By Sarah Nagem
An ambitious plan to create more affordable housing in Scotland County could help low-income residents and revitalize a languishing neighborhood.
Scotland County commissioners are in talks to potentially donate 14 acres of land in north Laurinburg to Southeastern Community Action Partnership.
The nonprofit, known as SCAP, must have the land before it can move forward with early plans to build about 48 affordable units near the former I. Ellis Johnson Elementary School, said CEO Ericka J. Whitaker. Some of the units, she said, would be designated for senior citizens.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but the first part is securing the location,” Whitaker said.
The project would bring much-needed housing options to some of the poorest residents of rural Scotland County, where about 27% of the population lives in poverty and the median household income was nearly $21,000 below the statewide figure in 2020.
Nestled along the southern border of North Carolina, halfway between Charlotte and Wilmington, Scotland County had an unemployment rate of 7.2% in November, the second-highest in the state.
Meanwhile, rent prices have risen, as they have throughout most of the state and country. The average fair-market rent for a two-bedroom home in Scotland County is now $771, up from $671 in 2020, according to rentdata.org.
“There’s a huge need,” said Tim Ivey, chairman of the board of commissioners and member of SCAP’s board of directors. “The housing itself isn’t available.”
Southeastern Community Action Partnership, which serves a seven-county region that includes Scotland, Robeson and Columbus counties, administers the Section 8 federal housing program for low-income residents in Scotland. Whitaker said the organization has 450 vouchers.
But the vouchers are useless if recipients can’t find a place to live. Many private landlords don’t accept Section 8, and there aren’t enough affordable units for everyone who qualifies, according to Whitaker.
The north Laurinburg plan would ease the shortage, and Whitaker said she also hopes it would breathe new life into the neighborhood, where many of the residents are Black.
The area lost two schools in two years to consolidation and restructuring – I. Ellis Johnson Elementary in 2019 and North Laurinburg Elementary in 2021.
Black educator I. Ellis Johnson is the namesake for the school on Mcgirts Bridge Road, which had long served as a community gathering place.
Neighbors who said their community had been neglected for too long urged county leaders to take possession of the property and turn it into a community center.
“The people who live in that neighborhood are right,” Ivey said. “They have been left behind.”
Renovations are now underway at the school’s gymnasium, which could open as soon as this summer and host parks and recreation events, including basketball games, Ivey said.
The county is also considering moving some Department of Social Services employees to the school building, according to Ivey.
Whitaker said SCAP’s mission falls in line with what’s already happening at the site, and she hopes to use part of the building for office space. The organization recently put a mobile unit nearby for its Head Start early-education program, and Whitaker said the goal is to build a permanent facility there.
Whitaker envisions forming partnerships to help make life easier for those who live in north Laurinburg. Maybe Scotland Health would be interested in building a clinic there, she said, and she would ultimately like to see amenities such as a grocery store, pharmacy and walking trail.
“That’s what I envision in the future – that residents don’t have to drive,” Whitaker said.
Ivey said commissioners are open to donating the land, but they want to see more concrete plans before moving forward. The county would not have to contribute money to the project.
Ivey said it would be good for north Laurinburg.
“Everything has been taken out of it,” he said, “but nobody’s putting anything back in it.”