The chair of the Chatham County Affordable Housing Advisory Committee has “always understood and believed that housing is a basic human right,” and she is committed to forging a solution in our county
By Megan Tillotson | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Susan Levy lives with her husband, Franz Thomas, and their cat, Tyna, on 25 acres in the Harlands Creek community west of Pittsboro. She earned her bachelor’s in political science and history from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s in city and regional planning from UNC. Susan retired in 2018 after 26 years as executive director at Habitat for Humanity of Orange County. Today, she chairs Chatham’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee.
What is your role on the committee?
I was still working [for Habitat of Orange County] when I was appointed [to the committee]. In 2019, I became the chair of the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee for Chatham County, which is a volunteer role. We work very closely with [county] staff [including] one of their policy analysts, Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, who’s our county liaison. We also work with Triangle J Council of Governments and one of its staffers, Erika Brown. [She] has been with our committee for a number of years.
What does this cause mean to you? What makes it valuable to Chatham County?
Affordable housing [has] been a lifelong concern and passion of mine. I have always understood and believed that housing is a basic human right. It impacts so many aspects of individuals’ lives, but also the life of a community and the life of all of us, really. I do think [affordable housing] affects people’s mental health. It affects our education system, educational outcomes and health outcomes. [There are] so many aspects to having housing that is affordable to the whole spectrum of our community, from the lowest income to the highest.
What are Chatham’s biggest challenges when it comes to affordable housing?
I think it’s changed over time. There isn’t enough housing being produced at the lower end of the spectrum because costs are so high. When I moved here 30 years ago, I could buy 25 acres of land on a nonprofit person’s salary, which at the time was very low. It’s just not possible to buy land, or even to buy and own a house, because the costs have skyrocketed. I think the median sales price [for a home] right now in Chatham County is $618,000. I’m really shocked to even say that. … Rents have also increased quite a bit. We all know the issues with the supply chain, so lumber costs are really high right now. Even housing that’s older is going up. … It’s just gotten so competitive, and that really saddens me that this whole generation of folks [who] are my daughter’s age, in their 30s even, who are starting families – can’t afford to buy a house here. With the new [electric vehicle] plant [VinFast] that’s coming in, it’s going to create 7,500 jobs. Where are those workers going to live? It’s mind-boggling. And then there’s Chatham Park – it’s going to … hugely increase the population count. Frankly, it’s going to put upward pressure on the housing crisis as well, because the vast majority of those homes are committed to 7% being affordable. It’s exploding right now, and it’s a very relevant topic.
What are potential solutions to address those challenges?
You can’t talk about solutions without talking about the need for additional resources, which nobody likes to hear. There have to be some incentives and subsidies to encourage both nonprofit housing developers and for-profit housing developers to create housing at the lower end of the market and below. Chatham County has had three of those projects approved, which is phenomenal. … Right now, we have a Housing Trust Fund [a source of funding to provide low-interest loans]. The county has also appropriated some funds from the additional sales tax that was voted on primarily for education, but they’re also setting aside what’s left over to be divided among other priorities, one of which is affordable housing. … You also need to allocate staff at the county and town level[s] devoted to affordable housing. And that’s going to be important as we grow.
What projects are you most excited about in the coming year?
The Housing Trust Fund just approved some additional funding against the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit project that awarded a tax credit in Siler City. It’s going to be 72 new affordable rental units. … Also, the trust fund is investing in [a nonprofit] called Rebuilding Together of the Triangle, which does housing preservation emergency repairs. Through Triangle J [Council of Governments], they’ve been able to bring in some additional funds through the federal home loan banks and [the Department of Agriculture] to expand what they’re able to do. They’re preserving existing housing and allowing folks, especially elders, to stay in their homes as they age by making the necessary repairs. Those additional resources and having a nonprofit partner that’s able to do the work is really great.
Where in Chatham can people find affordable housing?
There are a number of apartment complexes in Chatham County that are subsidized and where the rents are slightly lower, but usually they have waiting lists. There’s a [directory] on the county website [of] affordable housing options. The Chatham County Housing Authority handles the housing voucher program.
How does the committee define “affordable”?
We use the [Department of Housing and Urban Development] guidelines, and they define it by region. The technical definition of affordable is not paying more than 30% of your gross income for your housing-related expenses. That includes mortgage and insurance, and if you’re renting, your basic utilities such as water, sewer and electric. If you do exceed 30%, you’re considered cost-burdened, and that’s a huge issue in Chatham County. A large percentage of people below 80% of the median income are paying much more than 30% for housing.
What do you see for the future of affordable housing in Chatham?
I think it’s gonna get harder and harder to ensure there’s an equitable distribution of housing in the county. Homeownership has typically been a way that people have built wealth. It’s going to impact the younger generation because of their wealth disparities. There’s a divide in wealth between white people and people of color, and so that will probably get exacerbated further, at least in the housing market. There’s a lot of challenges, in terms of equity, and making sure that people who grew up here and want to stay here can afford to do that, and people who have the kinds of jobs that are absolutely necessary to keep our economy running can afford to live here.
Why should people care about providing affordable housing options in Chatham?
It goes back to people who have important, but not necessarily high-paying, jobs in the county need to be able to afford to live here and not have to commute long distances. Having a safe, decent place to live really impacts children and how they’re able to function in school. I think the people who live here want to be able to live where they grew up and get frustrated if they know their kids can’t afford it.