Local Demand For Food Assistance Grows Despite Economic Recovery

Newly released census data shows Orange County’s poverty rate may be improving, but the economic recovery has yet to take hold in many communities.

At 10 a.m. on a Friday at the Inter-Faith Council in Carrboro, about half a dozen people wait quietly for their names to be called. Each is a client at the IFC’s Food Pantry. They are eligible to collect one bag of groceries a month. Though not everyone comes that often, many do come regularly.

This is one way Orange County’s working poor make ends meet.

Kristen Lavernge is the IFC’s Community Services Director. She says many clients work at the university, the hospitals or in the school system, but they struggle to pay their rent.

“The guideline generally is that you shouldn’t be paying more than a third of your income in rent, and we find that a lot of our clients are paying at least half and sometimes even more,” says Lavergne.

Affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges facing food pantry clients, as many landlords have stopped accepting Section 8 housing vouchers and the demand for off-campus student housing has driven up the cost of renting in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

“I think having the university here is a blessing in some ways, but it also brings students to this area and the housing competition gets difficult there,” says Lavergne.

According to Orange County Health Department data, a local household would need the income from 2.2 full-time minimum wage jobs to be able to afford the median rent on a two-bedroom apartment.

For some, that doesn’t leave a lot left over to buy groceries.

The IFC distributes 1,200- 1,500 bags of food each month to families and individuals who live and work in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

During the recession, Lavernge says she saw that number spike, and while demand has since plateaued, the level of need still remains higher than when the recession began.

The numbers of people requiring food assistance may be beginning to stabilize in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, but in rural Orange, the need continues to grow.

Kay Stagner is the Manager of Client Services with Orange Congregations in Mission. She says since 2010 she’s seen demand for groceries double at the Hillsborough-based Samaritan Relief Mission’s food pantry.

“So far this year we’ve averaged about 290 households a month, that averages to about 14 food orders a day,” says Stagner. “I was looking at our numbers from 2010, just four years ago, and we averaged seven food orders a day.”

OCIM serves residents living in the Orange County Schools district. Though housing costs are lower in the rural areas than in the towns, Stagner says many clients struggle to find work that pays a living wage.

“Nobody wants to come here. They just can’t find jobs,” says Stagner. “They can’t find work that will support themselves and their families.”

Transportation and childcare costs also take a sizable chunk out of workers paychecks. Stagner says even the weather can play an unexpected role in driving up the demand for food.

“An ice storm like we had last winter, people’s power goes out for three, four days, or a week- all of a sudden you have people you haven’t even seen before, that have never needed your help before needing help with food because they lost everything,” says Stagner.

According to the American Community Survey, the percent of people living in poverty in Orange County has dropped slightly, from 17.4 percent in 2012 to 16 percent in 2013. But that change seems imperceptible to those who work in the area’s food pantries.

Stagner says she fully expects demand to increase in the coming year.

“We never know how many people are going to be needing us. It depends on changes in society from gas prices to the weather. We know we will serve more people this year than last year, we always have. But just how much, there’s no way to tell.”

Both the IFC and OCIM accept non-perishable food donations year-round. For more on how to donate, contact the IFC here and OCIM here. 

http://chapelboro.com/news/health/local-demand-food-assistance-grows-despite-economic-recovery/

“Project Connect” Tackles Homelessness

Orange County is seeking volunteers for the eighth annual Project Connect event, coming up next month.

Project Connect is an annual event for Orange County residents who are at risk of homelessness, to connect them with organizations that provide essential services ranging from health care to housing and job resources.

Organizers are looking for volunteers to greet guests, guide them through the event, and help set up and break down at the beginning and the end of the day.

Jamie Rohe of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness joined WCHL’s Aaron Keck to talk about the event – and the larger issues of housing and homelessness in Orange County.

“Project Connect” will run from 9 am to 3 pm at the Hargraves Community Center on Thursday, October 9. If you’d like to volunteer, visit ProjectConnectOrange.org.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/project-connect-tackles-homelessness/

Council Hears Plans For Graduate Housing Downtown

Jay Patel, one of the co-owners of the Franklin Hotel, wants to build a six story, 105-unit apartment building and parking deck behind the hotel between Kenan and Mallette streets. He told the Town Council the project is unlike anything else being built in Chapel Hill.

“Our project is going to be focused specifically on graduate students and working professionals and we don’t think there’s anything like that available in the immediate downtown on a rental basis,” said Patel.

At a public hearing before the Council on Monday night, Patel said the project, known as The Graduate, represents a $20 million dollar investment that would generate more than $200,000 in property tax revenue each year.

An earlier concept plan called for student rentals aimed at undergraduates, but that plan has since been revised to target graduate students and young professionals, with no per-bedroom rentals.

The proposal also promises 15 percent of the units will be maintained as affordable workforce rentals for 30 years, in return for increased density. Project engineer John McAdams says size is key to the project’s success.

“This is urban infill and indeed, the proposed building is large,” said McAdams. “In order to be financially feasible the building simply has to be this large.”

However, neighbors said the scale of the building and the traffic it might generate are major sticking points.

“Our big issues with this are twofold,” said Kurt Ribisl, president of the Cameron-McCauley Neighborhood Association. “It’s the massing of the building on the Mallette Street eastern side that is really too big, and number two, a lot of the traffic dumps out just on one side, to Mallette Street.”

The Graduate proposal will return to the Council for a vote on October 27.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/council-hears-plans-graduate-housing-downtown/

CH Mayor Says DHIC Project Isn’t DOA

Despite a setback to a plan to build affordable housing on town-owned land, Chapel Hill’s Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says the project remains promising.

“While it’s a very competitive process to get this funding and these tax credits, we have a very competitive project that will stand up well if we have a completed application,” says Kleinschmidt.

Raleigh-based non-profit DHIC announced recently that a plan to build 144 affordable apartments on 8.5 acres of town land had stalled because the application for low-income housing tax credits was not properly completed.

Nonetheless, Kleinschmidt says he’d like to continue to partner with DHIC to resubmit its application.

“If we were to go forward looking for another housing provider to partner with, it’s going to take us longer than it would be to just go ahead and reapply in the spring.”

The DHIC project is part of the wider Ephesus-Fordham revitalization plan.

In May the Council voted to rezone 190 acres of land, a move town leaders hope will spur redevelopment of commercial and residential properties near the Ephesus Road- Fordham Boulevard intersection.

But critics worry that the new zoning will discourage development of affordable housing at a time when landlords are already raising the rents on existing apartments.

In response, Kleinschmidt notes the Town Council set aside several parcels of land for later rezoning while town staffers explore how to offer affordable housing incentives for developers.

DHIC will be eligible to reapply for the low-income housing tax credits in January.

Mayor Kleinschmidt discussed the DHIC project and the future of affordable housing in Chapel Hill – as well as lessons learned from last week’s Mayors Innovation Project – on the air with Aaron Keck earlier this week.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/ch-mayor-says-dhic-project-isnt-doa/

Kleinschmidt: Landlords Get a Great Deal With Section 8 Vouchers

Mayors Mark Kleinschmidt of Chapel Hill and Lydia Lavelle of Carrboro joined forces this week to ask local landlords to do the right thing, and accept Housing Choice Vouchers from low-income residents.

The mayors held a news conference at Carrboro Town Commons on Tuesday to address the issue of landlords refusing the vouchers, as rents continue to rise in both communities.

Kleinschmidt spoke to WCHL’s Aaron Keck on Thursday about the growing problem.

“Complexes are now saying that they aren’t going to take them anymore,” said Kleinschmidt. “Now that they’re renovating and they can charge higher rents, they’re saying, ‘You’ve got to find someplace else to live.’ And this is causing a housing crisis for dozens of families and individuals in both our communities, and throughout Orange County.”

Kleinschmidt said that more then 600 families in Orange County rely on the vouchers, which come from the federal HUD program and are administered by the county government.

In Chapel Hill and Carrboro, about 60 tenants have lost their apartments since last summer because of new rental policies.

”We need landlords –and not just owners of apartment complexes – to step up and learn about the Housing Choice Vouchers and understand that they can take them in lieu of cash payments,” said Kleinschmidt. “In fact, being a landlord who gets a Hosing Choice Voucher as part of a rent payment is actually more reliable than any other way of getting payment.”

That’s because the payment is deposited, like clockwork, directly into the landlord’s account every month, he added.

Kleinschmidt told WCHL that he and Lavelle will keep up their efforts to promote affordable housing, by having private meetings with local landlords and apartment building managers.

Chapel Hill’s mayor also pointed out that police officers and teachers are among the types of citizens that often qualify for the vouchers.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/kleinschmidt-landlords-get-great-deal-section-8-vouchers/

“Small House” Comes To Chatham Habitat

Harvey Harman stands behind his students. Photo via ChathamHabitat.org.

It’s 512 square feet in size, it costs only $36,000 to build – and Chatham Habitat for Humanity officials say it could help address the affordable-housing crunch in our area.

It’s a “small house” – and Chatham Habitat is building one this summer in Pittsboro, in partnership with Central Carolina Community College and the Small House Institute.

Chatham Habitat Construction Director Harvey Harman is leading the build: he’s teaching a class on small-house construction this summer at Central Carolina, and his students are building the house with the help of Habitat volunteers.

See pictures and read more here.

In addition to being about half the cost to build than a typical Habitat house, Harman and Chatham Habitat executive director Jerry Whortan say a cluster of “small houses” could better serve some of the people in need of affordable housing – like seniors, singles, or young couples – who aren’t really in the market for a single-family home. (They also say the house is designed to be easily expanded if necessary.)

Whortan and Harman joined Aaron Keck earlier this month on the WCHL Afternoon News.

Construction is already under way on the small house at Chatham Habitat’s campus on 467 West Street in Pittsboro. Visit ChathamHabitat.org for more details or to arrange a tour.

http://chapelboro.com/news/non-profit-news/small-house-comes-chatham-habitat/

Chapel Hill Approves Budget With 1-Cent Tax Rate Hike

The Chapel Hill Town Council unanimously adopted a $96 million dollar budget on Monday night which includes the second property tax rate increase in two years.

“The budget is balanced with a 1-cent tax increase, restoring the debt fund capacity almost to where it was before the recession started,” said Town Manager Roger Stancil.

With Monday’s vote, the town’s property tax rate rises to 52.4 cents per hundred dollars of assessed value.

Council members decided last week the added penny is needed to help replenish the town’s debt management fund, which will increase the town’s borrowing power by about $10 million before 2017.

Supporters say that will help the town take on big projects like bikeways, parks, and new police and fire stations sooner rather than later. The 2014-2015 budget also includes increased funding for road resurfacing, $400,000 to help finance new buses, and money to hire a youth services coordinator.

In addition, the Council also allocated nearly $700,000 to fund affordable housing initiatives, a move applauded by housing advocates including Habitat for Humanity Director Susan Levy.

“I think all of that who are involved in affordable housing and have been over the years are really heartened by this commitment on your part,” said Levy. “I think it was a bold and a brave thing to do and I just want to say how much we appreciate it.”

Though the budget was approved in just six minutes, Council members assured the public the plan had been fully vetted at a pair of work sessions last week.

“We are not just rubber-stamping a budget here,” said Mayor pro Tem Sally Greene. “We’ve really given this a lot of consideration.”

Chapel Hill has set its tax rate for the next year, but Orange County Commissioners have not yet finalized their budget, which could include an increase in the county-wide property tax rate, or a hike in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools special district tax.

The board will discuss the county budget at a work session Tuesday at 7 o’clock at the Link Government Center in Hillsborough.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/chapel-hill-approves-budget-1-cent-tax-rate-hike/

Council And Advocates Want To Boost Budget For Affordable Housing

Nearly a dozen housing advocates turned out to Monday night’s public hearing to ask the Chapel Hill Town Council to designate one penny of the current tax rate to support affordable housing.

“When those of us who provide and advocate for affordable housing consider the quarter cent on the tax rate that the manager’s budget proposes, we can’t help but feel it’s insignificance in meeting the needs of this community,” said Susan Levy, Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity Orange County and chair of the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition. “Currently the town spends less that one percent of its budget to fund affordable housing programs, including running the public housing program. Surely it is time to increase that commitment.”

The manager’s recommended budget already includes $188,750 for housing initiatives, but supporters of the penny plan say that’s not enough and many on the council agree.

To get the total dollar amount closer to the goal of $755,000, Council member Donna Bell suggested diverting an additional $400,000 initially set aside for paying down the town’s post-employment healthcare liability.

“I do not think this is a long-range plan or a sustainable plan, but I would like to use those funds, in addition to the quarter cent that we already have budgeted,” said Bell. “That would bring us up to about 80 percent of what we originally wanted. I think that I would feel good about that level of commitment from the Council as far as funding for affordable housing this year.”

The Council will consider the budget proposal in detail at work sessions scheduled for June 2 and 4. Next year’s budget will likely be formally adopted June 9.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/council-advocates-want-boost-budget-affordable-housing/

Chapel Hill Town Council Approves Ephesus-Fordham Renewal Plan

The Chapel Hill Town Council took a series of votes Monday night to adopt a new type of zoning known as form-based code and apply it to a large swath of land surrounding the Ephesus Church Road-Fordham Boulevard intersection.

Council member George Cianciolo sided with the majority in supporting the plan.

“I do believe that this will be successful for Chapel Hill,” Cianciolo told the crowd of more that one hundred who turned out for the third public hearing on the proposal. “That’s what I was elected to do, use my best judgement.”

The Council voted 8-1 to adopt the new form-based code into the town land use plan, and 6-9 to apply it to the majority of the 190 acre Ephesus-Fordham focus area. Ed Harrison, Matt Czajkowski and Jim Ward voted against the rezonings.

The plan calls for the town to reconfigure the intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard, extend Elliot Road and create new mixed-use zones that allow three to seven stories of commercial and residential development.

Supporters say it will encourage new business growth in the area while also addressing long-standing flooding problems and traffic jams.

However, opponents have raised doubts about the efficacy of the stormwater management plan and questioned the cost and timing of the redevelopment proposal. Council member Czajkowski sided with critics of the plan.

“There’s no evidence that it will achieve the original goals, including stormwater, including traffic mitigation, including increasing commercial tax revenue towards the town,” said Czajkowski.

Council member Ward opposed the plan because he said switching from a Special Use Permit approval process to form-based code means the Council will lose the chance to negotiate with developers for affordable housing and energy efficient design.

“Sounds like the rest of the Council is ready to give away the store in terms of the one thing that we have, and that’s the ability to offer greater density as an incentive,” said Ward. “It baffles me.”

Using form-based code, the Council sets parameters for development including building height, setbacks and parking guidelines for each zone, but once these are in place, individual developers will not need to bring their projects before the council if they meet the established criteria. Instead, projects will be reviewed by the Town Manager and the Community Design Commission. Council members expressed interest in reviewing the first projects that come forward under the new guidelines, but they will not be able to ask developers for concessions.

Mayor pro Tem Sally Greene proposed holding off on rezoning four parcels of land along Elliot Road from  East Franklin Street to Fordham Boulevard while staffers investigate the possibility of offering density bonuses for developers who build affordable housing.

“What I’m talking about is a proposal that would change properties 1, 2, 3 and 4 from WX 5 to WX 2, as in two stories permitted by right with a density bonus of five stories in exchange for 10 percent affordable housing,” said Greene.

The Council backed her proposal, leaving the land as-is for now.

In addition, the Council voted unanimously to rezone 8.5 acres on Legion Road so that nonprofit developer DHIC can apply for low-income tax credits to subsidize a proposed affordable rental housing project on the site. The town is partnering with DHIC on the project, but some backers worried the rezoning might not happen before Friday’s deadline to apply for tax credits.

While the zoning is now in place, the town is still in the process of figuring out how to pay for the $10 million dollars worth of infrastructure improvements. To that end, the town is asking Orange County to help pay down the town’s debt by contributing a portion of the increased tax revenues the redevelopment is expected to generate.

County commissioners will consider that plan on Thursday night.

http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/chapel-hill-town-council-approves-ephesus-fordham-renewal-plan/

Making CH Affordable: Action Greater Than Talk

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.

http://chapelboro.com/news/2014-community-forum/affordability/