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Human Rights Center must find new home

By Susan Dickson
Staff Writer
Following a decision last week by the Abbey Court Condominiums homeowners’ association to force the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Human Rights Center (HRC) to leave the complex, the HRC is searching for a new home.

Bart White, an attorney for Ken Lucas, owner of the majority of the property, said the association voted to give the HRC 90 days to leave Abbey Court because its presence as a commercial establishment in the residential complex was a violation of HOA covenants. Lucas also serves as president and CEO of the Tar Heel Companies, which manages the complex.

“There seems to have been a belief that this was some kind of quick decision blindsiding the Human Rights Center,” White said. “The homeowners’ association has been trying to get the owner’s attention for over a year that this was a violation of the covenants.”

The nonprofit center has been located in two Abbey Court apartments since 2009. Though the complex is zoned residential, the center received a zoning variance from the town because someone lives in one of the two apartments.

White said the complex is intended to be residential, and commercial properties aren’t permitted under HOA covenants because of associated noise and traffic.

The removal of the center from Abbey Court is the latest in a string of controversy at the complex, which in recent years has been riddled with conflict ranging from numerous calls to police regarding disturbances at the apartments to parking issues and towed cars.

Last month, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen voted to rescind its controversial anti-lingering ordinance for the corner of Jones Ferry and Davie roads, adjacent to Abbey Court, where day laborers – many of whom are residents of the complex – wait to be picked up for construction work.

Judith Blau, director of the HRC, said she believes that the decision stemmed from the HRC’s recent plans to buy a larger unit at Abbey Court to create a day-laborer center. The HRC already provides a number of services, including an afterschool program in partnership with Scroggs Elementary School, computer classes and a youth soccer program.

The apartment complex has a diverse population, with large numbers of Latino and Karen residents, many whom are served by programs offered by the HRC. Some have argued that the decision by the homeowners’ association was rooted in racism, and on Saturday, Occupy Chapel Hill led a peaceful march of more than 100 people to the complex in protest of the association’s decision.

“It’s an immense pleasure … that the town is supporting Abbey Court residents,” Blau said. “I think the residents are surprised and totally delighted about that.”

The HRC has until March 1 to vacate Abbey Court and find another home, and Blau said she’s working to find a new location in the same area as Abbey Court.

“There may be a very good outcome if I can find a house in Carrboro near Abbey Court, a larger place where we could serve more, provide more programs, and day laborers could come in the mornings,” she said, adding that the HRC needs to find a home quickly.

“If we don’t, we would have to bridge our programs doing somersaults,” she said.

Mayor Mark Chilton said he was disappointed by the decision of the Abbey Court HOA and that he’s been helping Blau and others at the HRC find a new location for the center. He attended the HOA board meeting last week, and said members cited in their decision liability issues surrounding the center.

Chilton said he told board members that the children who visit the HRC for services are also tenants of Abbey Court.

“They’re going to be at Abbey Court whether you have an HRC or not, and with the HRC they’re getting a good level of adult supervision, and we don’t know what level of adult supervision they’re getting when the HRC isn’t there,” adding that many Abbey Court parents work long hours at multiple jobs.

“That argument fell on deaf ears, frankly,” Chilton said.

Once the center moves, those residents who use the services it provides won’t have the same kind of access, he said. “Clearly, the Human Rights Center has been a very positive influence on the neighborhood.”

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