For all the talk about the rigorous approval process in Chapel Hill quashing development, the town sure has grown prodigiously in the past 20 years. Drawing on U.S. Census Bureau figures from 1990 and 2010, public policy strategist John Quinterno pointed out that the town’s population has increased by almost 50% and the number of housing units increased commensurately.
Quinterno, a principal at South by North Strategies in Chapel Hill, presented his analysis at a lecture on economic development hosted by CHALT at the library last Wednesday afternoon. He noted that changes in the demographic composition of the town would affect the local economy and public policy.
The percentage of families in town rose from 49% in 1990 to 51% in 2010. During that same period, the percentage of single-family houses increased from about 38% to more than 41%. The occupancy rate of all housing units — owner-occupied and rental — held steady over 20 years at 92%.
These numbers don’t include the explosion of rental apartments approved after the 2010 census.
All of these figures add up to economic growth. But that quantitative metric is not the same as economic development, which is more nebulous, a qualitative increase in collective well-being.
Governments tend to measure economic growth, mainly because it is concrete: Count the number of people and the number of jobs; if they’re both rising, the economy must be good. But policy decisions — such as how much housing to build and where to put it — based only on quantity tend to ignore the long-term capital costs, such as building more fire stations and schools.
Because public officials aren’t playing with their own money, these costs are easier for them to ignore. Officials are more comfortable declaring “any job is a good job,” without looking at the salary level or whether the jobs are being filled by local hires or by people transferring in laterally from another state. Public officials also are prone to deal-making, pushing the theory that our town has to compete with other towns for the same jobs, when in reality different venues attract different jobs. Mebane would be hard-pressed to lure Lantern from Chapel Hill, and Chapel Hill would have been unlikely to convince Morinaga to build on the parcel now designated for The Edge.
Paying attention only to economic growth biases public officials toward deal-making, believing that they have to “buy” economic activities through taxpayer-funded subsidies.
Making policy decisions based on economic development, on the other hand, involves values-laden discussions. The vast majority of the employees from the town’s three largest employers — the hospital, the university and municipal government — commute long distances because they can’t afford to live in town. Might taxpayers rather subsidize workforce housing to enable people who serve the town to live here, rather than subsidize a developer who will make his profit and leave?
Quinterno goes into much greater detail in his book “Running the Numbers: A Practical Guide to Regional Economic and Social Analysis” (Routledge, 2014). Not quite beach reading, but interesting to those wanting to understand how economic and social issues shape policy.
– Nancy Oates