Inter-City Visit: Lessons From Boulder

Business accelerators: good. Regionally integrated transit: good.

Homes selling for 800,000 dollars: perhaps not.

Earlier this week, nearly 100 local leaders traveled to Boulder, Colorado, for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s biennial Inter-City Visit. Every other year, the Chamber leads a visit to a town much like ours: visitors tour the city, meet with local leaders, and learn how other communities have tackled their problems – many of which are the same problems we face in Orange County.

Situated just outside Denver, at the base of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder is home of the University of Colorado. Town leaders there pride themselves on strong business development – focusing not just on incubators but also “accelerators” that help keep startups in town past the ‘incubation’ stage. And they’re also proud of their transit plan, which incorporates driving, busing, biking and walking together as essential components. Less exciting, though, is a rapid spike in housing costs that puts Chapel Hill’s concern about affordability to shame: the median home in Boulder sells for more than $800,000. (Consequently, far more people live outside Boulder and commute into the city to work. In Chapel Hill it’s the other way around.)

What did the Orange County delegation learn from the Boulder visit? WCHL’s Aaron Keck spoke with several people, both during and after the trip.

Listen to Aaron’s conversation with NC AIDS Action Network executive director (and former Chapel Hill Town Council member) Lee Storrow.


Listen to Aaron’s conversation with Carrboro Alderman Bethany Chaney.


Listen to Aaron’s conversation with Aaron Bachenheimer, UNC’s director of Fraternity & Sorority Life and Community Involvement.


Listen to Aaron’s conversation (post-ICV) with Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger.

Buying A House In Orange County? Better Have 401K. Literally.

Slowly but surely, our local economy is returning to where it was before the Great Recession of 2009. What does this mean for the local housing market?

It means you’re going to need a lot of money to buy a home – especially here in Orange County.

“This has been a really good year…we’re now reaching or surpassing historic highs,” said Mark Zimmerman of Chapel Hill’s RE/MAX Winning Edge while addressing the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s annual “Spaces and Places” briefing last week.

Much of the news he had to share was good – at least if you’re in the market to sell.

“All of our areas are sellers’ markets,” he said. In fact, in the last twelve months ending in July, more homes sold in Orange County than in any other twelve-month period in history – breaking a record set before the recession.

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That’s coupled with a lack of inventory: not only are there relatively few existing homes going on the market, Orange County isn’t building many new homes either – only 177 new units in the last 12 months. That’s about a quarter of what’s being built in Chatham and Durham.

And the consequence, Zimmerman says, is that we’re hitting another milestone as well – one that’s somewhat less exciting.

“Not a surprise: we have limited supply, we continue to have high demand, and…that means increasing prices,” he said last week. “The average price of a single-family detached home, over the last 12 months in Orange County, popped above 400,000 dollars.”

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The per-square-foot cost of housing is also higher in Orange County – in spite of the fact that Orange County’s housing stock is also significantly older. The average home on the market in Orange County is now more than 30 years old.)

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Zimmerman says there’s an obvious danger: if prices continue to rise like this, Orange County will continue down the road of becoming a place where only the affluent can live.

“We lost the ability to house our lower-income people, especially in Orange County, a long, long, long time ago,” he said last week. “If this trend continues, we’re going to start losing the ability to house middle-class people too.”

How do we avoid this? Zimmerman says it’s all about the market, and the market is all about supply and demand: if you want a lower cost of housing, you have to either reduce the demand or increase the supply.

Demand will likely remain high as long as Orange County remains a desirable place to live, and that’s not something anyone wants to change – so Zimmerman says the key to controlling the housing market is to build new units. And that’s something he says we’re not doing enough.

“When you add a lot of new inventory, you have a lot of competition…and it forces the product that isn’t new to price itself accordingly,” he said. “In Orange, since we haven’t been adding that competition, it allows the resale property to be able to grow in price unfettered – and that’s making everything less affordable.”

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Get more data from Zimmerman’s presentation at this link.

Incoming Commissioner Mark Marcoplos

This week we hear from Mark Marcoplos about how he’s preparing to take his seat on the Board of County Commissioners this December. Mark has been active in the fight for living wages in Orange County and finding ways to make housing more affordable for all. He’ll talk about what he’s learned in watching the commissioners meetings in recent months and what he hopes to accomplish in the next few years.  Before the interview, I learned from Mark that we share common roots in New England – he from New Hampshire, me from Connecticut, and fandom in Red Sox Nation!

Join us on the Weekend Watercooler – Saturday evening at 6:00!

Orange County Homes Are Pricier – But How Much Pricier? And Why?

If you’re in the market to buy a home, where do you get the most bang for your buck?

In 2015, the average closing price for a home sold in Orange County was $342,172, according to Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson. “This is a new high since (before) the recession,” he says.

2007, right before the housing crisis, was the only year in history that Orange County saw higher home prices – and if current trends continue, the county will break that record in 2016.




But what are the numbers underneath those numbers? How does the price of housing in Orange County compare with other counties in the area? If there’s a difference, what’s driving the difference? And is that difference growing, or shrinking?

Start with the average cost of a home. $342,000 is a lot to pay for a house – compare that to Durham County, where the average closing price was just over $200,000 in 2015. But Orange County is not number one, not anymore: closing prices are actually higher in Chatham.

“Chatham County peaked above Orange County for the first time last year,” Nelson says, “and (it) remains in that slot.”

In 2015, the average home buyer in Chatham County paid $359,000 for their house, $17,000 more than they did in Orange.




But that doesn’t necessarily mean Orange County is offering a better value: Nelson says Chatham County houses are more expensive partly because they’re bigger. In terms of the cost of housing per square foot, Orange County is still the priciest: $142 per square foot, versus $138 in Chatham.

And if you want a home in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district, you’re going to pay even more. Last year, the average home in Chapel Hill-Carrboro sold for more than $382,000, or $157 per square foot.

(Compare that to $107 per square foot in Durham.)

“Housing in Chapel Hill is 30 percent more per square foot in the district than it is in Durham,” Nelson says. “So that 3,000-square foot home – the same home – costs 30 percent more.”




So if you’re in the market for a new house, you can get a much better value in Durham – and a slightly better value in Chatham – than you can get in Orange County or Chapel Hill.

But there are signs that this may be changing. In Chatham County, the cost per square foot has gone up dramatically – nearly 10 percent in the last two years. In Durham it’s gone up about 6 percent.

In Orange County, though, exactly the opposite has occurred. “For the first time,” Nelson says, “last year we saw a slight decline.”

For the average home sold in Orange County, the cost per square foot actually dropped by 4.7 percent from 2013 to 2015.




So the value gap may be narrowing between Orange County and its neighbors.

But is that necessarily good?

“If you’re an affordable housing advocate, you are heartened by this information,” Nelson says, “(but) if you’re worried about the erosion of home value, you are concerned.”

The cost of housing in Chatham County is on the rise partly because it’s bigger – and partly because it’s newer. The same is true for Wake and Durham. The housing stock in Orange County, by contrast, tends to be significantly older – and that may be contributing to the decline in cost per square foot.

And the cost of the home itself is not the only factor when it comes to housing value. Don’t forget about taxes, Nelson says: “A $300,000 house in Orange County has a $150-a-month higher tax bill than the same house in Wake County.”

If you’re looking to get a mortgage, Nelson says that translates into about $28,000. “You can buy a slightly more expensive home in other markets,” he says, “so the taxes do impact our cost of housing.”

All of those numbers, Nelson says, are things that homebuyers do consider when it comes to making the decision to live – or not to live – in Orange County.

Nelson made those comments and delivered those statistics at his annual State of the Community Report, last week at the Friday Center. 

Read the full report here.

Big Reveal Friday For CH Realtors’ “Fix-A-Home”

This Friday – hurricane or no hurricane! – local residents and businesses will come together to help make one local family’s dream come true.

Each year, the Greater Chapel Hill Association of REALTORS heads up a project called “Fix-A-Home.” They choose one local home every year and provide needed repairs and upgrades for the homeowner – targeting homeowners who are physically or financially unable to make the repairs themselves.

This year’s Fix-A-Home recipient is Jewel Francis, who lives in the Northside neighborhood at 306 Brooks Street, in a home built for her parents 41 years ago. She shares the home with her goddaughter Anita Wilson and Anita’s two children, Lillie-Marie and Elijah – sleeping on the couch so the others can have their own bedrooms.

The project got under way last Thursday. Since then, volunteers have been braving the steady rain and working around the clock to make repairs, install carpet, repaint the walls, and add a new bedroom – for starters. Local businesses have chipped in with supplies, expert assistance, and lodging and food for the family.

Project co-chairs Anne Hoole and Jackie Tanner stopped by WCHL Wednesday and spoke with Aaron Keck.


The big reveal will take place at 3 pm Friday, October 2 – with volunteers, realtors, and Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt on hand. Everyone’s welcome to attend.

Gap Is Narrowing, But OC Homes Are Costlier, Older

Affordability is a major issue here in Orange County, especially when it comes to housing. But just how much does local housing actually cost?

“Almost 50 percent higher per square foot than Durham,” says Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson.

The average closing price for a house in Orange County was almost $330,000 in 2014, up slightly from the year before. Nelson says that’s actually not the most expensive in the Triangle: “For the first time, Chatham County’s homes passed Orange County’s homes (by about $4000) in terms of most expensive,” he says. But the average Orange County home is still considerably more expensive than in Durham, where the average closing price was just over $200,000.

And Orange County is still the most expensive per square foot: it cost $149 per square foot to buy an Orange County house in 2014, compared to $126 in Chatham, $111 in Wake, and $101 in Durham.

This difference has long been an issue for local policymakers. Nelson says the gap does appear to be closing: the average home price went up 3.5-4.5 percent in Durham, Wake and Chatham Counties in 2014, but less than 1 percent in Orange – and the cost per square foot actually decreased in Orange County last year.

But there’s another thing to consider: Nelson says Orange County’s housing stock is also quite a bit older.

“The average age of a $300,000 house in Wake County is 2005, (but) the average age of a $300,000 house in Orange County is 1985,” he says. “So you can have a newer house in Wake County for the same price.”

How important is that for potential home buyers? It’s not clear. But Nelson says Orange County did see a drop in the number of homes sold in 2014 – 1,432 in all, still well up from the recession years but about 200 fewer than in 2013.

Nelson made those comments last month, delivering his annual State of the Community report.

You can check out the full report here.

Rental Prices Still On Rise In OC

The affordability issue is a big one in Orange County, and it’s an issue with many facets – one of which is the cost of rental housing. How is the cost of rental housing changing in our community?

“My view (is that) we have a supply-demand problem,” says Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson. “Great schools (and) great quality of life (combined with) limited supply of housing has been a big driver pushing prices up.”

How much is the cost of rental housing going up? According to U.S. Census data, between 2007 and 2009, 70 percent of Orange County renters were paying between $500 and $1000 per month for their units, while about 23 percent were paying more. Nelson says that’s changed.

“Now 23 percent (are) paying between $1000 and $1500 – that’s up – and the percentage of people paying more than $1500 a month is now at 11 percent,” he says. “Taken together, that’s 34 percent of folks paying more than $1000 a month.”

Sixty percent of Orange County renters still pay less than $1000 a month – but that’s down 10 percent from 2009, even though the cost to buy a house in Orange County has remained nearly flat.

But what’s important isn’t so much the dollar amount itself as the ability of residents to afford it. Housing is considered “affordable” if it takes up 30 percent or less of your income before taxes. By that standard, can Orange County residents “afford” the homes they’re renting?

Nelson says some of us can. According to the census data, 42 percent of Orange County residents are paying less than 30 percent of their incomes on rent. But over half of us are paying more – in some cases, much more.

“30 percent of the population of Orange County is spending more than 50 percent of their pre-tax (income),” Nelson says. “In take-home (terms), that’s 60-some odd percent…

“And that’s just the rent part. When we say ’30 percent equals affordable housing,’ we mean rent plus utilities.”

And of course that number only counts those people who still choose to live in Orange County – not those people who choose to live elsewhere, or have chosen to move out.

“And so this is (still) a real challenge we have in our community, the cost of housing,” Nelson concludes.

Nelson made those comments last month, delivering his annual State of the Community report.

You can check out the full report here.

UNC Loans $3M to Preserve Housing in Northside Neighborhood

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt made a big announcement Monday about Chapel Hill’s Northside neighborhood. He spoke at the Hargraves Community Center to an audience of Northside residents, community leaders and local officials.

“UNC Chapel Hill is the new catalyst by providing a $3 million no-interest loan that will be managed by our friends from the Self Help Credit Union to lead the acquisition of properties in the neighborhood,” said Kleinschmidt.

The 188-acre Northside neighborhood has historically been the largest African American neighborhood in Chapel Hill. Residents have moved out over the last few decades as developers have bought the properties to rent at a higher price than many families can afford. The landlords often rent houses to students.

Self Help will collaborate with community organizations to buy properties and hold them until they’re ready for home ownership or rental housing.

According to a fact sheet from the project partners, in 1980 the U.S. Census found 1,200 black residents living in the neighborhood. In 2010, that number was 690.

That’s a 40 percent reduction in the black population over three decades.

Esphur Foster, a 75-year-old Northside resident, spoke on growing up in the neighborhood. She uses the term Potter’s Field, which is what Northside used to be called. She talked about one of the characters in the neighborhood, Aunt Lee, who “placed her hands on her high and wide hips with a cigarette dangling from her lips.”

“One of the most amazing things was that the ashes never fell from her cigarette as she walked around doing chores and hollering at us,” said Foster. “She said as loud as she could, ‘Go home, go home, your mammy wants you home sometime.’ . . . We scattered like the wind-driven leaves falling from the trees in the fall.”

Four organizations will work in partnership on this program called the Northside Neighborhood Initiative. Self Help Credit Union will work with UNC, the town of Chapel Hill, and the Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, which is a grassroots advocacy organization.

The stated goals of the initiative are:

  • Helping long-term residents who want to stay in Northside remain in their homes
  • Attracting new residents – a balance of working families, seniors and students – from diverse backgrounds
  • Increasing the availability of housing and financing options for neighborhood properties

“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

Carrboro and Chapel Hill Mayors Hold Joint News Conference on Housing Vouchers

The Mayors of Chapel Hill and Carrboro are holding a joint news conference Tuesday to highlight the problems of low-income residents whose Housing Choice Vouchers are being rejected by local landlords.

“The existence of the housing choice vouchers is important to so many families here in our community,” said Chapel Hill mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. “We are known far and wide as a community where it’s difficult, often, to find affordable housing.”

Housing Choice Vouchers are funded through the federal government’s Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Carrboro and Chapel Hill, they are administered by Orange County government.

Eligible renters are required to pay the difference between the rent charged by the landlord and the amount subsidized by the program.

Last summer, leaders of the Towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro began hearing that some prominent local landlords, including General Services Corporation, had stopped accepting Housing Choice Vouchers.

In Carrboro, GSC owns Estes Park, Royal Park, Carolina Apartments, Ridgewood and University Lake.

In Chapel Hill, the corporation owns PineGate, Booker Creek, Franklin Woods, and Kingswood.

According to the press release from the Town of Chapel Hill announcing today’s news conference, the refusal of some landlords to accept the vouchers displaced about 60 families.

Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle told WCHL that while there was an initial outcry over that, there hasn’t been much public discussion since.

She said that now is the time to bring the issue, again, to the forefront.

“Over the course of the last year, as the folks who use these vouchers – as their leases have run up, they’ve encountered difficulty in trying to find other apartments or rental agencies that will accept housing vouchers,” said Lavelle.

She added that the conference is also part of a brainstorming process that gets the community involved in thinking through the problem.

“Several housing organizations have been meeting to try to help these residents,” said Lavelle, “as well as the Town of Chapel Hill and Town of Carrboro. We’ve been working on it as well.”

Lavelle said she hopes that other landlords in the community will respond positively.

She added that current and previous voucher users will be at the news conference, as well as some realtors that accept housing vouchers, and are happy to share their experiences.

Carrboro’s mayor said that while there are some administrative hassles for landlords that accept vouchers, those are outweighed by the advantages of honoring them.

“Often, these renters are long-term residents,” said Lavelle. “So, once you are able to establish a home, and once one of these residents is in their home, they very often become a very good tenant, and stay on for many years.”

The Carrboro Board of Aldermen discussed the situation at the last meeting in June. They agreed to allocate money from a housing trust fund to help eligible tenants pay down their deposits.

Lavelle said that Orange County is also looking at ways to streamline the process on the front end, and make it easier on landlords.

WCHL reached out to General Services Corporation’s Durham office for comment, and was referred to the corporate office in Richmond, Virginia. A message was left, and GSC had not returned the call as of Monday afternoon.

The press conference with Mayors Kleinschmidt and Lavelle will be held at 10 a.m. at Carrboro Town Commons, next to Town Hall at 301 West Main Street.