide to sell, out-of-town developers swoop in to bid on land that is now extremely valuable. The Chatham Estates property, for example, is now worth a little over $6 million, according to a recent Wake County tax assessment.
Of course, a private developer who buys the property could choose to keep the Chatham Estates mobile home park as is—but there’s a slim chance of that, especially since the land is in a premium location at the intersection of East Chatham Street and Southeast Maynard Road.
The property owner could also sell below market value, perhaps to a nonprofit or government agency that would preserve existing affordable housing. But again, that holds little appeal when they can easily profit from a competitive real estate market.
“I’ve never seen somebody sell their home below market rate to help with the affordability crisis,” says Cary Town Council member Don Frantz, whose seat is up for reelection this month. “Everybody’s going for maximum profit. And I get that. But [creating affordable housing] is not just a government solution. It’s a community problem.”
Westbrook, the current owner of Chatham Estates, has told news outlets he is only selling due to his health and inability to continue managing the property. In an interview with the News & Observer, Westbrook said he “loves[s] his tenants” and would like to see the mobile home park preserved. But he doesn’t seem to have taken any action to make that dream a reality.
“It would make no sense for me to put conditions on the sale,” Westbrook told the N&O. “My property has gotten old and needs to be revived. Everything changes. This is just a continuation of Cary’s growth.”
Westbrook did not respond to requests for comment by the INDY’s publication deadline.
The Cary Town Council might also be able to play a role in helping preserve Chatham Estates. Towns and cities across Wake County have preserved affordable housing in the past through partnerships with nonprofits, namely by helping fund the purchase of properties.
Frantz, who represents District B in which Chatham Estates is located, says he’s open to discussions about preserving the mobile home park, either through a sale or by working with current or future property owners. But “that’s got to be brought to us,” he adds.
The town has no control over private property sales, nor can it dictate what a property owner builds on a site as long as the developer complies with Cary’s zoning regulations. Chatham Estates is currently zoned for commercial and residential, which means it could easily become home to an apartment complex with accompanying office or retail space up to 12 stories.
If a developer wants to build taller buildings on the site, or otherwise exceed the zoning rules, that’s when the town can step in, Frantz says. Rezoning requests give towns like Cary leverage to request that developers do something for the community, like build affordable housing.
“[The developer] might have a bigger, bolder vision than what’s allowed under current entitlements,” Frantz says. “[So], if you want us to help you, you have to help us meet our community goals. Providing workforce affordable housing, helping those that may be displaced, relocation assistance, guaranteed space in the new development, whatever that looks like.”
But the reality is that Cary may not want to help preserve the mobile home park. It doesn’t fit in with the up-and-coming image the town wants to portray for potential residents, businesses, and developers.
In a post on his website, Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht wrote, “We have a keen eye on the sale and welcome the opportunity to work with any potential new owners to communicate Cary’s vision and needs.”
But what exactly is Cary’s vision?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way
According to Cary’s 2040 Community Plan, the property currently home to Chatham Estates would ideally become a “supporting neighborhood,” with apartments, condos, or townhouses. Meanwhile, the central corridor along East Chatham Street and Chapel Hill Road is slated to become home to retail or office buildings up to six stories.
With major public transportation improvements planned, the town council also hopes to encourage better street connections and add sidewalks. These could all be good things for Cary’s residents but could also hasten gentrification.
Cary has shown support for affordable housing as the town grows. Recently, the town council approved the development of about 130 units of mixed-income housing—serving people making 50 to 100 percent of the area median income—at 921 SE Maynard Road. This year, the town also dedicated about $10 million in local and federal funds to support various affordable housing programs.
“This is something that’s been on our radar for quite some time,” Frantz says. “A lot of duplexes and triplexes downtown are going away, making room for big mansions. So we get it. And we’re continuing to invest a lot more heavily in affordable housing initiatives … But it’s a challenge. We’re trying to do what we can to help, but it takes everyone.”
Regarding Chatham Estates, Weinbrecht says town employees have spoken with local groups interested in helping residents, including Dorcas Ministries, local YMCAs, The Carying Place, ONE Wake, and the Western Regional Housing Action Group. But ultimately, it comes down to the will of the people in charge.
In an effort to advocate for residents, nonprofit ONE Wake organized several meetings in Chatham Estates, helping bridge the language barrier between Latino families and town officials. Most recently, the nonprofit held a forum with Cary Town Council candidates, asking if they would support specific affordable housing solutions.
After hearing testimony from residents and business owners, each candidate in attendance—five of the nine running for office this fall—agreed to support the nonprofit’s demands, including compensation for residents and business owners displaced if Chatham Estates is sold.
City council members—namely at-large candidates Lori Bush and Mary Insprucker, District B candidates Michelle Craig and Don Frantz, and District D candidate Rachel Jordan—agreed to help cover relocation expenses for mobile homes and businesses as well as pay people for any equity lost in homes that cannot be moved.
Roebuck, the organizer with ONE Wake, secured similar compensation for the residents of Wake Forest’s Wellington mobile home park in 2021. But today, she’s wondering if Chatham Estates residents can get a better deal.
“[Wellington residents] got money, so maybe [the Chatham Estates’ residents] can get the same,” Roebuck says. “But then I was thinking, ‘Wait a minute. They don’t have to get the same. Maybe they can get more. Maybe this time we can do better.’”
Over the past nine months, Roebuck has talked to these families, met their children, and been invited into their homes.
“[The families] want to stay,” Roebuck says. “They make these homes for Cary residents look beautiful, because they clean them, they do landscaping, they do construction. They pay taxes. Some of them are voters. They contribute to the prosperity of Cary. So why can’t they stay?”
Roebuck says that while her job is to help advocate for the families, she’s not paid to love or respect them—but those connections end up happening regardless.
“[Cary] has room to build beautiful buildings and new developments to enrich the city and the county,” Roebuck adds. “But is Cary really including everybody in their plans? Is there really equality in the town of Cary when it comes to housing?”
Editor’s note: After publication, we changed a quote from Chatham Estates resident Nelida Arana Gaona to reflect the original Spanish more accurately.
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