The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce took its annual report in a different direction Tuesday, breaking into groups to discuss affordable housing, economic development, education and transportation.
The annual State of the Community address, now in its ninth year, looks at how Orange County is faring in a number of categories, from population growth and racial diversity to home prices, commuting and jobs.
The county experienced its lowest annual population growth since the 1930s – 13.2 percent – between 2000 and 2010, chamber President Aaron Nelson said.
Even though Orange County grew by just over 1 percent to 140,402 residents in 2014, he said, much of it remains sparsely populated. There are 336 people per square mile, data shows, compared with 936 per square mile in Durham County and 1,079 per square mile in Wake County.
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Carrboro and Chapel Hill were the most densely populated areas of the county – with 3,108 people and 2,710 people, respectively, per square mile – but still had fewer residents than other college towns report, he said.
Nelson challenged attendees to consider the data and ask themselves what’s working and what more could be done. Here are some data and responses on affordable housing and economic development:
Orange County’s population increase largely can be attributed to births, then international immigration, Nelson said. Four big reasons people give for moving here: safety and security, public schools, restaurants and entertainment, and parks and recreation options.
That desire pushed average closing prices on housing up this year to $342,172 – the highest point since 2012, although shy of 2007 prices. Chatham saw its biggest surge, peaking above Orange County for the first time last year with an average closing cost of $359,213, Nelson said. But lower property taxes still made Chatham County a more affordable option for most, he said.
About 63 percent of residents rent housing in Carrboro, followed by 51 percent in Chapel Hill, 42 percent in Hillsborough, and 40 percent across the rest of Orange County, he said. Just over 7,000 rented housing for $750 to $1,000 a month, he said, followed by 5,419 paying up to $1,500 a month.
Average closing prices on housing in Orange County rose this year to $342,172 – the highest point since 2012, although shy of 2007 prices.
Roughly 6,000 residents were considered extremely low income in 2011-13 – earning less than $20,300 a year – and less housing was affordable to them, Nelson said. Roughly 20 percent of residents had severe housing problems, from a lack of kitchen or plumbing facilities to overcrowding and housing that exceeded their means.
▪ Orange County’s aging properties and high taxes, combined with some residents’ limited incomes, are making it harder for people to stay and find housing that is affordable, safe and secure.
▪ Governments and nonprofits have been proactive, setting aside money for affordable housing and continuing to talk about possible solutions.
▪ The county may need to grow more dense or consider easing restrictions that have kept water and sewer out of unincorporated areas; development costs and policies also make it hard to keep housing prices down
▪ Access to parks, transportation, affordable child care and quality of life amenities also are important
▪ UNC, UNC Hospitals and OWASA need to be part of the conversation, and it needs to include housing options, such as accessory homes and housing above work and retail spaces
Orange County had the state’s highest personal income per person in 2014 at $52,339 a year, Nelson said, followed by Chatham and Wake counties, but retail sales continue to lag behind surrounding counties. The biggest retail holes were general merchandise and motor vehicle parts and dealers.
Roughly 33 percent of Chapel Hill residents reported going outside town to shop a few times a week, a survey shows, while another 24 percent said they shop outside the town limits at least once a week.
The silver lining is taxable sales are going up, Nelson said. The county reported collecting nearly $71 million in sales taxes last year. That was distributed countywide: 62 percent to Orange County, 25 percent to Chapel Hill, 9 percent to Carrboro and 3 percent to Hillsborough. Mebane and Durham get a small cut, he said.
They are staying. They are being incubated. We need to work harder to find these folks homes in our community.
Aaron Nelson, Chamber of Commerce president
The county also is making strides in entrepreneurship and innovation, data shows, and had the biggest increase in tourism spending statewide last year with $181.65 million. UNC also pulled in big dollars for research funding, reporting $792.7 million in 2014, or almost twice its state funding.
The university also contributes through its 549 patents issued since 2000 and the 95 startups that have become companies, he said.
“They are staying. They are being incubated,” Nelson said. “We need to work harder to find these folks homes in our community.”
▪ Large, flexible office space is the biggest hurdle to recruiting and keeping companies
▪ The community needs clear vision: Is it going to be affluent bedroom community or a place with diverse jobs, incomes and housing
▪ The university, environment and highly educated residents are assets
▪ The county needs a strategy for competing with the Triangle region and for where it fits into that picture
▪ The county needs to tell community’s story better and give businesses reliable information and timelines