Our box of chocolates

Don and I sometimes think about retiring to a rural town where our retirement dollars will go further. But when it comes time to act, we stay put. What keeps us in Chapel Hill is not the public art, the state-of-the-art transportation center or even the lovely indoor swimming pools and library (the limited hours they’re open). We stay because of the interesting people who surprise us by their differentness – those we serve on boards and committees with, volunteer with, sit next to at Parks and Rec league games and run into at Harris Teeter on Senior Discount Day.

We don’t believe the wealthy have a lock on being interesting. Yet the decisions some Town Council members make are steering us toward becoming a retirement community for people with means. We enjoy being close to top-quality health care, but we won’t make room for lab techs and nurse’s aides to live in town. We’ll allow students on campus and to spend money at Franklin Street businesses, as long as they take their partying ways home to Durham or Chatham County at night. We’ll bus in for the day our hired help – teachers, police, firefighters, wait staff, clerks and most municipal workers – comfortable knowing they won’t be sitting next to us at the concert hall.

This makes sense from a financial perspective, and those of us who already own homes here can sit back and wait for housing prices to go up and up, and eventually we’ll cash in and buy a plantation in Warrenton. But we lose what makes life enjoyable – the interactions with the diverse people with different perspectives we look forward to talking with or come across unexpectedly during the course of our day.

UNC learned long ago that the university is a better, richer environment if the student body is composed of the smartest and most talented students, not just the ones who have financially secure parents. Everyone benefits from diversity of culture, experiences and viewpoints. UNC makes its admissions decisions on a need-blind basis, offering spots to students who have the most to contribute – be it through intellect, talent or something unique that others can learn from – then making it possible for those who can’t afford college to accept.

Town Council says it can do nothing to stop affordable apartment complexes being cannibalized into cash cows for developers who collude to jack up rents and call it “market rate,” indistinguishable from price-fixing. But unless we want an entire population of people from one tax bracket with similar backgrounds and values – unless we want to give up the treat of being surprised by someone different – we need to find a way to enable people in all tax brackets to stay.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. George C

     /  February 18, 2013

    Well put!

  2. DOM

     /  February 18, 2013

    But, Nancy, according to a comment you made in a previous post, building more rental housing isn’t the solution. (” All the new apartment hi-rises built in Manhattan in the 15 years since I left have not brought rents down any.”)

    So, what is? Governmental subsidization?

  3. Nancy

     /  February 18, 2013

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but a start would be for Town Council to make a strong statement that it supports workforce housing. For instance, a bunch of well-built apartments that are about 25-35 years old and function as workforce housing now are at risk of being bought and redeveloped. Council can’t force the new owners to keep them affordable, but all new owners will come before council with a request to increase density. Council can say no, unless the new owner agrees to keep rents on the existing units moderately priced. Turning down a request for rezoning won’t prevent the new owner from glitzing the existing units and jacking up the rent, but it will send a strong message to developers that council won’t grant rezoning without preserving workforce housing.

    Or council could expedite approval on workforce housing projects.

    The developer who best implemented council’s affordable housing policy was Carol Ann Zinn of Zinn Design Build. But council ran her out of town with its backstabbing vote on Aydan Court. Council has to grow up and take this issue seriously. Or be honest that council aims to move the town toward being Governor’s Club without the gates.

  4. Bonnie Hauser

     /  February 18, 2013

    Thanks Nancy – great piece. I have the pleasure of living in the county and spending some amount of time in places like Efland and Mebane -which showcase diversity with an enviable richness and enthusiasm.

    Of course the tax rates are a lot lower, and thanks to some work from Justice United and the county, Efland will soon be enjoying Mebane’s water and sewer rates.

    Maybe if we start looking beyond Chapel Hill proper – we’ll find strategies for diversity and affordablity – that enrich us all. After all we are 3 towns, a county, 2 school systems, etc. And if we can find shared strategies and solutions, everyone wins

  5. Terri Buckner

     /  February 18, 2013

    The high cost of housing isn’t just a Council issue and it isn’t just a development issue. Look at the cost of the amenities that the citizens want and demand. All those amenities cost money–not just to build, but to support over time as with the library.

    I’m in a bad mood today from reading nasty comments blaming Chancellor Thorp for the mess the university is in. I don’t deny that he is partly to blame, as any leader has to take responsibility. And Council is partly to blame for the high cost of housing and the abundance of expensive amenities. But citizens have to start carrying part of the responsibility. Chancellor Thorp can’t control the rabid football/basketball alumni supporters and their ‘anything for a win’ attitudes. Good grief, to read some of the comments you’d think the university exists solely for the sake of their sporting entertainment.

    And Council members can’t fly directly in the face of citizens if they want to be re-elected. We live in a democracy–of the people–and taxes are high because people demanded luxury without any consideration of the future costs and ramifications.

  6. Many

     /  February 18, 2013

    Let’s just go through the assumptions here:

    1) The need for and population of folks in this ill defined category is growing.
    2) Chapel Hill wants this diversity.
    2a) There is a voting majority that would accept higher taxes to achieve this diversity.
    3) Folks in this category cannot afford to buy, and even if they could compelling market forces would have them spend their housing dollars elsewhere.
    3a) Still there is some subset of those who cannot afford to buy are OK with renting.
    4) Chapel Hill should subsidize rents for people described in 3a)

    Has anyone got any idea what the population of the 3a subset is? How would you limit the housing subsidy to the folks you list? Who keeps the list? Do people that fall out of the 3a subset lose their subsidy? Do you want a “company store” too?

    I hate to say it but, when I break down this discussion into assumptions, this seems to smack of a bizarre form of colonialism. I agree diversity is important in most if not all systems including human interactions, but that said, hasn’t Chapel Hill brought this about by driving up property values and over funding certain aspects of daily life (as Terry points out)?

    You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  7. DOM

     /  February 18, 2013

    Chapel Hill’s most important priority has always been to protect existing neighborhoods from any kind of new development that doesn’t adhere to the existing neighborhood’s model. In essence, we’re a village of NIMBY’s determined to keep things the way they’ve always been.

    Until we advocate for radical change — through greater density and diversity — we are doomed to be victims of our own sentimental vision of a past that no longer exists (and probably never did).

  8. Bonnie Hauser

     /  February 18, 2013

    Terri – thanks for being upset about Chancellor Thorp. Its totally off topic – but to me, it says everything that he’s leaving for a premier academic institution without sports. A great loss for UNC and our community.

  9. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  February 18, 2013

    If you have children in the CHCCS district you quickly appreciate the diversity of local residents. The school district encompasses Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and other portions of southeast Orange County, and district residents pay a separate tax for schools. Not only do Chapel Hill town taxes not pay toward anything to do with schools, Chapel Hill town does not communicate with the district with regard to development (in parallel with CH/UNC communications).

    As for regretting people who prefer living elsewhere, and blaming and wringing hands over the expense of Chapel Hill, please keep in mind that Chapel Hill looks SO VERY CHEAP compared to good school districts in the big Northern and West Coast cities and their suburbs. There, a 3 BR house on half an acre with mediocre schools starts at $400,000 to buy with $14,000 annual taxes.

    I think voters have little incentive to advocate for radical change through greater density– many of them experienced it elsewhere and didn’t like it.

  10. Terri Buckner

     /  February 18, 2013

    Deborah, the town does communicate with the school district about new development. It’s call SAPFO, and before a new development is approved, the school district has to say it has sufficient seats for the children who would live in that new development. Unfortunately, the district has rarely yielded this power and now the state is taking away the authority.

  11. DOM

     /  February 18, 2013

    Ms. Fulghieri

    “I think voters have little incentive to advocate for radical change through greater density– many of them experienced it elsewhere and didn’t like it.”

    Exactly my point. You are referring to relatively wealthy individuals in the community who are willing to pay higher taxes to avoid living the way less-wealthy folks do (i.e. people in need of modestly priced rental housing). Try talking to that voting bloc and I doubt very much that they would agree with you.

    As a recent example, listen to some of the comments from upscale homeowners in the historical district when they were faced with more student housing at Bicycle apartments: they spoke about the evils of students living nearby the same way some folks used to talk about racial minorities moving into the neighborhood. It was pretty shocking – and no one called them out on it.

  12. Fred Black

     /  February 18, 2013

    “Not only do Chapel Hill town taxes not pay toward anything to do with schools,”

    What about Town police resources related to SROs?

  13. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  February 18, 2013

    Terri Buckner: Steve Scroggs, when he was assistant superintendent, told a large assembly of us (~2004) that he had to go in person every week to the town planning department to count how many building permits had been issued, so that the district could plan accordingly for new residents; he could not get the town to communicate that to him.

    Fred Black: The school resource officers answer to their respective departments (Carrboro, Chapel Hill), but which budget they’re paid from– I’ll ask.

    DOM (whoever you are): I guess you mean people in need of modestly priced housing have an incentive to advocate for radical change through greater density. If they do, then they should. The six or so owners abutting the proposed Bicycle Apartments did complain to Planning Board about students breaking fences to short-cut through their yards (and showed pictures of the same). I didn’t get a sense of racism from them. Since UNC has about 9,900 places on campus and 30-35,000 students and plans to expand, dedicated off-campus student housing makes sense (to me).

  14. Terri Buckner

     /  February 19, 2013

    2004 was 9 years ago. Things change. Both OWASA and the school district have to sign off on new developments. I’m not sure if that means all new residential development or just those over a certain size. School resource officers are paid by the county.

  15. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  February 19, 2013

    I just spoke with the office of Todd LoFrese and learned that, indeed, School Resource Officers are paid for by the school district, in accordance with CHCCS contracts with Carrboro’s and Chapel Hill’s police departments. They are not paid for by the county or towns.
    Chapel Hill town taxes do not pay for anything to do with schools.

  16. Fred Black

     /  February 19, 2013

    Deborah, I suspect that all of the costs to the CHPD for training and supervision of SROs is not fully covered by the CHCCS. Town taxes are involved. Words like “anything to do with the schools” is just not accurate. Indirect costs are costs!

  17. Terri Buckner

     /  February 19, 2013

    And the school district’s money comes in large part from the county. SROs and school nurses are always positions of discussion at budget time.

  18. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  February 19, 2013

    Your turn, Fred. Could you call CHPD to confirm with direct quote?

    Terri, maybe you could clarify what the extra CHCCS district tax covers as opposed to what is covered for all schools in Orange County by OC tax.

  19. Fred Black

     /  February 19, 2013

    Deborah, I served on the Police Advisory Board and know that the CHPD has “costs” (and maybe minor minor in the grand scheme of things) associated with SROs that are not reimbursed. Not a big deal but I dislike it when you make “grand” assertions that are just not factual.

  20. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  February 19, 2013

    Fred, a slightly different police topic: a few years ago we went to CHPD with our Cub scout den, and the officer who showed us around told us he would soon be going for sniper training. I thought to myself, “Why on earth would a nice town like this need snipers?” About a year later, the Virginia Tech massacre occurred, and the news was full of pictures of Blacksburg, VA police department snipers, and unfortunately, I had an answer. I did not think to ask who foots the bill for Blacksburg, VA’s snipers (or Chapel Hill’s). It’s an interesting question, and if I learn more about it, I’ll post. I’ll ask if state or Federal grants tie into school security issues. Nothing grand about it, but I think my previous assertion, Chapel Hill town tax does not pay for anything to do with schools, is reasonable. The school district pays for School Resource Officers.

  21. Bonnie Hauser

     /  February 19, 2013

    Deborah -if you think its important, I can check – or maybe a school board member can comment. As far as I know, the district tax for CHCSS are combined with county taxes. There’s no distinction when it comes to how the funds are used.