Whether it’s housing, transportation or affordability, the candidates for Town Council agree Chapel Hill and its partners have a lot of work ahead to meet the challenges.
Incumbent Council members Ed Harrison and Maria Palmer are competing with challengers Allen Buansi, Hongbin Gu, Rachel Schaevitz, Carl Schuler and Karen Stegman for four open seats. Two challengers are guaranteed to win the Nov. 7 election, since Council members George Cianciolo and Sally Greene decided against another run for office.
Early voting in this year’s Orange County municipal and Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board races runs through Saturday, Nov. 4.
Here’s what the Town Council candidates would do about what they consider to be the town’s biggest challenges:
Allen Buansi: The shortage of affordable housing in Chapel Hill is a longstanding challenge. We have the added challenge that the vast majority of available land in Chapel Hill has been built upon. Our Town Council has been devoting more resources to affordability, and we will need more creative approaches, too.
I will give steady support to Empowerment Inc., the Community Home Trust, CASA, Habitat for Humanity and other organizations dedicated to providing affordable housing. These organizations have appropriately recognized the need for affordable rental units (not just houses), and I support these efforts.
I will look to consistently enforce the 15 percent set-aside provision of the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance. The Town Council needs to work with developers to serve the housing needs of everyone, including low/moderate-income families and senior citizens. Unfortunately, there is no single, easy fix. We need a holistic approach, which includes continuing to make affordable housing a budget priority, investing in our Affordable Housing Fund and the Affordable Housing Development Reserve, and exploring creative possibilities such as subsidized housing, workforce housing and tiny homes.
Hongbin Gu: Affordability is the biggest challenge. If elected to the Town Council, I will promote an affordable housing task force that will bring federal, state and local partners together, including nonprofit organizations of Habitat for Humanity, Community Housing Trust, CASA, State Employees Credit Union, major employers of UNC and UNC Healthcare, as well as major developers in our region. We need to evaluate the current affordable housing plan the town developed this year and make sure we make progress and see through tangible results at the end. We need a feasible timetable to reach milestones along the way. We need to put the affordable housing within a more comprehensive plan for affordability. It will include reliable and connected public transit, bike lanes and pedestrian paths to move people around, and integrate marketplaces, pharmacies and local schools in mixed-use communities.
Ed Harrison: I’m selecting the biggest challenge I’ve been working on for 16 years: in terms of both money and time, improving mobility for people to get around Chapel Hill and in and out of it. I started seeing many years ago that it took an amazingly long time, and ever more money, to get our kind of transportation project funded and built – one that gets people around without cars.
The state Department of Transportation owns all or part of 40 streets here, essentially all but two of the important ones, and they are happy for us to ask permission to spend our own funds to make them anything besides speedways for cars and trucks. They no longer offer any money at all for free-standing sidewalk and bikespace construction, so that the Old Durham-Chapel Hill Road widening only for those uses (which was first created 24 years ago at my petitioning), which is finally happening, would never get funded again.
Meeting this expensive challenge is essential to our quality of life.
Maria Palmer: Our biggest challenge is affordability. I am addressing it in every vote I cast by supporting multimodal transportation (including free public transit, connected greenways and bikeways), by supporting affordable housing construction through partnerships and dedicated funds, by supporting families through recreational programming that is accessible and inexpensive, and by partnering with nonprofits to provide the many services our low-income residents need, from childhood nutrition to community clinics. We can do more, and I look for new ideas to address affordability every day.
Rachel Schaevitz: Affordability is the most critical challenge facing our community. Housing is one piece of this equation, that is best addressed by developing a strategic plan with benchmarks and short- and long-term goals in partnership with other local stakeholders such as Orange County, Carrboro, UNC, and UNC Health, so that we can determine our investment based on our shared needs and resources. Other ways we can improve the overall affordability of our town include:
▪ Building a robust network of public transit options (e.g., bus rapid transit) that allow people to get where they need to go without a car.
▪ Supporting retail and grocery options for a variety of income levels.
▪ Investing in solar and other renewable energies to begin bringing down our utility costs as a community.
▪ Providing more affordable after-school care and summer camp options through the Department of Parks and Recreation
▪ Advocating for all Chapel Hill employers to pay living wages.
▪ Creating vocational training options in town that could provide excellent well-paying jobs to many of our young people, so they can live productive lives right here in Chapel Hill.
Carl Schuler: A challenge for the town is community. As a community, the town needs to continue its work on affordable housing options so as to champion inclusivity and diversity. To address this perennial issue, I will work towards increasing the amount of affordable housing stock – both rentals and owner-occupied residences. I would also ensure that affordable residences under homeowner associations have monthly HOA fees closely associate with affordable housing criteria.
Karen Stegman: Affordable housing is a top priority for Chapel Hill. More than 40 percent of all renters and 12 percent of all homeowners in Chapel Hill are severely cost-burdened, paying more than half their total income on housing. The town must use every available tool to address the crisis in housing affordability at all income levels.
Recognizing the urgent need for affordable rental units, the town should strengthen its partnerships, both with our housing nonprofits, including the Community Home Trust, Jackson Center, CASA, Habitat and EmPOWERment, as well as with our major employers, including UNC, UNC Health Care, and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. Providing affordable housing options that allow their employees to live in town is both good for employers and in everyone’s best interest. The town should also prioritize providing land to be used for development of affordable units.
Also, we should build on our existing Inclusionary Housing ordinance and policies by re-examining them for possible revisions that would maximize their effectiveness in delivering actual units on the ground, as opposed to payments-in-lieu. While such payments are sometimes appropriate and while the money contributes to the town’s overall available funds to invest in housing, we most need the housing units added to our affordable housing stock.