When 52-year-old Ivette Arroyo moved to Cornelius, North Carolina in 2007, she left pricey, but beautiful Miami Beach for what she calls “a one-horse town.” 

But Cornelius was not without its charms. What Ivette fondly remembers is hiking through the Carolinian forest with her three growing children; taking them to Lake Norman on the weekends, the largest man-made lake in North Carolina. Close to Charlotte, but tucked away in nature, Cornelius, as she describes, used to be a hidden gem. 

“When I first moved in, Michael Jordan was in our neighborhood. You could drive by his house.” She mentions off-hand, just after describing the main street of Cornelius as a three-mile stretch. 

That all changed in 2019. Since the onset of COVID-19, towns like Cornelius have dealt with an influx of people exiting increasingly expensive cities in search of stable housing. As of 2021, Charlotte has gained notoriety as a hotspot for millennial renters, but is struggling to produce affordable housing for all its residents following the pandemic. As of March 2021, Charlotte offers only 38 affordable units for every 100 households earning up to 30% of the area median income.

Ivette remarks there was an undeniable change in affordability in already affluent Cornelius, as she felt increasingly disappointed by her Zillow searches. “When COVID hit, everyone started buying houses over the price. I’m talking 15-40% over market value. Rent in my area went from $1,350 to $2,000, for a one-bedroom apartment.” 

Yet Cornelius faced blockades to establishing housing stability prior to the pandemic. While the pandemic increased inflation and development in Cornelius, Ivette admits she has watched her town rapidly develop over the course of a decade. 

The town’s proximity to Lake Norman has made it an idyllic location for mega-mansions, and a thriving luxury real estate market, and Cornelius is still considered the fourth most affordable city among 46 lakefront cities nationwide. “There’s money here, like you have no idea.” Ivette tells me, and she realizes that the incredible lakefront views, plus the low property taxes, have made Cornelius undeniably attractive for developers. 

The changing real estate market has left her, and many other locals, displaced even before COVID-19 worsened the cost of living. Lake Norman Economic Development Corp. and the Urban Institute found that in 2020 85% of the people who work in Cornelius do not live in Cornelius. Ivette is one of the few that does, as a senior legal secretary and interpreter at the Federal Defenders of Western North Carolina for nearly fourteen years. 

“The way Charlotte is, Cornelius has grown and grown and grown. The amount of subdivisions, apartment complexes. There’s a grocery store where we used to hike.” 

Ivette finds a home at SailPointe at Lake Norman

Ivette consistently refers to Cornelius as “her town.” She details how it’s evolved, identifying specific streets and landmarks that have undergone the most significant changes. It’s obvious that despite how much Cornelius has transformed over time, it’s home. 

“I love living on the lake. I love the lake people. I love the community where I live, because we really are a community.” 

Even when she has had the opportunity to leave, she didn’t. 

In 2017, Ivette rented a house, and negotiated a rent-to-buy deal with her landlord. Five years later, just as she was ready to purchase her home, her landlord decided to instead keep the property as a rental. The rental market was too strong, and that same day, he told Ivette that he was raising the rent. Just as she was ready to buy her home, she found herself unable to stay. 

After a frank discussion with her realtor, she put her home search on pause. While an active adult community could be an option for her, Ivette had zero interest in siloing herself into an age-specific neighborhood. 

“Someone who is my age, why would I move into a 55-and-older community where I have to buy at $350,000? There’s a lot of people like me who would rather rent, but don’t want to tap into their savings to do it.” 

Instead, Ivette opted for a three-bedroom at Sailpointe at Lake Norman Apartment Homes. “I actually first found the place in 2015.” She says, clearly amused when she adds that the rent had obviously gone up since. 

A photo of Ivette in her new community SailPointe Apartments in Cornelius NC

Still, the community satisfied her move-in requirements: A gorgeous, luxury apartment perfectly located along the shore of the lake, and large enough for her and her two adult children, Sandra and Leo. Scientist Sandra is studying nano-chemistry, pursuing a PhD in nano-immunology, while Leo studies civil engineering. 

While Sandra is seeking to move out soon, Ivette is incredibly close to both of her children. “We’re not like a normal family,” She says. Ivette tells me about how they enjoy working out together, sharing meals, and going on family road trips. Last December, they embarked on a cross-country excursion from Colorado, up to Alaska, and then down the west coast. 

(Finding a three-bedroom rental so that her tight-knit family could remain together was Ivette’s number one priority, and Rhino made it more affordable and less stressful. Ivette saved $1,000 at move-in when she used Rhino security deposit insurance instead of paying a traditional cash deposit.)

It’s not hard to imagine Ivette at home, from how she describes it. Blue skies are visible from her large apartment windows, and the lake is just a short walk away. Sailpointe residents have their own private pier, marina, and their pool overlooks the shoreline. Everything a Cornelius resident could ever want. Her apartment is a bright, colorful open-concept space soundtracked by laughter, and at this time of year, Christmas music. 

“Tonight, I’m hosting,” She tells me her Friday night plans. “I bought a Christmas tree. I don’t feel like buying decorations. I’ve invited fifteen people to my house between the ages of — I kid you not — 63 and 25, and we are going to make decorations. I have all the paints, ornaments, crepe paper, popcorn, twine. We are going to decorate this tree. And however it comes out, it comes out. At the end of the day, we’re all going to have fun.” 

For Ivette, Cornelius has provided a place to raise her kids and grow her career for over a decade. She’s forged a bond between her and her hometown, as strong as any friendship. When asked whether she’ll stay in Cornelius, she doesn’t know whether she will, but she knows one thing, “I love where I live, but the one thing I can tell you, I’m not going to be working to live. I’m not going to be working for the next twenty to thirty years. I want to live my life, dance, and drink.” 

And we at Rhino can raise a glass to that.

a headshot image featuring kt heins-nagamoto
KT Heins-Nagamoto

KT Heins-Nagamoto is a senior brand writer at Rhino. They advocate for security deposit alternatives and renter rights in everything they write.