“I’m not going to sugarcoat this. I’m going to tell it like it is.”

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton
Reclaiming Rural
Published in
12 min readJun 14, 2024

Vance County renters are putting the housing crisis on their lawmakers’ agenda.

Local mom, grandma, and organizer Nicole Arrington in downtown Henderson, NC. Photo by author.

It wasn’t much, but it was something. For six years, Nicole Arrington had made a home in a single-wide she rented in Henderson, North Carolina. She’d cooked big meals for her family in the kitchen, she’d helped her son with his homework in the living room, and they’d celebrated birthdays and holidays with family there. Like any house a family comes to occupy, memories had seeped into the floorboards and walls.

When Nicole’s landlord told her she had to move out last November, it came as a shock. She’d been a good tenant, clean and tidy, and she wasn’t one to throw parties or have trouble. Nicole is a nose-to-the-ground woman, working hard and seeking opportunities for her family at every turn.

Like so many people, Nicole was laid off for a few months during the pandemic, but the local Social Services office helped cover rent. Years later, the landlord came to Nicole claiming he’d never received it and it was time for her to go.

He planned to update the property and having lived there so long, Nicole was the first to know it needed it. She had asked for repairs over the years, but now the landlord said “I”m not fixing nothing until you are out.”

Over the six years of living in the house, Nicole’s rent had risen from $500 a month to $600, making things tight but still manageable. Six months after moving out, she sees that the same house is renting for $1,500.

“Who on earth can pay that?” Nicole wonders. Barely a soul in Vance County makes that kind of money. “I could not win for losing with that man.”

The Budget Motel

Vance County is red clay tobacco country; its backroads are edged by kudzu and daylilies. More than half of the population here lives out in the country, working on small farms growing tobacco or soybeans — many commute to warehouse jobs in Henderson, the county seat. Like many places in rural North Carolina, distribution jobs — packing and shipping for large companies like Walmart– have replaced manufacturing jobs, requiring less skill but also providing less pay.

Downtown Henderson is just as you would imagine it. Garnett Street runs the length of the town, forming the main street through a few blocks of two-story brick commercial storefronts from the town’s heyday in the early 1900s. Some are empty, but others, such as Sadie’s Coffee Corner and Juice and Moor Natural Market are locally owned and bustling.

A depiction of Garnett Street in the 1950s. “Main Street, Looking North, Henderson, North Carolina” by unclibraries_commons is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Garnett Street runs all the way out to the interstate. It was here, in the tangle of interstate off-ramps, greasy fast food joints, and motels, that Nicole moved her family last fall. Unable to find a house she could afford, Nicole rented a motel room, packing four generations (her mother, her son, and her grandbaby) into one room.

“It was really hard,” confesses Nicole, describing how little space and privacy they had. The family switched hotels frequently; some were unlivable due to bugs or disrepair, another because the manager was frequently drunk and didn’t maintain control over the property. Nicole often paid $100 a night for a room, making it impossible for her to save money for apartment application fees let alone pay a deposit for more permanent housing.

“My full paycheck went straight to the room,” she say, leaving her scrambling to cover other basic needs. During their time in the hotels, Nicole’s family lost access to SNAP benefits for a month because they had no address.

One of the motels off I-85 at the Henderson exit. Photo by author.

Nicole estimates that 75% of the rooms at the hotels she stayed in were permanent residents who couldn’t afford anywhere else in Vance County. “Some of these people had been in these rooms for years,” she said, describing the occupants as anyone from day laborers to families to the elderly and disabled. “But the truth is you can easily pay $1,000 in a week on housing applications and get turned down everywhere you apply. You don’t get that money back.”

“They say when you are going through the clouds there is turbulence but once you get above them it’s smooth?” Nicole shakes her head. “Well, I’m still waiting for that part!”

A Rural Housing Crisis

So much of Vance County is pastoral and idyllic. Tractors slow down traffic on two-lane roads and fishermen motor their small Jon boats out on the reservoir. But this pretty place has a dirty secret: It ranks third in the state for evictions.

A typical street in Henderson, North Carolina, lined with family homes. Photo by author.

Most of us think of evictions happening in urban settings– a family’s belongings piled high on a sidewalk- but in places like Vance County, they play out every day, quiet and unseen. According to the North Carolina Housing Coalition, 1,416 Vance County families faced eviction files last year. That’s because an astronomical 52% of Vance County renters are cost-burdened, paying more than 30% of their income on housing, leaving food, gas, healthcare, the light bill, and all the other needs of life on the balance.

Another way to think of this is this: If you are a Vance County renter, you are more likely than not to be at risk of eviction.

When a problem becomes statistically probable, it can no longer be explained by individual shortcomings. It needs to be addressed at a community level.

The Old Ways: Caregiving and Community

Nicole comes from a long line of caregivers and healers. She works as a Personal Care Assistant, helping her mostly elderly clients care for themselves. She comes from generations of women who have cared for Vance County: Her mom was a nurse, her grandma was a nurse, her great-grandma was a nurse and a midwife. “The women in my family taught me all the old-fashioned ways and the old-timey stuff,” explains Nicole. “There’s other ways to do it now, but I do the old ways.”

One of the old ways is to pull on community; to work together. Nicole has seen this done all her life. She has seen how her family always pooled resources to provide for the children; how a neighbor let her move in when she got pregnant at 14 in exchange for help around the house.

“When life gives you lemons, it’s hard to make lemonade with no sugar,” laughs Nicole. “It don’t taste well.”

The sugar has always been her community. “There’s no shortage of people wearing my shoes,” she says about her neighbors in Vance County. “Everyone struggle is different, but some of the roots of the struggle are the same.”

“I’ve been taught you treat this with that, that with this, by all the healers in my family,” says Nicole. The ingredient that she needed to treat the problems in Vance County would be community. “I knew if we could get enough people together, then we could show folks that they aren’t alone.” While in the hotel, Nicole began to look for ways to address the housing crisis she saw playing out all around her.

Down Home in Vance County

This past Spring, while Nicole was finally moving her family into a new house, she didn’t know that a small group of Vance County residents were busy forming a new chapter of Down Home North Carolina– a rural organizing group run by poor and working-class people.

The day the chapter launched, the community room at the Vance County library was so packed they had to keep putting out more chairs. Black and white residents from around the county– from Kittrell, from Middlesburg, from Williamsboro– had turned out to discuss community needs. “We need to build multiracial power because these issues impact all of us,” said a mom balancing her toddler on her knee. Participants talked about the lack of activities for children as businesses have closed and parks and playgrounds are few and far between. They talked about wages and public education. But the issue that came up the most– over and over again– was housing.

Community members shared about their experiences in Vance County at the recent launch of the local Down Home chapter there —with housing being a top concern. Photo by author.

“People here not only struggle to pay rent and find decent housing, but once they have it they’re scared of their landlords,” explained one Down Home member at that initial meeting. “They’re scared that if they ask for the sink to be repaired or tell them the fridge broke, the landlord will throw them out instead of fix it.”

The new chapter voted to launch a campaign asking the County Commission to fund an Office of Tenant Services to provide oversight and legal help to the county’s nearly 20,000 renters. The office could provide annual and pre-lease inspections, develop a landlord registry, provide legal support for tenants, and host Know Your Rights workshops every three months for tenants. The members calculated a cost of $200,000 a year, asking their elected officials to make a modest $10 investment per renter.

Then they set to work organizing: Showing up to local Board meetings to advocate for their plan, talking to local press about the idea, and knocking on doors to invite more tenants into the work.

Down Home members set out to get signatures on a petition asking for the creation of an Office of Tenant Services. Photo by Nick Oveido-Torres.

Connecting with Neighbors

When Nicole heard that this new group wanted to organize with renters, she was all in. Immediately, she started spreading the word, talking to her friends and neighbors about the campaign.

“I can make a conversation with a rock,” she laughs. It’s true– Nicole talks to people everywhere she goes. Part of it is that she’s just friendly; she has a huge smile and is quick to laugh. But the other part is that she knows that people in Vance County want to discuss these issues. “They are hungry for it,” she says. “They want to talk about it.”

“When I talk to people, I tell them my story because I know it resonates. All the people in my family, all the people in those hotels– they want answers to what is going on, because they know it’s not their fault,” says Nicole. “You need people who have real experience with this issue like I do so that people identify with you and trust you to bring them on board.”

Nicole reports back to the group with updates about the Office of Tenant Services campaign at a Down Home chapter meeting in May. Photo By author.

During a recent Down Home meeting in a church fellowship hall, Nicole stood up before the group to give an update on the tenant’s campaign. Down Home members sat in a horseshoe of folding chairs, eating pizza and sipping Pepsi, listening to her speak. “We’ve been going to the County Commission,” Nicole tells the group, “to remind them we elected them and they represent us. Most people here are renters and these houses are too expensive and in bad, bad shape. They’ve got to help us do something about that. They have to.

Setting the Agenda

Nicole had never thought much about politics. Becoming a mom at 14 and always working a few jobs at a time to make ends meet, she’d barely had time to. Plus, politicians always seemed like they were from faraway places and different realities from hers. Vance County, after all, is a majority working-class Black county but it has all wealthy white representation at the state level. Wasn’t the system hopelessly rigged?

Nicole and her neighbors wouldn’t be wrong to think so. Vance County was created in the 1880s, long after most North Carolina counties were formed. Vance was carved out of portions of Granville and Warren counties so that Black voters would be concentrated into one county and white-majorities would remain in Granville and Wilson. As historians look at Vance County as one of the state’s first examples of racial gerrymandering, Nicole and her family are left wondering when people like them might ever have a say.

However, working on the tenants’ campaign made Nicole think differently about power. She began to think about who had the power to create an Office of Tenant Services and who held the purse strings for getting things done. She began to wonder how she and her neighbors could get local elected officials to hear them and be responsive to their needs.

Nicole attends a County Commission meeting with Down Home North Carolina and speaks about the issues tenants are facing in the county. Photo by Nick Oveido-Torres.

Attending County Commission meetings, she and her neighbors found that the housing crisis was absent from the meeting agendas. It left them curious about where their elected officials stand on the issue. They decided to start organizing a town hall about housing, with the idea of packing the room with local renters to see if they could get their elected officials to take a stand.

The local Down Home chapter also decided to get involved in the current election. While all but one of the county commissioners were running unopposed, the competition for the General Assembly felt much more live. Members spent weeks interviewing and evaluating the candidates, asking them about how they would help working-class people in Vance. As one member, Kristina, explains how a candidate running for NC State House supports limits to rent increases and to hold landlords accountable, Nicole enthusiastically nods. The group ended up endorsing two candidates, one for NC House and one for the NC Senate, who said they would put housing policy on their agendas.

Down Home members in Vance County researched and interviewed candidates andthen presented their findings to the chapter for a vote. Photo by author.

Building a Bigger We in Vance County

The day after the Vance County chapter voted on endorsements, Nicole is out knocking on doors again. She’s talking to folks about housing again… and now about voting, too. “People here sometimes feel like we are selling them a dream. They are so used to people coming through to take your money and take your vote,” she says. It’s important, Nicole explains, to talk to people about the issues they are facing, not just voting. You are voting for yourself and your neighbors to make life better, not just for a candidate.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it for them, I’m going to tell it like it is: It’s going to be a fight to make things better here, but this is your first step. We’ve got to start somewhere.”

Start somewhere. That could almost be Nicole’s rallying cry. Where many of us would see barriers, she sees beginnings. From becoming a mother at 14 to being evicted from her home last fall, Nicole uses these moments as indicators that she should not give up, but instead organize.

Nicole could have felt very alone living in that motel with her family, but when she looked around she saw that the problem was shared by so many she knew that the solution could then be carried by so many more. The ingredient she needed– the sugar to make the lemonade sweet– was more people.

So now she’s knocking on the doors of poor and working-class neighbors all across Vance County inviting them to join her. And she’s not alone. She’s with a small team of five people right now, but they plan to double in size as the election nears. Their numbers are adding up, too. They are knocking on hundreds of doors every week, and often connecting and having more than 50 conversations a week.

“I want Vance County to have a better education system for our children. I want better opportunities for our kids and for the elderly,” says Nicole. “I want good, healthy places you can go eat with your family, get a wholesome meal. I want afterschool programs where children can play. And I want people to have homes, ones they can afford and be safe in and raise their families in.”

Maybe these are dreams, she thinks. But dreams become real when a community demands them to be.

Nicole with members of Down Home North Carolina- ready to win! Photo by author.



Gwen Frisbie-Fulton
Reclaiming Rural

Mother. Southerner. Storytelling Bread and Roses. Bottom up stories about race, class, gender, and the American South. *views my own*