Economics of affordability

A council member told of going to dinner at a new restaurant in town and having to wait a half-hour for a table. Initially, he took that as a good sign of how well the new business was faring. But once he was seated, he noticed that several tables had been removed since the last time he was there. Upon inquiry, he learned that management had to limit the number of customers served at one time because the business could not hire enough kitchen and wait staff.

My colleague was surprised that it was so hard to find front-line and foundational workers.

I was surprised that my colleague was surprised. This is a message I’ve been harping on to council members since before I got elected.

Beyond the humanitarian reasons of why we should care that all income levels have housing options in Chapel Hill are the economic reasons.

We have quite a few jobs in town we rely on to support our quality of life that do not command high salaries. Restaurant workers, yes, as well as hospital aides and technicians; cleaning staff for the hospital, university, offices and homes; people who care for our lawns and our children; senior companions; teachers; bus drivers; garbage collectors; grocery store employees and the first person you come in contact with when you need to conduct business at Town Hall.

Competition for modestly paid positions in Chapel Hill is fierce. And it will get even more competitive as towns around us develop their commercial centers. Why would people commute into Chapel Hill for a low-wage job when they can take a similar position close to where they live? UNC has opened a hospital in Hillsborough and is planning one for Pittsboro. Lawn services will have plenty of customers from the high-end subdivisions sprouting in Chatham County. Mebane has big-box chains and small retail chains such as Starbucks, all of which need sales clerks.

At Town Council’s Oct. 4 work session, town staff presented a strategic plan for affordable housing. I was very pleased to see that we have gone beyond the hand-wringing stage to laying out a plan with metrics by which we can measure our progress.

I was a bit uneasy, though, with the tenor around the table that affordable housing is somehow a gift we are giving out of our beneficence. Instead, we must recognize the importance of investing in housing options for people all along the pay scale. We need to incentivize housing options for modestly paid workers every bit as much as we incentivize Wegmans to come to town, or Carraway Village.

I’m hoping council will make solid, realistic business decisions about affordable housing — how it can be incorporated with market-rate units and how to account for ancillary expenses, such as benches at bus stops so the elderly, who are often on a fixed income, can use public transportation, too.

Our snappy motto of being Open2Biz has little impact if we’re not willing to invest in the resources that help our local businesses succeed.
— Nancy Oates

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