The modestly paid are people, too

Swiss novelist Max Frisch’s quip, “We asked for workers; we got people instead,” applies Nancy Oatesas much to affordable housing as it does to the immigration issue he addressed in his day.

At a council work session on Oct. 19, town staff presented the findings of David Paul Rosen & Associates, a consulting firm that we taxpayers hired to help us come up with a plan for affordable housing. The study focused on land the town owns and how much it would cost to subsidize various types of housing units.

In total, the amounts were substantial. And we still would end up with the less-than-ideal situation of all low-income people crowded together in one building or complex. Witness Northwood Ravin’s plan to cram 50 low-income apartments onto a single acre in Carraway Village.

Chapel Hill’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance has the right idea — include low-income residents with those paying market rate for housing. But we don’t have a majority on council who will vote to adhere to the ordinance when eligible projects come to us for approval.

Based on the development proposals we, on council, have approved, we are building aspirationally. We are making room only for the upwardly mobile, college-educated white-collar professionals. In doing so, we push out people who do the work we don’t want to pay much for. That imbalance ultimately undermines our success as a community.

The people we rely on to educate our children, care for our aging parents, haul away our trash, and cook and serve our food in restaurants, to name a few, can’t afford to live in the community they serve. We push them farther out of town, and we’re already seeing signs that we can’t find enough people to hire for modestly paid jobs.

Some council members have lobbied, for instance, for Habitat for Humanity to change its model and stop building single-family houses affordable to the modestly paid in favor of building multifamily units. Some council members have gone so far as to argue that the only affordable housing we should approve is apartments, the implication being that houses should be only for people who earn a lot of money.

The underlying sentiment of that plan is: If you were worthy of living in a house, you’d get a job that paid more.

Have the residents of Chapel Hill really become that arrogant to dismiss someone’s lifestyle choices because they differ from what some of the wealthy or wealthy wannabes choose?

Money is not the main driver for everyone. A good thing, given that so many employees who do work that upper-income folks rely on to enable their lifestyle choices are paid so little. People willing to accept those jobs should be allowed to live in — not simply be warehoused in — the community they serve.

Those modestly paid workers are not simply tenants for someone to profit off of; they are people who deserve to be treated as valued members of our community.
— Nancy Oates

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6 Comments

  1. bart

     /  November 16, 2016

    Another aspect of this problem is rising property taxes and what that does to modest home owners. So, it comes down to “Hey, you CAN stay here if you sell your home and go into an apartment. . .”

    We still want you here, value you, but are quite willing to tax you out of your own home! After all, there are so many moderately priced apartments available.

    Lastly, what does having a home trust apartment/townhome do for someone? While it does allow someone a modest home in a more expensive address, what about when that person or family need to move elsewhere? They won’t have much to make a down payment on something else, because isn’t the resale of these properties capped somewhat? How does that work?

  2. Bart, you touch upon an aspect the “trickle down” housing proponents like to ignore.

    Owning a home used to be one of the few ways low and moderate income folks could build capital.

    Renters, if they are renting at a low enough price point, could divert the difference between a mortgage and the rent into savings vehicles to grow wealth but that is seldom the case.

    Around here, as rents approach and exceed mortgage costs, that is definitely not the case.

  3. Nancy

     /  November 16, 2016

    Bart, you’re right that Home Trust homes have a cap on the amount of profit the seller can make. The flip side of that is that the homeowners get a much nicer home than they would if they had to pay market rate. So the homeowners trade profit in the end for better quality of life for as long as they live there.

    As for what they walk away from a sale with to put toward a new home, it depends on how long they live there. They get back their equity. I’ve lived in apartments in New York, and never once did a landlord hand me a bunch of cash when I moved out. Buying a home is a forced savings account.

    And don’t forget that apartment dwellers pay property tax, too, but it is rolled into the rent.

  4. bart

     /  November 16, 2016

    Still, something about those home trust dwellings makes me think of “poor doors.”

    You can live here, but you can’t get all the utility out of living here that others do because we had to help you get in the door?

  5. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  November 16, 2016

    bart, the home trust houses’ property taxes are capped– their value is tax-exempt beyond what they are sold for.

  6. bart

     /  November 17, 2016

    Taxes for these homes are tied to the artificial price or valuation? Did not know that, but it makes sense.

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