Is Raleigh treating half its people like second-class citizens? Some renters think so.

When a 15-year-old boy was killed in a hit-and-run on a Southeast Raleigh street this year, Chalisa Williams thought about the kids in the apartment complex she manages.

She sees students and adults walk along Sunnybrook Road toward their schools and jobs every day. She asked a City Council member what it would take to get a sidewalk along the road next to her apartment complex, and she was pointed to the city’s petition process.

But the more than 200 people who live in the affordable-housing complex wouldn’t get to vote on adding the sidewalk.

That’s because the city sends a ballot to property owners when deciding whether to install sidewalks on their street.. Renters who live on the street have no vote.

It’s one of the ways, they say, the city ignores renters, who make up 53% of Raleigh’s residents.

“With them only reaching out to owners, in my opinion, that creates a barrier,” Williams said. “Everyone doesn’t have the opportunity nor desire to own a home. It hinders citizen involvement, because if I am renting and not included in the community, that is an issue.”

Community Investment

When city leaders recently debated changing Raleigh’s sidewalk petition process, council member Nicole Stewart asked if renters could also be polled.

“This is a conversation we need to have to figure out how do we interact with renters and how do we get their feedback,” she said. “They are over 50% of our population. ... It’s an important conversation we need to have.”

The city uses the Wake County courthouse to find property owners, said Gail Smith, clerk to the council.

“I don’t know how we would send (ballots) to renters because there is no (database) that tells us where to send them to,” she said.

Council member Kay Crowder said the conversation was worth having but asked how the city would track renters who move. There are N.C. State University students, she said, that sometimes move every semester, and some sidewalk projects take years to complete.

“I understand your point about the renters except, please consider this, some of the renters are there for a very short-term period,” said council member Dickie Thompson. “And the property owners are certainly more invested than people who stay in a neighborhood say six months.”

Thompson’s comments caused an uproar among some renters.

“I think it is a common perception among many people of the people who serve on our council that, for whatever reason, renters don’t matter as much as homeowners and as much as long-time residents,” said Dustin Engelken, government affairs director of the Triangle Apartment Association.

After the meeting, Stewart said she thought Thompson was making an argument about financial investment but that didn’t outweigh the other kinds of investments renters make in Raleigh.

“I think renters feel very invested in their community through their work, play, relationships and that adds value to the community,” she said.

City Manager Ruffin Hall agreed to see what other cities are doing and report back to the council.

Raleigh Renters

The tension between renters and homeowners in Raleigh surfaces during zoning hearings, citizen advisory council meetings and on the digital pages of NextDoor.

Long-time homeowners feel squeezed and choked by three-story apartment buildings, which they argue don’t match the character of their ranch-style homes and can add traffic and crime.

Renters argue they are looking for affordable places to live in an increasing unaffordable city or want to live in apartment for a variety of reasons. They are just as involved and invested as homeowners, they say.

“That is an attitude that is prevalent across ... the city,” Engelken said. “That somehow ‘those people,’ which can be taken a lot of different ways, but somehow those people don’t have a long-term interest, or are transient, or are outsiders. That they don’t belong, they don’t take care of things.”

Wes Tripp said he rents because he is still early in his law career and has “six figures worth of student loan debt.”

He sees older residents argue on Facebook about renters and new apartments and said he knows most likely didn’t have the same level of student loan debt and bought their homes when prices were lower. That contributes to a misconception about renters, he said.

Wanda Gilbert-Coker, a community organizer on the city’s fair housing board, said Raleigh struggles to reach renters and consistently leaves them out.

When Hurricane Florence was believed to be heading toward Raleigh, the city told 26,000 residents in low-lying areas to seek higher ground. The city called or texted homeowners who got water bills and trash service but notified some renters through fliers delivered by the fire department to the property manager, Gilbert-Coker said.

What if those property managers had already left, she asked, or had no leasing office on site?

Williams, who is the recent chair of Central CAC and serves on the city’s fair housing board, also currently rents. She pointed to members of her family who have rented their home for more than 20 years.

It is not for the city to decide who is invested in the community and who isn’t, she said.

“There are a lot of barriers for renters,” Williams said. “They are people who are trying to accomplish their goals. There are people who rent like me. I am very invested in my community. I believe the idea that renters aren’t invested is a stereotype.”

And she still wants her sidewalk.

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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