Originally published on August 14, 2014.

Whenever a rezoning proposal is on the agenda, you can bet on hearing from passionate residents at the Chapel Hill town council meeting. However, have you ever noticed who doesn’t comment at those public hearings?

Young single professionals.

You might write off their absence as a sign of political apathy among people in their twenties and thirties, but there’s a far simpler reason those young adults don’t speak at town council meetings:

Increasingly, those young professionals aren’t choosing to live in Chapel Hill.

Used to be if you were young, creative, politically progressive, or culturally cutting edge, Chapel Hill was the place to be in central North Carolina. Within the last decade, however, an increasing percentage of those young professionals are choosing Durham, Raleigh, and other neighboring communities instead of choosing Chapel Hill. I’m far from the first person to notice this trend. Town council member George Cianciolo even made it a point in his campaign.

A key reason Chapel Hill isn’t attracting as many of today’s young professionals is the simple fact that Chapel Hill is, quite literally, built for middle-aged people.

Beyond our historic downtown neighborhoods, most homes in Chapel Hill are single-family houses in subdivisions designed for cars. Sprawl was all the rage in the fifties, sixties and seventies when we built many of Chapel Hill’s residential developments. Back then, having to drive to the store didn’t seem like a burden, it felt like freedom.

Fast forward fifty years and while those neighborhoods remain beautiful places to raise a family, many of today’s young single professionals are looking to escape those car-dependent cul-de-sacs. They want to live where they can walk to work, to shopping and to recreation, not drive.

They want the kind of places Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt describes when he advocates for creating places with real walkable city-style streets that connect to existing neighborhoods.

Don’t believe today’s young adults are really all that different? According to the Washington Post, only 69% of today’s 19-year-olds have a driver’s license, compared to 87% in 1983. When the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute asked young adults why they aren’t driving as much as past generations, they learned that 22% would rather walk or bike and 17% would rather use public transportation.

What some folks deride as density others consider desirable living.

An additional factor hampering Chapel Hill’s decreasing ability to attract young professionals is our town’s relative lack of affordable and appealing apartment homes. People in their twenties and thirties often aren’t ready to settle down and buy a house. They need to rent, and Chapel Hill’s supply of apartments has not only failed to keep up with the demand of our growing region, the apartments we do have are often outdated and overpriced compared to rental options in neighboring communities.

These young professionals aren’t going to tell our town council their thoughts on proposed rezoning. They’re too busy living and enjoying life in other parts of the Triangle, where they’re spending their cash, paying their taxes, and investing their creative energy.

I support the town’s recent efforts to make more places in Chapel Hill attractive places to live, work and enjoy life for people who aren’t in the cul-de-sac stage of life: Chapel Hill’s existing subdivisions might be wonderful places for us middle-aged married guys, but if we want to remain a vibrant community; we need more young professionals to choose to live here, too.

I bet they would have some fresh ideas for our town council, too.

— Matt Bailey


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