There has been much discussion about affordable housing within Orange County and the towns. It was mentioned during the Chapel Hill 2020 process – but seems to be lost in the subsequent development of the Central West, Ephesus Church, other focus areas. Significant discussion took place on the Chapel Hill Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable Rental Housing – yet to be presented to the Town Council. Carrboro did a seminar series last year on Affordable Housing and plans another this year – but has not seen any proposals that promote affordable housing.
It’s election time – and since discussions on the size and density of Chapel Hill and Carrboro are front and center, we need to discuss affordability – with particular attention to who will we serve, how we will make it happen, how we will pay for it. It’s not just housing – which is important. Affordable communities have good community services including transportation. And as we just learned in the great flood of 2013, we’re not prepared to serve low-income populations who are most vulnerable to disasters.
Some are saying that increasing the supply of housing will create affordability. The facts suggest otherwise. Developers are securing approvals for luxury and student housing – while offering little in the way of affordable living. Form-based codes don’t specifically address affordability requirements (but public art is still in!). In the meantime, our workforce is moving out of town, and spending their hard-earned dollars elsewhere.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as costing no more than 30 percent of your monthly income. If you are making minimum wage ($7.25/hr.) working 40 hours a week, you should be paying no more than $348/month for housing. For Chapel Hill’s living hourly wage workers ($12.91/hr. base) that’s $671 for housing. The average price of a two-bedroom apartment in Chapel Hill is $926; in Carrboro it’s $860.
Minimum-wage workers can’t afford to live here and neither can firefighters, retails salespersons, food service, health care, child care, home health care, and construction workers – all of whose average salaries in our area are not sufficient to pay the rent on a two-bedroom apartment in town let alone buy a home. From 2002-10, Orange County lost a tremendous amount of wealth – $50 million from this migration outwards to the more affordable counties surrounding us: Alamance, Chatham, Durham.
Then there’s the student impact. With over 18,000 UNC students living off campus, affordable rentals quickly become student housing. In addition, there’s a growing trend to no longer accept Section 8 housing vouchers (federal money that subsidizes rental costs), further limiting the number of affordable places to live.
Low- to medium-income families are the backbone of our local economy. Our largest employer, UNC and UNC Healthcare employ thousands of low- and minimum-wage workers. Can UNC play a role in providing housing for these important employees? That’s in addition to our firefighters, police officers and the many who work in our community every day – but can’t afford to live here. These workers are forced to commute – and the growing cost of transportation is making that harder too.
A rich, vibrant community relies on diversity. If we can’t provide affordable housing or services, where will our workforce come from – where will the restaurant workers, the university and hospital workers come from, our house cleaners, senior caregivers? With the cost of transportation rising, how far will people be willing to travel to come to our county to work?
Join Justice United from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13, at Binkley Baptist Church, 1712 Willow Drive, Chapel Hill, for a candidate’s forum on affordable communities. Help us make affordable communities an election issue this fall.
Tish Galu is the chair of Orange County Justice United, a coalition of 25 faith, neighborhood organizations and nonprofits serving all of Orange County. ( ocjusticeunited.org)