Keeping Orange County affordable to call ‘home’

Aug. 07, 2014 @ 07:56 AM

We came to Orange County in the autumn of 1978. Though we lived in Durham for a few years, we moved back to Chapel Hill in the mid-’80s and have called it home ever since. We made a choice to live in this community.

This year, I am proud to serve as the 2014 chair of the Orange County Housing Authority, a relatively new community board appointed by the county commissioners. We provide citizen oversight of the County’s Housing Choice Voucher program, commonly known as “Section 8.” Just under 600 families in this community are the direct beneficiaries of this rental subsidy, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The program brings about $3.5 million into our community every year.

That support is vital for those families, but did you know that you benefit from it too? The effect on you and your family or your business may be indirect, but it’s right in front of you. Keeping housing affordable leads directly to spending money in the Orange County economy.

Because their housing is affordable, voucher holders can spend their limited income in a more diverse, balanced way. They can shop for back-to-school clothes for the kids, go to a concert or eat in a restaurant occasionally and manage the cost of their healthcare.

If participants cannot locate housing that accepts an HCV voucher and they have to leave the program, they may remain in Orange County, they may live in the same apartment.  If they have to spend 50-60 percent of their income on their rent, it will not be spent in restaurants, in retail shops or entertainment venues. For elderly and disabled citizens, medicines may have to last longer, putting their health at risk.

Disproportionate rent burden for low-income families has a negative ripple effect in the local economy – it hurts all of us in lost tax revenues and sales to local businesses.

Who are these people? They are people who work all over the county and serve you directly every day. They are hospital staff, restaurant workers, entrepreneurs, artists, first responders (police, fire and emergency response), bus drivers, home health aides, daycare workers, public school and University support staff.  Our community needs these people in order to thrive and we are losing our capacity to make housing affordable for them.

The mayors of Carrboro and Chapel Hill have made clear that they are committed to supporting the stability of affordable housing and the awareness of the Housing Choice Voucher Program. We are grateful for their leadership in this effort.

That said, the local governments are limited in what they can do in holding down pricing in the rental housing market. Mayor Kleinschmidt correctly points to state laws that prohibit measures that would be considered “rent control.” 

There is direct action available to all of us. If you own a property that you’d like to make available to rent, you may be eligible to do so through the Housing Choice Voucher Program. We need more participation from local landlords, providing a strong portfolio of choices for voucher holders. We need local government incentives and new ideas. Speak up. Demand solutions to this long term problem.

We will be announcing information sessions (sponsored by the housing authority) for prospective landlords sometime in September. Meanwhile, keep your mind and your heart open to the knock on the door that comes from a voucher holder looking for a place for his or her family to live. These families choose to live here. They work here, spend their money here and they vote here. We depend on them for many vital services and they’re counting on us to keep Orange County an affordable place to call home.

Jean Bolduc is chairwoman of the Orange County Housing Authority.