Op-Ed: Rising rent is crushing folks in rural North Carolina

Photo: Jonathan Ardila/Getty Images

By Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

March 7, 2024

My neighborhood’s Facebook group in Guilford County is where you can find a neighbor to fix your broken pipe when a plumber can’t be reached or help cut up a dead limb when an arborist is too expensive. Potlucks are arranged in this group and, right now, the local community center is using it to organize a baked potato fundraiser.

Besides the occasional neighbor griping about noise, it’s all very sweet and wholesome.

Recently, however, more and more people post in the group about needing housing. A mother posted that her lease wasn’t renewed because the owner is selling. She has one month to find a new home. A young couple said their rent went up by a whopping $500 a month, making the house they have been in for five years suddenly out of reach.

Renting and moving go hand in hand. I grew up in rentals and my family moved nearly every year. But something different is happening now.

If you were to take a look at rents in Charlotte or Durham, you can see how working folks would struggle to survive there. But the truth is, the most severely cost-burdened markets are in rural places like Person, Vance, and Watauga counties, where more than half of all renters have difficulty affording their homes. In rural Hyde County, for example, nearly three in four renters are cost-burdened, according to the North Carolina Housing Coalition.

Last October, my neighbor Marisa was told by her landlord that his son was going to move into the house she’s been in for the last eight years. She was given five months to move and she started casually asking around.

Marisa’s found that it’s not just the high rent, but it’s also all the extra fees added by the property management companies that are gobbling up the local properties.

She’s paying non-refundable application fees on rentals that end up falling through. Additionally, she’s found that many companies charge a $125 “move-in fee” (whatever that is). Marisa estimates that with a pet fee, cleaning fee, security deposit, and more she will need about $3,000 to move—an amount most of us can’t afford while covering our ordinary, everyday expenses.

What is happening here threatens not just to upend people’s lives, but also to destabilize our communities. We are losing people we care about and who are part of the glue that holds us together.

My neighborhood was always considered the most affordable neighborhood in town. So when the rent goes up or the lease isn’t renewed, where will these families go? The dramatic rise in housing costs here isn’t an anomaly—this is a problem in all 100 counties of our state. According to the NC Housing Association, rent in some areas has jumped nearly 69% in recent years, causing one in four North Carolinians unable to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

You don’t have to be particularly good at economics to know this isn’t sustainable. So why are the needs of renters being ignored by lawmakers? Renters make up about a third of the state’s population and are overwhelmingly the working-class folks who are the backbone of our economy. Renters are both economically important and could be (should be) a voting block.

If elected officials don’t know Marisa personally, then perhaps the rental crisis doesn’t feel like an emergency to them. Besides, on any given city council or county commission (and certainly in the legislature) you are more likely to find homeowners, even landlords, than renters. Perhaps this crisis for working folks makes for a strong bottom line for them.

Housing affordability, tenants’ rights, and eviction policies are all addressable policy concerns at the state and local levels of government. City councils could create a tenant bill of rights and safe housing standards. County commissions could cap the Airbnb rentals that are eating up our housing stock. The NCGA could codify eviction protections and give power back to local governments to enact policies that help working people.

Candidates up and down the ballot will be knocking on our doors this year asking for our votes. It seems to me that Marisa and the three million other renters in North Carolina should answer their door and waste no time asking them what they are going to do about the rent.


  • Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

    Gwen Frisbie-Fulton is the communications director at Down Home North Carolina, which organizes with working-class people in rural communities across the state. This column is syndicated by Beacon Media, please contact [email protected] with feedback or questions.



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