Wasteful spending

No one wants their legacy to be trash, Maria Palmer told her colleagues at Nancy Oatesthe April 8 Town Council meeting. Yet the time, effort and budget commitment for upgrading the solid waste convenience centers in Orange County and mandated curbside recycling lead voters to think otherwise.

At the Assembly of Governments meeting on March 26, then at the Town Council meeting two weeks later, our elected officials talked trash, or at least how much to pay for county-wide recycling pickup and renovations to convenience centers where many folks deposit their recyclables and trash. After eight months, the solid waste workgroup decided to levy a single, flat fee for convenience centers and curbside recycling everywhere in the county. No one discussed whether the upgrades were efficient, cost-effective or necessary. And in my mind, the plans strike out on all three counts.

The county estimates $8 million a year for county-wide curbside recycling pickup and top-of-the-line upgrades to one convenience center. Most of the money — $6.2 million — would come from the new fees each homeowner would pay, with the remaining $1.8 million coming from property tax revenue. Multifamily housing, including low-income residents of trailer parks and apartment complexes, would be hit especially hard as their fees double from $51 per unit to $103.

The plans include spending $2 million to $3 million to gentrify the Eubanks Road convenience center when officials could repave it, add compactors and expand its operating hours for a fraction of the cost, maybe $300,000 to $500,000 tops. Simpler centers are less expensive to operate and would make it possible to eliminate the subsidy from property taxes. That $1.8 million could be redirected to schools or other pressing priorities.

Service flexibility remains an issue. For townies and suburban neighborhoods in the ETJ, curbside pickup sounds like a convenience worth the price. But consider homes in the county that may be off the road down a three-quarter-mile long gravel drive, requiring 3 miles on foot every trash day to drag those big blue roll carts out to the street and back. It would be much easier to toss the recyclables in the trunk of the car and drive 5 miles or so to the nearest convenience center. County homeowners have been asking for an opt-out provision in the curbside program for years, but the commissioners haven’t listened.

Spending taxpayer dollars on upscale convenience centers and valet recycling service is completely out of whack when we look at the long list of school repairs, some of which have been put off for years

Please let county commissioners know you believe their priorities need to be reshuffled. Send an email to the commissioners, http://www.orangecountync.gov/contact.asp, or stop by the commissioners’ meeting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 21, at the Southern Human Services Center, behind the Seymour Center off Homestead Road.
– Nancy Oates

Who we want to be

Everybody lives somewhere, Lisa Sturtevant of the National Housing Conference in Washington, D.C., Nancy Oatesreminded the audience at Chapel Hill’s Affordable Housing Seminar on April 9. The seminar was the final in a series of four excellent sessions in which nationally recognized experts shared their insights into challenges and solutions to creating and preserving housing for a wide spectrum of income levels.

Aside from the fact that housing touches everyone in a community, Sturtevant listed several reasons why we should care about the dwindling supply of affordable housing in Chapel Hill. Income hasn’t kept pace with rising housing prices, and strict lending practices are pricing the middle class out of home ownership, which excludes them from the most important method of accumulating wealth.

The more people pay for housing, the less they have to spend on dining out, going to the movies or buying nonessentials. That means less spending to support local businesses, which limits economic development.

A town without housing for people who work there has difficulty attracting new businesses. A healthy town needs housing for people of all income levels.

Plan for the community you want to be, Sturtevant urged. She advised giving incentives for building or preserving both low- and middle-income housing. Preserve existing affordable units, she said. Building new affordable units is counterproductive if it wipes out existing affordable housing.

Some of those incentives include tax abatements and density bonuses. Studies show that inclusionary zoning does not dampen production or raise rents or home prices, she said. (Still, Dwight Bassett, in wrapping up the series, espoused that he believes it does.) Form-based code can work if its streamlined development costs are linked to affordable housing. Arlington, Va., a town that shares many similarities with Chapel Hill, has achieved national recognition for its affordable housing accomplishments. Developers can choose to build using the form-based code and reap its benefits, or they can forgo form-based code if they don’t want to abide by its strictures.

The form-based code in Columbia Pike, Md., has an expectation that 20-35 percent of new units built be affordable to people making 40-80 percent of the Area Median Income.

The town flew in Wyman Winston of the Community Development Finance Authority in Madison, Wis., in for a couple of days to tour proposed developments and speak at the seminar. His points converged with those of Sturtevant’s, that towns should view affordable housing as infrastructure. First responders, for instance, need to be able to live in the town where they work. He warned that proposed tax code changes could eviscerate all federal housing help. However, a National Housing Trust Fund, available to disburse next year, gives states a percentage of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans to be used for affordable housing. But Gov. McCrory has yet to appoint a representative to apply for the funds.

Town Council has the chance to emend the form-based code in Ephesus-Fordham. But rather than increase affordable housing options, the staff’s proposed changes give even more perks to developers without any community benefit in return. Planning staff have not taken to heart the good advice of national experts. Will council?
— Nancy Oates

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With the UNC men’s basketball playing the Sweet 16 game of the NCAA Nancy Oatestournament at the same time as the Assembly of Governments meeting on March 26, ours may not have been the only household fighting over who would get the TV. If you were disappointed in the outcome of the game, boost your spirits by watching the last 12 minutes of the AOG meeting to see a true winning performance by council member Jim Ward.

The last topic taken up by officials from county and towns was an update on Ephesus-Fordham. County commissioners have taken a wait-and-see position on whether to let Chapel Hill keep some of the county’s portion of the tax revenue expected from new development in E-F.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt spoke first, and he seemed to be in full campaign mode, giving a chipper oration on two buildings proposed for E-F that are “100% retail” (a drugstore renovation and a small restaurant to replace one that has been razed). When he’d finished his infomercial, Commissioner Renee Price asked for Chapel Hill’s definition of affordable housing.

Instead of answering “60-80% or 80-120% of AMI,” the mayor launched into a campaign speech that referred to criticism from those who believe council could do better in E-F as “death panel arguments.”

Price tried to tell the mayor she just wanted the income level, but Kleinschmidt cut her off and started his speech all over again. When finally the mayor had spent himself, Lee Storrow, leaned over and whispered something to Price, presumably the numbers she had asked for.

Ward, however, “bristled,” he said at Kleinschmidt’s “advertisement of what a good job we’re doing” when council actually “gave away the bank” by giving developers a huge density bonus without pressing for affordable housing in return. Ward, along with Ed Harrison and Matt Czajkowski, voted against E-F’s form-based code mainly because it had no affordable housing.

The campaign season has started early, with Storrow and Donna Bell already announcing they will run for re-election this year, and Maria Palmer declaring she will run again in 2017. That means we’ll hear many attempts by incumbents to rewrite history. Some council members talk a good game of wanting affordable housing and commercial development (to ease the residential property tax burden), but the projects they’ve approved have been apartments with no firm commitment to affordable housing. The few commercial projects approved will add low-wage jobs that will increase our need for affordable housing all the more.

Ward has made no official announcement of a re-election campaign, but clearly voters need him to speak up like this routinely to add a dose of reality to the hype.

Several days later, Palmer emailed commissioners her own rambling commercial that contained several misstatements. But then, her attention during the meeting may have been diverted by social media updates on the basketball game. When commissioners chair Earl McKee asked whether anyone else had any questions before the meeting ended, Palmer blurted out, “I’m so sad that Chapel Hill lost.”

To see for yourself, go to http://www.co.orange.nc.us/occlerks/granicus.asp and click on the last agenda item.
– Nancy Oates

“Them” and who else?

Apparently, I’ve become one of “them.” Nancy Oates

At the reception the town hosted thanking Matt Czajkowski for more than seven years of public service before his final council meeting, Michael Parker caught up to George Cianciolo, who was heading into council chambers, and asked, “Who picked up the tab for all of this? The town? Or them?”

Scanning the crowd, I saw council members and citizens grateful for Czajkowski’s leadership. Presumably, Parker’s “them” referred to the latter, a cohort of which I’m an unabashed member.

You might be asking yourself, “Who’s Michael Parker, and why should I care what he thinks?” Those who know Parker, and some who don’t, expect him to run for a seat on council in the fall. I’m sure during his campaign he will try to present himself to the public as someone different from the wag who made that divisive remark. But that comment has colored my perception of him indelibly

Town politics is more polarized than I’ve ever experienced in the nearly 20 years I’ve lived in Chapel Hill. We’re reverting to the days when council votes were unanimous. Council meetings were short back then, rarely going beyond a couple hours, because everyone on council thought alike and perhaps had made up their minds on how to vote as soon as they read through the agenda.

When Matt Czajkowski joined council, he asked questions to determine exactly what was in the best interest of his constituents. He knew about finances, negotiations and business, and what questions to ask to get the data on which to base decisions. He was a strategic thinker who examined possible unintended consequences.

Developers got nervous. They brought slick, marketing-based presentations with them when they applied for rezonings and special use permits. They packed council chambers with an intimidating array of lawyers and investors and local consultants to sway council members. They contributed heavily to some council members’ re-election campaigns. They tried all sorts of tricks: hiring the law firm where a council member’s husband worked so as to force her to recuse herself from votes; subdividing land on major developments to make it impossible for adjacent property owners to file a protest petition.

Some council members began to take differences of opinions personally. They spoke disrespectfully to colleagues they disagreed with, and some closed their minds to ideas and concerns voiced by colleagues they deemed as belonging in the “them” camp.

One of the points the mayor made in his proclamation of gratitude for Czajkowski referenced Czajkowski questioning conventional wisdom, “And what could be more Chapel Hillian than that?” the mayor said.

We need council members who can talk with and listen to their colleagues and constituents. We don’t need someone who shows such disrespect for residents who question conventional thought as they advocate for the best interests of the community.
– Nancy Oates

You’re invited!

Matt Czajkowski’s last council meeting will be Monday night, March 23. The Nancy OatesTown Council will host a goodbye party for him at Town Hall a half-hour before the meeting begins, and you are invited. The party starts at 6:30 in the ante-chamber outside the auditorium where council meets. At 7 p.m., Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt will read a proclamation of appreciation for Czajkowski’s nearly eight years of service on council.

Eight years – that’s a lot of PowerPoint presentations and reams of reports in the innocuously named “blue folder” at each council member’s place at every meeting. Eight years encompasses hour upon hour of listening to citizen comments, not to mention the thousands of emails from concerned constituents who did not speak at council meetings. And then there’s the commitment of being a liaison for various committees and numerous public appearances for ground-breakings and parades.

Czajkowski brought to bear on our small-town problems his Harvard MBA, his corporate CFO experience and his ability to see past the immediate decision and shed light on unintended consequences. While some council members naively accepted developers’ proposals at face value (“We can’t possibly afford to contribute to affordable housing,” council heard over and over from men in expensive suits being paid hundreds of dollars an hour), Czajkowski went snout-to-snout with the big dogs. And while he was often the lone voice calling in the wilderness, he gave hope to his constituents, many of whom could see where the trajectory of decisions the majority bloc on council was taking us.

Unaffiliated with any political party, Czajkowski was unique in that he drew supporters from across the spectrum, from developers and financiers to rabble-rousers and flaming liberals. He listened to us all, weighed what we had to say, and asked questions to dig for the hard data.

We would not have been able to afford Czajkowski if we had hired him as a consultant. How lucky we are that he generously gave his time to try to make Chapel Hill a more livable town. Now he and his wife, Jill, are off to Rwanda to make a difference in the lives of communities in that impoverished country.
Please take a few minutes to stop by on Monday evening to thank Czajkowski for all he has done for the town.

Here’s another invitation: Check out a new website that shows via charts and graphics what to expect from the Obey Creek development proposal. Visit: whatsupwithobeycreek.com. The next opportunity for public comment on Obey Creek is at a special Town Council meeting on Wednesday, March 25, at 7 p.m. in Town Hall.
– Nancy Oates

Saving grace

On a recent Friday, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt tweeted that UNC was poised to Nancy Oatesmake a Big Announcement about Northside, leaving us on tenterhooks all weekend. On Monday, the mayor and UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, along with some neighborhood and nonprofit dignitaries, took the stage and said UNC would lend $3 million interest-free for 10 years to “save” Northside, as newspaper accounts touted it. And the town plans to chip in $200,000 initially from its affordable housing fund. (Future allocations will be reviewed annually by Town Council.)

Essentially, the public relations fallout from Folt’s decision not to defend UNC’s Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity against the Board of Governors shuttering it and another social justice center and an environmental center may have nudged the chancellor to publicly commit some big money to fend off slumlords in Northside.

Admittedly, Folt’s job would have been on the line had she challenged the BOG’s claim that it had the authority to close the centers, so who can blame her? We all know how hard it is for people over 50 to find jobs. Just ask UNC System President Tom Ross. So Folt redirected media attention by committing financial resources to help move forward a plan that Northside neighbors have been working on for three years.

In recent years, predatory investors have bought up properties in Northside from longtime residents ready to cash out or who have died and their heirs have no use for the property. Because town staff do not enforce the ordinance that no more than four unrelated people can share a residential unit, unscrupulous landlords have rented out houses to large groups of students and raked in cash without always maintaining the property to livable standards. Their tenants are kids who put up with the indignities, knowing the housing is only temporary.

At this point, more than half the homes in the historically black working-class community are investor-owned.

Three years ago, the Jackson Center, a community center in Northside, organized a Compass Group to figure out how to reverse the trend. One tool was to ask Self-Help, a nonprofit lender, to establish a land bank by buying properties at the lowest price possible and redistributing them at cost to developers of affordable housing. For instance, Self-Help set up a land bank in partnership with Duke University and found a landlord in Walltown, a low-income neighborhood near Duke, who was willing to sell 30 properties at $5,000 each, which the land bank resold to an affordable housing developer.

The success of the land bank hinges on property owners selling to the land bank at an affordable price, even if investors offer more. And it would restore my faith in humanity if that were to happen. At the same time, the concept makes me uneasy. For most of us, our home is our biggest asset. Is it fair to ask people of modest means to forgo market-rate profits in an attempt to fend off slumlords and developments like the 10-story student apartment building proposed for the lot where Breadman’s is now?

No word on whether any contract has been signed. UNC referred me to Self-Help, who referred me to the Jackson Center, who, I learned from an interview by a colleague, is referring questions back to Self-Help.
– Nancy Oates

Own up to tax hike

Get ready for a tax hike, a one-two punch of county and town both wanting Nancy Oatesmore from taxpayers.

Talk of money hung heavy in the air last week, with the county commissioners continuing discussion (kudos to board chair Earl McKee for dissuading his colleagues from rubberstamping approval) of a $125 million bond in 2016, and Town Council holding a work session last Monday in which town staff bandied about the possibility of a $40 million bond in the November 2015 election, plus another $50 million financed in TIF-style installments.

Elected officials for both county and town have the authority to raise taxes without putting a bond referendum on the ballot for voters to approve or vote down. But politicians prefer to raise taxes through a bond because it puts the onus for an unpopular decision (paying higher taxes) on the voters, not the elected officials. When a bond referendum passes, politicians have the excuse that the tax hike came about because voters demanded it.

Instead, elected officials tend to exercise their spending authority on projects that they know voters wouldn’t necessarily spring for. Commissioners spent more than $1 million renovating a lovely meeting room for themselves and others, mainly adults with cars. But wouldn’t it be nice if schoolchildren could wake up every day knowing that they had a similarly beautiful spot in which to learn? Or at least one with adequate heating and without mold.

Town Council members also approved a pricey renovation of its space that included a secret emergency exit, exclusively for council members’ use, and a bullet-proof dais. And look at the exquisite town manager’s suite — oh, right, we can’t because it requires cardkey access. But it must be nice because its budget was three times that of the equivalent space for the permitting center open to the public on the ground floor.

Those expenditures likely would not have met with voter approval. So, being politically savvy, our commissioners position their bond as money for schools, and council members make theirs for new greenways, sidewalks and unspecified stormwater improvements, all of which appeal to voters.

Council members seem to have no compunction against asking taxpayers to pay more for what we value, but they won’t ask developers to contribute.

We have a noisy group of “Not in My Checkbook” businessmen who want residential property taxpayers to subsidize their development projects as a hedge against their risk, most recently The Edge and Village Plaza Apartments, which produced no affordable housing or energy efficiency or stormwater mitigation that would reduce flooding in modest neighborhoods nearby.

Those businessmen are big contributors to the election campaigns of many of our council members and at least one commissioner.

We need elected officials willing to make decisions about what’s best for the community, even the community members who don’t contribute to election campaigns.
– Nancy Oates

Talk, hear, act

Growth has proved a hot topic in the discussions in the local blogsphereNancy Oates recently. Participants have divided into two camps. One side believes that all growth is good and that new development of any kind will make money for the town and thus lower residential property taxes. The other side believes only nonresidential property is revenue positive and pays close attention to what the community gets in return when our tax dollars are used to subsidize developers.

Communication between the two sides appears to have ground to a halt, reduced to name-calling and arguments with no more depth than “Are not!” “Are too!”

Council has made a spate of decisions recently about development projects that directly impact the lives of those of us who live here or want to live here. Council members, repeating what they hear from the town manager and economic development officer, say that if enough buildings are built, the town will make money and pass that cash on to residents in the form of lower property taxes. But as the Wake County commissioners’ chair said, in facing the prospect of a property tax increase, “We can’t grow our way out of this.”

That jibes with my experience. The town has grown substantially in the nearly 20 years I have lived here, yet every year I pay more in taxes. Even in years when the town’s tax rate decreases, my tax bill goes up.

At Lee Storrow’s “listening session” Saturday afternoon, a woman told of trying to find an affordable place to live. “It costs a lot to live here,” she said.

I hope those words ring in Storrow’s head the next time a developer proposes a project that has no affordable housing. I hope those words touched him enough that he will lead his colleagues on council to rework the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code to include affordable housing. And while he’s at it, correct the code to meet town ordinance standards for stormwater so the affordable homes in the neighborhoods around Ephesus-Fordham don’t suffer even worse flooding.

The town manager, his staff, and council members who don’t have time to digest before every meeting 900 pages of jargon-rich text meant to obfuscate, adhere to a neoliberal theory of economics that postulates if you want the economy to grow, you need less government involvement and a climate friendly to big business, and you have to accept a widening gap between the rich and the rest of us.

But many of us who advocate for the community believe that’s not true, that there is a way to grow without sacrificing quality of life, without pushing out young people, modestly paid people and people of color. Council members and town staff need to bargain hard with developers to make sure the community gets something of value for the price taxpayers are paying, and to listen to folks other than those making money from the deals.
– Nancy Oates

We need a hero

It looks like the UNC Board of Governors may be celebrating Black History Nancy OatesMonth by closing down UNC’s Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

The 27% of blacks in North Carolina who live below the poverty line is more than twice the 12% of poverty-stricken whites in our state, which makes the timing of the BOG panel’s recommendation last week all the more ironic.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly appoints the UNC System Board of Governors, which is made up almost exclusively of white male Republicans. Last year, the Legislature directed the university system to shift $15 million from its network of 240 centers and institutes to core academic functions. The panel making the recommendation of which to whack chose three. Of those, two — N.C. Central’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change and UNC’s poverty center — work directly with marginalized populations to level the playing field.

How much would the state save by closing down the poverty center? $0. Not a penny. The center is funded entirely by grants and private donations. But by taking away the center’s affiliation with UNC, the poverty center would have to give back the grant money it received.

Some have said the recommendation is political. The poverty center’s director, tenured law professor and former UNC Law School dean Gene Nichol, has criticized some decisions made by the Legislature and the McCrory administration that have been detrimental to the poor.

Some have said it’s a business decision. McCrory puppeteer Art Pope has made a very good living off of the poor through his empire of Family Dollar and other discount stores. The more poor people in the state, the larger his customer base.

Some have said the BOG is operating out of middle-school cliquishness. Nichol speaks passionately and about injustices, and that may prick the consciences of some of the “haves” in power, who respond by trying to silence him.

Fortunately, Nichol won’t be silenced. The BOG can cut UNC’s ties with the center, and the poor in the state will suffer from the loss of the center’s good work. But Nichol is a tenured professor and is constitutionally protected in telling what he knows.

Here’s where the town of Chapel Hill can step in and show that the values that drew many of us to town are alive and well and in practice. One of the proposals for the 100 W. Rosemary St. building is for it to become a civil rights museum. The museum would not take up the whole building. The town could offer office space to the poverty center and UNC’s Center for Civil Rights, which has been put on notice by the BOG for not having sufficient diversity of opinion. All it would cost the town is the rent differential between what the museum and centers would pay and higher-paying tenants.

In recent years, a majority of elected officials and town staff have shifted away from supporting efforts to take care of people who historically have been oppressed. Offering room to the museum and two centers would be a cost-effective way to get us back on track.
– Nancy Oates

Listen up!

What a blessing to all of us that I stayed home to watch the town’s affordable Nancy Oateshousing seminar on my computer instead of sitting in the audience at Town Hall. Had I been there in person, I might not have been able to contain myself after Robert Hickey from the Center for Housing Policy in Washington, D.C., finished his talk. I might have shaken my finger at Sally Greene and Maria Palmer, who voted for the flawed Ephesus-Fordham form-based code, and admonished, “I told you so! I told you so!”

Make that “WE told you so!” For Hickey repeated many of the same strategies and suggestions that residents informed Town Council members of during the public hearings for E-F and the discussion of what to do with real estate assets the town wants to sell.

Among Hickey’s recommendations: Smooth the permitting process for developers in exchange for affordable housing. (Tysons Corner, Va., developers donate 20-30% of units for affordable housing, he said.) Consider easing height restrictions in exchange for affordable housing. (Though he said more than 3 or 4 stories might not be appropriate for Chapel Hill.) Donate public land for affordable housing. (A majority of council members voted down Matt Czajkowski’s suggestion of opening the cemetery parcel up for bid by for-profit builders who specialize in workforce housing after DHIC bungled its grant application.) Negotiate with major employers to contribute to housing affordable for their modestly paid workers. (Jim Ward’s demand for a higher payment-in-lieu for UNC’s Carolina Square was smacked down by some of his colleagues on the dais.)

Ed Harrison sat quietly in the audience, perhaps feeling vindicated, too.

Dwight Bassett followed Hickey by presenting data that spoke to the need for affordable housing. Millennials and senior citizens are competing for the same low- and moderately priced housing stock, and the rise in rents has far outpaced the rise in income in recent years. Compared to Raleigh, Cary and Durham, Chapel Hill has the lowest percent of single-family detached houses already.

People in the audience, who for the most part did not identify themselves or their interest in the topic, asked trenchant questions: How much would it cost to build an 800-square-foot, 2-bedroom apartment, and what level of income would that require to rent it (given the federal guideline of paying no more than 30% of gross income for housing, utilities and insurance)? Could parking spaces be reduced in exchange for using the space for affordable housing? How will the Chatham Park development affect the demand for affordable housing in Chapel Hill?

The town’s next presentation in the affordable housing series will be March 10 (the Feb. 24 date has been scratched) and will be on “The Real Cost of Housing: What It Costs the Town.” The free session will be held from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall auditorium. The public is invited.
– Nancy Oates