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New start at Club Nova 

When the pink and maroon Club Nova apartment building on Main Street in Carrboro opened, David Hamblet's life changed. Upon moving in, his rent dropped from 59 percent of his monthly income, not including his Duke Power bill, to one third of his income. After 15 years as a Club Nova member, Hamblet was finally moving onto their campus. The grand opening of the single-occupancy apartments last month marked a revolutionary change in the way Hamblet and others with mental illness live in the community. The 24 apartments are set up for people with low incomes, disabilities and often mental illness. They are the first of their kind to be built in Orange County.

"This is about having an affordable place to live on your own, but with neighbors and a community," says Karen Kincaid Dunn, director of Club Nova. "It has an element to it that reflects how residents are very important and residents deserve this plus more. Some of these residents have lived in conditions that are just atrocious. The day-to-day struggle would be really hard for many of us to fathom."

Each apartment is equipped with a small kitchenette, a handicapped accessible bathroom, wooden furniture and a back porch. The floors are all red brick, part of the energy-efficient heating plan for the unit. Coiled hot-water pipes embedded in sand run under the brick floors, helping to heat the apartments in the winter. The hot water that flows through the pipes will be heated by solar panels as well as gas.

The apartments are located behind the Club Nova thrift store and the organization's main house. The club house is a supportive community where members can find work, friends, support, food and--now--housing. For example, Club Nova serves members lunch for $1 and helps connect members to job openings in the community.

"It's a non-judgmental community," Hamblet said. "You start to feel like, hey, it's not so bad after all."

The housing component started as a dream about 10 years ago, Kincaid Dunn says. Finding funding for the project was a community effort. But in addition to private donations and help from the project's sponsors, the Mental Health Association of North Carolina and the Chrysalis Foundation, the apartments are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's project-based Section 8 program. Project-based Section 8 vouchers allow people with low-incomes to rent housing in a particular project within the private market. The collaboration creates a housing opportunity that integrates people with mental illness into the community.

"Mental health reform is not about warehousing people," Kincaid Dunn says. "It's about creating opportunities like you are seeing right here."

However, replicating Club Nova's model may be problematic in the future. President Bush's 2005 budget calls for the reduction of Section 8 funding by $1.6 billion. Bush plans to convert the program to a block grant, instead. According to U.S. Rep. David Price, these cuts would hinder Section 8 from meeting the rising demand for its services and prevent the Club Nova housing model from flourishing.

"We want to see this housing model replicated because it bares replication," Price says. "But, most HUD programs will likely see a cut to funding next year."

Price said housing agencies would be left with only two options, to drop people from its program or to charge voucher holders higher rents.

Threshold, a clubhouse in Durham, has already felt the effects of under-funding in Section 8. According to Susie Deter, director of Threshold, the organization is partnering with Next Step Housing to build a 12-unit apartment building that will open this fall. However, the project was unable to get project-based Section 8 funding.

"There is just too little out there," Deter said.

Nonetheless, Club Nova's opening day was a time of celebration. The new facility is now housing residents who previously could not afford housing, were homeless, or were stuck in rest homes. Many people with mental illness end up in rest homes in their 20s, 30s and 40s because there is nowhere else for them to go.

"It feels fantastic to move in," Kurt O'Briant, a new tenant, says. "Words cannot express my feelings. I just thank God I got me an apartment. "

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