Chapel Hill: Opinion

Too many in Orange County spending too much on housing – Ted Vaden

Ted Vaden
Ted Vaden

When an Orange County group held an assembly on social justice last month, leaders hoped 300 people would turn out to show their support.

They were wrong. Nearly 500 people showed up at St. Thomas More Catholic Church to air their concerns about lack of affordable housing in Orange County and biased policing.

“I think what happened were the issues,” said Delores Bailey, executive director of Empowerment Inc., a housing nonprofit in Chapel Hill. “This is a good example of people who are affected by the shortage of affordable housing and policing feeling comfortable enough to come to a public place and talk about their issues.” Many were Latino.

Bailey and the Rev. Thomas Nixon, of St. Paul AME Church in Chapel Hill, are leaders of a community organizing group called Justice United that is seeking to address the affordable housing and police bias issues. (The two issues are so big that we’ll hold off on policing for a future column.)

In a wealthy county like Orange, housing prices may seem high but most of us can afford them. As the mushrooming of luxury condo and apartment buildings around town attests, there is plenty of new housing being provided. But not for the poor.

“There may be enough housing for students or people who work in RTP and drive back and forth,” Bailey said in an interview. “But for the people who bag your groceries or who are teaching assistants for your children, they cannot afford to live in Chapel Hill. It’s the reason our policemen and firefighters don’t live here.”

Orange County government recently completed an affordable housing plan that found a third of renters in the county spend more than half their income on rent. Half spend more than 30 percent, which is considered the upper threshold of affordability

“Orange County’s shortage of affordable housing has reached a crisis,” the report said. “Much of the housing in Orange County is not affordable to low- and moderate-income households and working families.”

In response, the county commissioners have placed on the Nov. 8 election ballot a $5 million bond referendum to increase the supply of affordable housing. The goal is to provide 1,000 new units over five years.

Bailey say $5 million would be nice but it’s “a drop in the bucket” compared to the need. The Affordable Housing Coalition, of which Empowerment is a part, estimates the cost at $13 million to address the total affordable housing shortage.

One initiative is being led by St. Paul AME. The church has bought nearly 21 acres off Rogers Road in north Chapel Hill to build a new St. Paul Village that would include 80 affordable housing units. The church has paid for the land and secured town approval for its master plan, which also includes a new church sanctuary.

But St. Paul doesn’t have the money to build the housing and is looking for partners, including the county and towns, private sector, local government, non-profits and, most importantly, UNC and UNC Hospitals. “Is there a way that we can all come to the table for the purpose of putting a dent in those 1,000 units?” Nixon asked. “Those 80 units will by no means liquidate the 1,000, but if we can get those 80 units built, that will be 80 units more than we have today.”

Justice United has put out feelers to UNC leaders to gauge interest, but so far without much response. “We need them to understand that this is a desperate situation and they are major players in this,” Bailey said. “What I would say is that it is not as much a priority to them as it is to us. It’s a priority to their employees, though.”

I touched base with some folks involved in real estate at the university and got a sense they are sensitive to the issue and would be responsive to requests for specific assistance. “You can definitely say that the health care system recognizes the need for more affordable housing in Orange County,” said Karen McCall, spokeswomanfor UNC Health Care. She noted that the hospital has supported the Orange Community Home Trust and Orange County Habitat for Humanity.

UNC also has demonstrated a commitment to affordable housing in a recent $3 million investment in “land banking” to keep properties in the historically African-American Northside community out of the hands of speculators and developers. The campus deliberately kept a low profile on that effort, though, out of concern that it would flag attention from conservative lawmakers in Raleigh on the lookout for university engagement in activities that might be considered “liberal.”

It says something about the times we live in that providing affordable housing to low-income people might be considered politically dangerous.

Ted Vaden, former editor of the Chapel Hill News, can be reached at