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Making CH Affordable: Action Greater Than Talk

By Rachel Nash Posted April 24, 2014 at 8:00 pm

It’s the paradox Orange County faces again and again—being an attractive place to live while attempting to be an affordable community.

The number of affordable housing options is quickly diminishing, coupled with area landlords who no longer accept Section 8 housing vouchers.

While there are initiatives underway to help mitigate the lack of reasonably priced housing, Michelle Laws, Chair of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP Housing Committee, says there is still too much discussion and not enough action.

“We’ve got people who work here, who clear our streets, clean our facilities, who make sure that our children are taken care of, but people who cannot live in this city,” Laws says. “Then we act as if that is such a complex issue to resolve. That is where I think we are. It is a matter of will, and it is a matter of priority.”

There is a plan on the verge of becoming a reality that Chapel Hill Town Council member and Mayor pro Tem Sally Greene says could prove to be a viable option in helping those who need affordable housing.

With assistance from DHIC, Inc, a Raleigh-based developer specializing in affordable rentals, the Town is moving forward on using low-income tax credits to build 170 affordable rentals on town-owned land next to the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery.

Greene has helped to lead efforts and take action on affordable housing.

“What we need to be thinking about and what we are thinking about is greater public-private partnerships, innovations to ways that we do housing programs, even things like more efficient construction models, and particularly much more attention to the cost of transportation when we deal with housing because we recognize that transit is such a huge percentage of what you pay,” Greene says.

About a year and a half ago, James Davis of Orange County Housing, Human Rights and Community Development, moved to North Carolina.

He chose to live in Durham because Chapel Hill was so expensive.

To make a difference, he says, elected officials and activists should take a wholistic approach, and consider issues like housing, transportation, wages and job opportunities to help make Orange County more affordable for everyone.

Orange County Commissioner Mark Dorosin, who also serves as Managing Attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, cautioned against an all-encompassing approach.

“What we ought to be talking about, I think—at the county level and for everybody—is what are the exact needs of the working class, low wealth people, in our community,” Dorosin says. “Do we need more childcare for women or parents so that they can go to work? Then, we ought to take money out of our general fund balance and subsidize more scholarships or subsidize for people to open up those businesses. If we could have said today, ‘We are going to make sure that 10 more kids get daycare so that 10 more families could go to work, then we have done more—all respect to my colleagues here—sitting around talking about economic development.”

Delores Bailey, Executive Director of EmPOWERment, Inc., says that elected officials and activists have to make a public commitment to addressing under-served populations.

“We have people in Chapel Hill who are suffering,” Bailey says. “They can’t figure out where they are going to live next. Their job has been done away with. I think we forget that there are actually people in our town who are not being paid attention to.”

The lack of employment opportunities forces many area residents to travel outside Orange County for work.

Orange County Board of Commissioners candidate Bonnie Hauser says she supports providing better, cheaper transportation options to help make the community more affordable.

“If we as a community can provide people with transportation to better paying jobs where they can get better paying jobs, now we have created a true affordable model where people are elevating in their stature,” Hauser says.

Chapel Hill Town Council Member Maria Palmer says she believes paying workers the appropriate wage is the first step toward counteracting the affordability problem. She added that employers should be more transparent about what they pay their employees.

“We need to be activists poking our noses in everybody’s business. I say that, knowing that people do not like to talk about how much they pay their employees and how much they earn, but we need to do it,” Palmer says.

Through working to preserve to legacy of the historic Northside Neighborhood in Chapel Hill, Hudson Vaughan, Deputy Director of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, has worked with the community on a wide range of topics.

The lack of affordable housing, he says, affects people at many income levels.

“We see not just families who are on a fixed-income level being displaced, but also even all the way up to the professor level who cannot find housing in downtown, or anywhere in this town. That is a pretty enormous gap,” Vaughan says.

Vaughan, Palmer, Hauser, Dorosin, Davis, Laws, Greene, and Bailey made those comments during the “Affordability” panel of WCHL’s 2014 Community Forum. To hear the full discussion, click here.

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