Chapel Hill: Opinion

Jamie Rohe: Living in Orange County: Not bad if you can afford it

Jamie Rohe
Jamie Rohe

I love living in Orange County, don’t you?

Top-notch schools and great public services like recycling, the animal shelter and libraries. There are loads of entertainment and recreational activities, our towns are becoming ever more vibrant and culturally interesting and eating out increasingly delectable. Traffic’s usually not too bad, nature abounds, community members are relatively engaged and tolerant… the list goes on.

Sure it’s great – if you can afford it.

But how about all the people who would love to live here but can’t afford to: our teachers, firefighters and law enforcement officers, the people who care for our children and parents or work in our restaurants and shops. Seniors whose fixed incomes force them to forgo necessary home repairs or move to cheaper areas. Young families who want to buy a house but can’t find one they can afford – the median cost of a house in Orange County is close to $275,000 and $375,000 in Chapel Hill! People living on disability income, domestic violence victims seeking shelter, people experiencing homelessness, people who’ve lost their jobs or are under-employed.

Many of these people teach us, protect us, nurture us, feed us, and serve us in so many essential ways. Many have raised families in Orange County and have been part of the fabric of our community for years or generations. They bring racial, ethnic and economic diversity into our lives and teach us about the nature and value of people who are different than us. Wouldn’t it be great if they could be our neighbors too?

Consider the wait lists for affordable housing in Orange County. The Housing Choice Voucher program (Section 8) which keeps rents affordable for low-income households has over 1,800 qualified applicants on its four to five-year wait list – and hasn’t accepted new applicants for nearly four years! There are typically 300 people a year waiting for a Chapel Hill public housing unit. Habitat for Humanity can serve less than half its eligible applicants and CASA – which provides housing for people who are very poor, disabled and often homeless – currently has 114 people waiting for an apartment in Orange County.

By “affordable” we mean housing that costs lower-income people 30 percent or less of their gross household income – the definition used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Various programs serve households earning 80 percent, 60 percent or 30 percent or less of Area Median Income which is around $65,700 in Orange County. To make it real, the most a family of four can earn to qualify for these programs is $52,550; most households served earn far less.

Last spring 11 local housing organizations banded together to create the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition. Working in partnership we hope to be more effective in designing and advocating for effective and sustainable solutions to increasing affordable housing opportunities. Our 2014 goals include:

• Obtaining dedicated sources of local funding for the development and preservation of affordable housing;

• Promoting effective local government policies and processes that facilitate affordable housing development;

• Supporting housing development and preservation by for-profit and non-profit developers and landlords; and

• Educating the community about affordable housing issues and our collective work.

We are a great community but can be better by becoming more diverse and inclusive. It’s hard and will take planning, partnership, political will, and most importantly, public support. You can make a difference by telling your elected leaders to support policies and funding that create more affordable housing opportunities and by volunteering with and donating to the members of the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition.

Go to the website of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness ( to find links to OCAHC member agencies; we have become a regular contributor to the Chapel Hill News so look for future articles.

Submitted by Jamie Rohe on behalf of the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition