Orange County, towns planning big push to fight poverty, provide housing

tgrubb@newsobserver.comDecember 31, 2013 

  • What they’re saying

    Local leaders, housing advocates and social service officials agree it’s time to work together to preserve Orange County’s affordable housing and help lift up residents struggling with poverty. Here’s what some of them have to say on the subject:

    •  Barry Jacobs, Orange County Board of Commissioners chairman: “Thinking about poverty is like pulling a loose thread on a ball of string. Enhanced employment opportunities fit into the equation, as do jail alternatives and vocational training opportunities and more robust local food production and distribution. ... With all the federal and state programs that are in place to address the needs of low-income residents – governed by particular criteria and overseen by a number of county, state, and federal entities – pulling the strands together to form a coherent, systematic, and creative local approach to poverty is a major challenge.”

    •  Michelle Johnson, member, Carrboro Board of Aldermen, and social worker: “It’s important to keep talking about poverty. Economic justice is work that doesn’t have an end point as long as we continue to (buy) into capitalist ideals and believe that more is better. It is important to discuss poverty and economic justice now, because in our state this past year, the N.C. Legislature has been attacking poor folks, women, people of color, immigrants, teachers, and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) folks. Poor people will be poorer in our state, and our social service systems funds are being cut and defunded right and left. Their ability to respond to the increasing demands and needs will be more limited. As a community, we need to discuss our responsibility to take care of each other.”

    •  Roger Stancil, Chapel Hill town manager: “It’s a really good thing to have that community-wide conversation (about poverty and affordable housing), because there are a lot of pieces to that puzzle. ... The challenge is how we do all these things we want to do that oftentimes require tax resources without making this an expensive place to live.”

    •  Lydia Lavelle, Carrboro mayor: “Our community is desirable for many reasons – our geographic location, our climate, our arts and culture, our values – but this desirability comes at a cost. The basic concepts of supply and demand cause our property values to rise. This forces us to struggle with problems that have faced other communities of similar success: What is affordability in a community like ours, and how do we stay affordable? Further, how do we look out for those members of our community who are struggling to stay afloat financially as our property values continue to rise?”

    •  Tara Fikes, director, Orange County Department of Housing, Human Relations and Community Development: “I think from an individual perspective, it’s just critical that people have somewhere to live. It’s a basic right that people should have someplace to live, and I think as a community we ought to be concerned about that. We ought to be doing what we can to help the situation.

    •  Nancy Coston, director, Orange County Department of Social Services: “Even with two adults making ($40,000 a year) that is really tough to pay for your rent and all your needs. ... If you add any kind of crisis – the car breaks down, a child gets sick and you have to stay out of work and you’re in the kind of job where you’re paid when you work – pretty soon that can be enough … to cause you to actually be in such a crisis that you about can’t recover.”

    •  Jamie Rohe, Orange County’s homeless programs coordinator: “This is not about us. This is not about our egos. This is about my legacy, our legacy. This is about helping people.”

— Kim Barnett was one of the few who found a chair Dec. 19 for the four-hour wait to get ingredients for her family’s Christmas dinner.

The part-time home care worker was among more than 400 people who picked up holiday meals this year from the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service’s food pantry in Carrboro.

At 48, Barnett has diabetes and relies on Chapel Hill Transit and its EZ Rider vans for people with disabilities to get around. She shares an apartment with her 20-year-old son David, who helps with the bills, and she also gets a federal rent subsidy. Although they once had $300 a month in federal food assistance, that’s been cut to $50, she said.

Barnett said she’s blessed, because she can save a little each month for emergencies, even if it doesn’t last long.

“As soon as you think you’ve got a nice little chunk of money saved up, something else happens, and there it goes,” she said.

The U.S. Census reports that about 17.4 percent, or nearly one in six, of Orange County residents live in poverty. That’s a family of four earning less than $23,550 a year, or roughly $11 an hour. Experts say that family can afford to pay about $600 a month for rent and utilities.

Orange County’s 2012 data, however, shows most two-bedroom apartments locally rent for $750 to $1,000 a month. Someone would have to earn about $15 an hour to pay this and still meet other living expenses.

Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil said UNC’s student population skews the poverty numbers a bit. Of the roughly 58,000 Chapel Hill residents, about 11,000 are UNC students living on campus, and at least that many live off campus, he said.

The university doesn’t track where off-campus students live, but some are in Carrboro and Durham, Chatham and Alamance counties.

“The student population looks and acts like they’re poor,” Stancil said. “I don’t see that as a personal state of being. It’s just a stop on the way to something different.”

Nancy Coston, director of the Orange County Department of Social Services, said the problem worsened last year after June floods displaced low-income renters and an apartment management company dropped tenants with federal Section 8 housing vouchers. It wasn’t easy, but most have new housing, she said.

Having a stable home life, especially for children, is key to breaking the cycle of poverty, Coston said. It also frees adults to focus on education and jobs that will provide for their families, she said.

The county’s residents also are better for living alongside people at different economic levels, officials said.

“Rich, sustainable and productive communities are those that have folks from all walks of life, all backgrounds,” Stancil said. “Most people want to live in a place where people ... think different, look different and act different from who we are.”

Too few options

But for some families, including many Carrboro and Chapel Hill town employees, there aren’t enough options. That’s why county and town leaders are talking about working together next year to craft creative solutions and find new funding sources.

Between them, Chapel Hill’s and Orange County’s housing departments serve more than 900 households, with another 2,000 or so on their waiting lists. Neither has accepted new clients for years.

A huge challenge is finding housing that fits, said Tara Fikes, the county’s director of Housing, Human Relations and Community Development. Most families need three- and four-bedroom units, which the county lacks, she said.

The county’s successes also are to blame, officials said. As the quality of life, schools and regional opportunities attract more people, there will be fewer vacancies, increasing the cost for what’s left.

As a result, more people are spending up to half their income on housing built 30 or more years ago that isn’t always safe or energy-efficient. When those aging complexes are sold and renovated, the rent also goes up, pricing out lower-income tenants.

The simple answer is to build more housing, but the county’s decades-old rules limit town growth, so there’s limited land left and it’s expensive. The cost, coupled with often complicated and time-consuming rules and procedures, makes affordable housing unprofitable, developers said.

North Carolina law also limits how local governments can respond. Rent control is prohibited, although Chapel Hill and Carrboro can require developers to make some for-sale homes affordable or pay the town money to support housing programs and groups that help working families find homes.

Most local housing programs are aimed at those earning up to 80 percent of the area’s median income, or $68,700 for a family of four living in Orange County. That means the programs serve families earning up to $54,950 a year.

New coalition

Government officials, nonprofit groups and housing advocates said there may be strength in numbers. Last spring, roughly a dozen nonprofit groups formed the Orange County Housing Coalition to tackle housing problems and potential solutions. The first project will be the Orange County Clearinghouse Network, a searchable affordable housing database that debuts July 1.

“As issues arise, we are trying to work together to speak with one voice and to have more impact,” said Jamie Rohe, Orange County’s homeless programs coordinator and a coalition member.

Rohe’s office works with other groups to help chronically homeless individuals and families, many of whom haven’t had a stable home for decades and may suffer from physical or mental disabilities. Fifteen people have gotten homes in the last two years, she said.

County officials also could include urban needs in a planned update of the five-year Consolidated Plan for Housing and Community Development Programs, required for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds.

An ongoing discussion about how to bring sewer service to the Rogers Road community could provide a foundation for future collaboration in the town’s rural buffers. The sewer lines could put development pressure on the historically black community just north of Chapel Hill, but it also could prepare for the future development of affordable housing, a school and other projects on the government-owned Greene tract nearby.

The county first needs to keep the affordable housing it has and make it easier to find, officials said. That includes “very affordable” mobile home options, Orange County Board of Commissioners Chairman Barry Jacobs said.

The county already has home improvement and repair programs for older residents, and second mortgage assistance for people in danger of losing their homes. Older adults, low-income residents and veterans also can take advantage of property tax discounts, called homestead exclusions.

“We can’t rightly consider ourselves a progressive community as long as we fail to address the needs of those among our neighbors who cannot adequately take care of themselves. Most often, these are the most vulnerable among us – the very young and old, the disabled, the ill,” Jacobs said.

In Chapel Hill, the Town Council heard 24 short- and long-term recommendations in October from the Mayor’s Committee on Affordable Rental Housing. The list ranges from pursuing federal tax credits to creating a land bank and simplifying the approval process for housing projects.

Stancil said it will be important to assign a town staff member to guide the strategies.

Money could be hard to come by, officials said. The last voter-approved bond, in 2001, allocated $4 million to affordable housing. Another bond has been mentioned, but Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said there may not be immediate support for the taxes necessary to pay for it.

“When we approve new economic development proposals, we are attempting to reduce our property tax reliance on our residential home owners. When we explore creative ways to finance projects, we are working to avoid tax rate increases. Over time, these efforts and more, including those directly related to housing projects, are ways to keep what affordability we have in Carrboro, for example, in place,” she said.

Another option is partnering with nonprofit agencies, private developers or even UNC, officials said. Chapel Hill’s council approved selling in November a roughly 10-acre, town-owned parcel on Legion Road for $100. The Raleigh nonprofit housing developer, DHIC Inc., is seeking a state grant to help build 140 senior and family apartments.

In rejecting the sale, council member Matt Czajkowski questioned the decision to essentially give away $2 million worth of land without much discussion when the town has other financial needs.

Stancil said it will add to the Ephesus Church-Fordham Boulevard area’s existing affordable housing. A renovation of The Park at Chapel Hill (formerly Colony Apartments) would create another 60 to 80 affordable units, he said.

Critics are quick to piont out, however, that the complex has 198 affordably priced apartments now.

Carrboro also is looking at how to leverage town-owned land, make land-use rules more flexible and encourage developers to build more affordable housing. The aldermen also have talked about “unbundling” parking from new housing projects to reduce the cost. Bundling systems charge tenants less rent if they don’t need a parking space.

In Hillsborough, the town’s Board of Commissioners accepted its first affordable housing payment last year from the 233-unit Forest Ridge development. The developer will pay $240,000 toward local affordable housing projects.

Hillsborough also has approved an affordable townhome project in the Waterstone community off Old N.C. 86.

Carrboro Alderwoman Michelle Johnson, who was arrested in last summer’s Moral Monday protests in Raleigh, said the public also can help by donating to local nonprofits, volunteering and pressing lawmakers for change.

“Attend a Moral Monday rally, protest, write letters to the legislators and organize to get people elected that will represent the people and democracy. We can work in community, growing our food, sharing when we have enough, living in co-housing communities, and we can learn to live with less,” she said.


Grubb: 919-932-8746

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