Not just a numbers game

For all the talk about the rigorous approval process in Chapel Hill quashing Nancy Oatesdevelopment, 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

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  1. bart

     /  July 29, 2015

    New people bring jobs and money, along with greater demands on infrastructure. But traffic isn’t just an inconvenience. As I was sitting in the 54 parking lot, I realized one of the reasons I don’t shop local much is that it is much easier to go to a big box and get several errands done than it is to run around a traffic choked town to do this and that at boutique shops. While I might be willing to pay a little more to do things locally, I REALLY don’t want to pay more AND sit through lights and tailbacks and stuffed parking lots when Target is much easier.

    It is easier, particularly with children, to make one stop, get in and out and get home than it is to make several time consuming stops when you can hardly get to places in a reasonable amount of time. We timed a not unusual trip on 54 yesterday, and it took us 8 minutes to get from the intersection at the Oaks to the BP station, where we turned off.

  2. Bruce Springsteen

     /  July 31, 2015

    I think what this comes down to are two different kinds of quality. The kind of quality Chapel Hill / Carrboro emphasizes has to do with aesthetics. It’s prettier to see trees and and fewer cars and smaller business buildings with small signs and in that sense it is of higher quality.

    But another kind of quality has to do with efficiency and the simple fact of the matter is that in the real world that kind of efficiency matters to a lot of people. If you’re able to give a lot of people what they want/need at a low price then that is a form of quality. The fact that there may be a lot of traffic around the building or that the building is big and boxy is irrelevant.

  3. many

     /  July 31, 2015

    ISO 8402-1986. Now, whats a defect?

    IMO the defect in the in the area mentioned above is the intersection of 54 to 15-501/Fordham Blvd especially westbound and 15-501/Fordham Blvd to 54 east at Raleigh Road.

    Similarly the intersection of 15-501 and 54 at S. Columbia street is also incapable of handling peak traffic and is therefore defective.

    The fixes will be politically and fiscally painful involving replacing the bridges over 54 and creating a way to merge traffic without (or minimal) traffic lights.

    Tata has left the transportation department and Tennyson is the interim secretary. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. There may be a shift in DoT priorities driven by Rabon and Berger and especially the fate of a 3 billion dollar state transportation bond.

  4. anon

     /  August 3, 2015

    fairly bad opinion column this sunday in the CH news.
    the writer (I believe ) falsely said CHALT was opposed to commercial development.

    Given the writer is part of the real estate business either the writer is playing dumb or CHALT needs to focus it’s message – sharper and simpler. Again, assume others are going to paint you against all development.. so you need to preemptively point out what you are for..

  5. many

     /  August 3, 2015


    All in all it was simply a shallow hit peace with very little substance. Zimmerman who has an obvious dog in the fight will need to do much than spout false choices and slander to convince people that the town has done its job.