Aaron Nelson and Chamber board chair Paige Zinn compare notes before the State of the Community presentation. (Photo by Donn Young, courtesy of the Orange County Visitors Bureau.)
As the country, the state and the region pull slowly out of recession, the state of our community is strong — but still could stand to get stronger, particularly when it comes to housing.
That was the takeaway from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s sixth annual State of the Community report, delivered at the Friday Center on Tuesday by Chamber president Aaron Nelson.
“(We have a) strong, educated workforce (that’s) increasingly diverse,” he says. “Our economy and community are resilent — we were late into this recession and we were first out — and many of those indicators look good.”
Generally speaking, Orange County ranks among the best in the state in most indicators of social wellbeing, from educational achievement to the crime rate to public health. Fittingly, though — for a region so often concerned about its perceived status as a ‘bedroom community’ — many of the more worrying statistics relate to movement.
“We are growing, and we will still grow…(and) we’ve got to figure out where these folks are going to live,” Nelson says. Orange County’s population in 2012 was just shy of 138,000, up 22,000 from the turn of the century — and by 2025 Orange County is projected to add another 30,000 residents, for a total of more than 166,000.
“That’s a lot of folks,” Nelson says. “Let me give you some perspective: 140 West Franklin downtown, the big tall thing, that holds 300 people. I just said 30,000.”
And the local housing market is struggling to keep up — a fact that’s contributing to the already-high cost of renting and buying homes.
More than half of all housing units in Chapel Hill are occupied by renters — in Carrboro it’s more than 60 percent — and affordable housing remains persistently scarce. More than half of all renters in Orange County now pay more than 35 percent of their income in rent, well above the “affordability” threshold.
“The rental market is growing, but the lack of supply is driving (the) rate,” Nelson says. “This huge increase in those rates — folks are moving into our community and (adding) pressure.”
And the cost of homeownership remains elevated as well. Nelson says the average closing price for an Orange County home has dropped slightly from its peak in 2010 — it’s now about $319,000, down from $330,000 — but that’s still far pricier than an average home in our neighboring counties, and it’s not just because the houses are bigger.
“The price per square foot in our market is dramatically higher,” Nelson says. “(It’s) $134 a square foot (in Orange County)…in Chapel Hill city limits it’s $180 a square foot. That’s — my editorial comment — a supply challenge, because folks are able to build it in Durham for $93 a square foot.”
Compounding the housing crunch, of course, is the demand coming from UNC: of the 29,000-plus students at UNC-Chapel Hill, 63 percent live off campus—more than 18,000 in total, all seeking housing in and around Orange County. That’s already caused some controversy in the Northside and Pine Knolls neighborhoods, both very near campus—where Town officials have had to step in to address parking concerns, and longtime residents have been driven out by the rising cost of housing (and the resulting property tax hike) that came with the increased demand.
But Nelson says it could be worse: in fact, 55 percent of UNC’s undergrads live on campus, a far higher percentage than many of UNC’s peer institutions. (At Indiana University, for instance—in the Chapel Hill-esque town of Bloomington—only 40 percent of undergrads live on campus.)
And there are also several housing projects currently in the works near downtown that are specifically geared for students—a development that Nelson says will also go a long way toward alleviating the problem of affordable workforce housing as well.
“(In) my view, the greatest growth of workforce housing, workforce rental, has been new student rental,” Nelson says. “If you go back in time (and) take a look at all the apartments that were student apartments in the late 1990s, early 2000s — when new student housing got built, students moved to that, and what was backfilled into the old student housing was workforce housing.”
Still, with 30,000 more residents projected to move into Orange County in the next twelve years, the housing crunch is not likely to go away anytime soon—and Nelson says that’ll be the case across the entire Triangle, where half a million more residents are expected to flock in by 2025.
We’ll have more from the Chamber’s State of the Community report throughout the week, but you can see the entire presentation for yourself at this link.