Park, Housing: Not an Either-Or

In 2003, as a taxpayer I voted against spending more than $16 million to expand and renovate the Chapel Hill Public Library. The town had a small but functional library, surrounded by the woods and trails of Pritchard Park, and while the demand would only grow as the town grew, it seemed to me we had more pressing needs for that money.

But a majority of voters thought otherwise, and the nearly $30 million bond passed. (Money for Parks & Rec and sidewalks accounted for the additional $14 million.)

Now, every time I walk through the doors of the state-of-the-art library that came out of that bond — a full decade after voters approved taking on the debt — I am grateful for the voters who had a broader vision than I did. The library is beautiful and serene and accessible to the public, without additional charge.

That experience provides the impetus behind my support of retaining all 36 acres of the American Legion property as a public amenity.

Elected officials at the municipal level must find the sweet spot of spending enough money on amenities to attract high-income residents and ensuring that those amenities are available to everyone in town, regardless of their income level.

To make a livable town, we rely on the property tax and sales tax generated by people who have considerable discretionary spending capacity who can buy expensive houses, dine out locally and spend their money in Chapel Hill. And we have to attract people who hold the service jobs that keep the town functioning. To draw people who work in modestly paying jobs means we have to ensure a supply of housing affordable to them, and that we don’t divide the town into separate sections for the haves and the have-nots.

Spending money on a community gathering space doesn’t mean we can’t spend money on subsidized housing. When the library bond was proposed in 2003, I don’t recall people advocating that the $16 million be redirected to build subsidized housing in Pritchard Park. Voters recognized that the library was for the benefit of people in all income levels.

Even as you read this, town staff are cobbling together a bond proposal for affordable housing. Three of the 27 town-owned parcels studied by the town assets task force earlier this year are earmarked for affordable housing. Perhaps even more would work for homes for low- and middle-income earners.

A developer has applied for permission to replace a mobile home park with luxury apartments. Will anyone on council or in the community advocate that the developer contribute to affordable housing?

Residents from any income level who need a mini-vacation, measured in hours not days, can go to the library and enjoy, without charge, a quality-of-life enhancing experience. I hope that 10 years down the line, everyone will be able to enjoy a similar quality of life on the American Legion property.
— Nancy Oates

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3 Comments

  1. Terri

     /  December 4, 2017

    “Spending money on a community gathering space doesn’t mean we can’t spend money on subsidized housing.”

    But why does housing for working people have to be subsidized? In a healthy local economy, there would be a range of housing sizes and prices that wouldn’t require so many people (many of whom earn more than the state minimum) to need to be subsidized.

    At some point, someone has to accept that building more affordable housing developments, is also raising the cost of living here. Higher cost of living means more people need subsidies to come here. For those who are already here, the property tax and other costs of living are no longer affordable so they leave. And every time one of them leaves, it seems like a wealthy person takes there place.

    The way the town’s ‘affordable’ housing solution has been implemented has created a positive feedback loop. It’s unsustainable. (A positive feedback loop is one in which there is no cutoff mechanism. A thermostat is a negative feedback loop because you can set the controls. A bathtub is a positive feedback loop because you have to watch it and make a decision when to shut off the water.)

  2. Nancy

     /  December 4, 2017

    Well said, Terri. A few reasons we got ourselves into this loop: 1) Most development now is done as private equity investments that have to guarantee a set rate of return for investors. I’d like to see us recruit more local builders not tied into a set profit. 2) To get the highest possible return, developers build high-rent projects to recoup their investment costs. I’d like to find ways to expedite the kind of projects that serve our community best. 3) Developers know that council will lower our expectations for affordable housing if they say, “The numbers don’t work.” I’d like to see council take a firmer stand on our expectations.

  3. Gregg Gerdau

     /  December 4, 2017

    Oxymoron alert! “A developer has applied for permission to replace a mobile home park with luxury apartments. Will anyone on council or in the community advocate that the developer contribute to affordable housing?” Seriously? Mobile homes are the affordable housing in Chapel Hill. Unfortunately, they are so lightly regulated that a great number are used for affordable commercial storage (plumbers, electricians, etc.) which further reduces their availability for housing. When will Council begin to prioritize citizen needs over developer needs?

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