Wealth Disparity In Chapel Hill: A Widening Gap

CHAPEL HILL – Orange County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state—but when affluence is prevalent in an area, poverty and those affected by it can be pushed aside.
Jamie Rohe is the Homeless Program Coordinator for the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness.

“The housing situation has gotten worse because of the recession, and also because of a lack of funding from the state and federal level. A lot of public housing has been privatized over the years. We’ve hundreds of thousands of public housing over the last several decades,” Rohe said.

Rohe joined other panelists on the Inconvenient Truths discussion for WCHL’s community Forum.

She says there have been enormous cuts in federal funding for affordable housing. Between 1978 and 1983, the Department of Housing and Urban Development experienced a 70 percent drop in their budget.

Orange County commissioner Mark Dorosin the state has a wealth classification system for its counties, made up by three tiers. He says there’s certain funding that counties have access to if it’s a Tier One or Tier Two. Orange County is Tier Three—the wealthiest classification.

“So in some ways if you’re a low-wealth person, you have better access to getting resources if you’re not in a wealthy county. That is the disparities make it harder to access resources,” Dorosin said.

He says periodically, the community is confronted with the wealth disparity. He cited the challenges in provided services and reparations to the Roger Road Community, and Carrboro’s recent history with an anti-lingering ordinance that he says has a discriminatory impact on Latinos.

Dorosin believes Carrboro town leaders missed an opportunity when the housing complex Collins Crossing—which was predominately low-income housing at that time— was for sale. He says it could have been purchased and kept those units as an option for low-income families.

“The challenge is how to have that reality to match the rhetoric,” Dorosin said.

Earlier this year, Governor Pat McCrory and the state legislature voted against the Affordable Care Act expansion of Medicaid. Jill Edens, Pastor of the United Church of Chapel Hill, says this also negatively affected low-income families.

“This is just devastating when we don’t have this funding for health care overall and when the state is rejecting that expansion, as churches and with the IFC and with all our partnerships, we’re looking at an ocean of need,” Edens said.

Other Issues Addressed

Fran DiGiano, President of Clean Jordan Lake, also addressed his concern over the lake which provides water for 250,000 people and possible more in the future.

“Cause we’re all interconnected by way of what we call watersheds and the ones I’m concerned about are the ones that feed into Jordan Lake,”  said DiGiano.

DiGiano says it’ll take time to correct what he calls “a 30-year legacy of trash.” He wants a community-wide effort to clean up the liter and invited volunteers.

Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, President of El Centro Hispano, additionally said she hopes to bridge relationships to help Hispanics integrate into the community.

“It’s telling people, ‘We are here and you need to acknowledge that.’  We made a decision and now we are living here. This is our town, our county and our country,” Rocha-Goldberg said.


CH May Hike Prop Taxes This Year; OC And Carrboro May Not

Officials in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County are gearing up for another round of difficult budget talks—and although the economy may be on the rebound, County Manager Frank Clifton says local governments still have no more money to work with than they did five years ago.

“We’re at 2008 levels–and actually the county’s budget in 2008 (was) greater than it is today,” Clifton says. “That’s the reality: the tax base for the county is not much different today than it was in 2008.”

Still, Orange County officials say they’re hopeful they can get through another two-year budget cycle without raising property taxes.

“You have to balance (priorities) out,” says Orange County Commissioner Alice Gordon, “but I think going into the budget process, we’re going to try not to raise the general property tax rate.”

And while town governments too are anticipating some difficult budget decisions, officials in Carrboro say they’re also confident they can avoid raising taxes on residents this year.

“Just kind of speaking in generalities, our goal this year is to present a no-tax-increase budget,” says Carrboro Assistant Town Manager Matt Efird. “And the preliminary budget thus far does not include a tax increase.”

But it’s a different story in Chapel Hill, where officials are dealing with a variety of unique budget challenges—and as a result, Town Manager Roger Stancil says a tax increase may be unavoidable this year.

“I apparently used up all the rabbits in my hat sooner than Frank and Matt did,” he says. “But there is a brand new library open, and we have been saying for several years that operating that library at the same level that the community’s used to–that was equivalent to a penny on the tax rate. The community decided to close the landfill and we take our garbage somewhere else–we said from the very beginning, that was (another) penny on the tax rate (in) increased cost, for the Town of Chapel Hill to do that.”

Compounding that, Stancil says, is the possibility of an additional penny tax increase from Chapel Hill Transit as well.

While different local governments are expecting to make different decisions on the question of raising taxes, officials across the board agree that the coming budget talks are going to be difficult. Especially now that municipal governments have already streamlined their operations in previous budget cycles, Chapel Hill Town Council member Laurin Easthom says there’s no such thing as an easy cut.

“The services that we have in Chapel Hill exist because somebody wanted them,” she says. “And they’re useful services. So it makes it really tough on us to decide to chip away or cut–because we know it will affect a certain group, or everyone.”

And Carrboro Alderman Lydia Lavelle says she’s particularly concerned for municipal employees, who’ve gone without pay raises for years.

“We’ve done a good job of stipends or other things the last couple years,” she says, “but as far as cost-of-living (increases)…we’ve been struggling a little bit with the implementation of a living wage.”

Municipal governments will begin their budget discussions later this spring.

Clifton, Easthom, Efird, Gordon, Lavelle, and Stancil made those comments on Thursday during WCHL’s annual Community Forum.

Click here to revisit the entire ten-hour forum.


OC Economic Officials Say Development Key To Social Justice

CHAPEL HILL – Orange County is by many measures the most affluent county in North Carolina, but its poverty rate is also well above the state average—a striking statistic that’s troubling for residents who say they’re committed to progressive values like social and economic justice.

It’s a reality that’s existed for years, and there’s no easy or quick solution. But local economic development leaders say attracting the right kind of business to the area may offer a boost to those living at or below the poverty line—not to mention those who can’t afford to live in Orange County at all.

“I was talking to (CHCCS Superintendent) Tom Forcella recently about the number of teachers that teach in our public schools that actually can afford to live in Chapel Hill–(and) that number’s very low,” says local entrepreneur Jim Kitchen. “I was talking to (Chapel Hill Police Chief) Chris Blue about the same thing for policemen and women and other public servants, and that number’s very low.”

Kitchen made that comment at a panel on economic development during Thursday’s Community Forum on WCHL.

Economic inequality was a key point of concern at the forum, not only for Kitchen but for all his fellow panelists—Orange County Economic Development Director Steve Brantley, Chapel Hill Planning Board member Amy Ryan, Carrboro Economic Development Director Annette Stone, and Chapel Hill Town Council member Jim Ward. But while conversations about development in Orange County usually tend to revolve around the need for more retail business—the better to increase the county’s commercial tax base—Thursday’s panelists all agreed on the need to think outside the box.

Annette Stone, in particular, keyed on two novel approaches.

“The emphasis that the town has put on arts and entertainment and the food economy–the ‘creative economy’–in the past few years has been very successful,” she said Thursday. “And working to really help what I (call) the ‘hidden economy,’ those entrepreneurs that are sort of embedded in the town–and you can map out privilege license and see how many little home businesses there are–and really helping them up and out–I think those are the things that we can do.”

Speaking for Orange County, Steve Brantley said the future of local economic development also lay in light industrial business, as well as retail and other office space.

“I think that a company coming in and bringing high-tech skills, where the community college trains those people, where those people get full-time jobs, not part-time jobs–(where) they get the benefits, health care, retirement, maybe for the first time in their life–to me, that’s the social justice that economic development can bring,” he said Thursday.

Brantley says much of his work as economic development director has focused recently on attracting light manufacturing to the area.

Also in the works are a variety of large retail projects—including proposed developments at Ephesus Church Road, Glen Lennox, Obey Creek near Southern Village, University Square in downtown Chapel Hill, and the EDGE project on Eubanks Road, to name only a few.

Amy Ryan says there are many possible benefits to those projects—but one of the most important may be the degree to which they can address the issues of affordability and economic justice.

“We have very high ideals for ourselves and the kind of values that we have–and they’re very expensive,” she says. “And I think having that discussion–saying, look, if you have this amount of economic development, you’re going to be able to let your teachers and firefighters live in town, you’re going to be able to provide more affordable housing–it may be worth it to you to put that big-box retailer somewhere, if it then brings those extra benefits to town.”

Click here to listen to all ten hours of this year’s Community Forum.


“They’re Just Bleating Sheep”: CH Leaders Assail State UNC Cuts

CHAPEL HILL – UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp is stepping down from his post in June after five years on the job—leaving incoming Chancellor Carol Folt with the unenviable task of guiding the university through a time of continued challenges, sparked primarily by ongoing state-level cuts.

As the Chapel Hill community prepares for the transition, local residents and University leaders alike say they’re concerned about the future.

“We’re at an extraordinary time,” says the Word Factory’s Margot Lester. “It sort of feels to me that we’re almost under siege.”

Torin Martinez of UNC Health Care agrees. “I feel there’s an attack on public education in Raleigh,” he says.

Lester and Martinez made those comments on a panel about the future of UNC after Holden Thorp at WCHL’s annual Community Forum on Thursday.

And they weren’t alone: Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt had even stronger words for the General Assembly.

“They’re being led by their gut, by these outside agencies like ALEC…and they’re just bleating sheep,” he says. “They just kind of go and enact this agenda that is at odds with the future–not only of our university and cities, but this state. And as they continue to infect legislators across the country, it puts our whole nation at risk.”

On campus, UNC student body president Christy Lambden says the state-mandated tuition hike for out-of-state students is already having a profound and widespread impact.

“People are incredibly nervous,” he says. “The number of people I have coming into my office and saying ‘look, I don’t know how I’m going to come back to school next year if we do see these increases’…I’m having it happen to me at least once a day…and as a student representative, that hurts every time it happens…

“And I know that that is hurting Chapel Hill, in terms of not just the people who may not be able to come back to this university, but every single student on that campus who’s going to be affected due to the lack of diversity and the decrease in the quality of students that we are getting to campus–and as such, the decrease in the quality of the academics that we have on campus.”

And former UNC chancellor James Moeser says he’s concerned that legislators seem to have no intention of keeping that tuition money on campus—nor do they seem to be interested in using those funds to help needy students, as they have in the past.

“We have taken it as a principle that we would set aside up to 40 percent of every tuition increase, to hold harmless the impacts of those increases on needy students,” he says. “That premise is now being called into question, openly.”

But while many local residents are despairing about UNC’s future, both Moeser and UNC faculty chair Jan Boxill say they remain optimistic.

“One of my mantras when I took over as faculty chair is that we all have to work together,” Boxill says, “so I think (it’s about) looking at what we can do to help them, as well as what they can do to help us.”

Moeser agrees. “North Carolina is a state, we have to remind ourselves, that elected Jim Hunt and Jesse Helms at the same time,” he says. “We are truly a purple state. But underlying it is a state of goodness and decency–and ultimately, I think, that will prevail.”

Carol Folt will take over as chancellor on July 1. She comes to UNC after 30 years on the faculty at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, most recently in the roles of provost and interim president.

Click here to listen to the full audio from WCHL’s Community Forum.