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The Daily Tar Heel

Town -- Help Tenants Help Themselves

But imagine making minimum wage working in Chapel Hill. Paychecks barely allow you to buy groceries. That's a reality facing many Americans -- and it can be a harsh reality in Chapel Hill, where the cost of living is exorbitant.

In today's dollars, the average incomes of the poorest working Americans have not changed much since 1970. It hovers just below the $12,000 per year mark. The value of the minimum wage has been on a steady decline during the last 30 years, dipping to about $5.15 an hour based on the Bureau of Labor statistics.

Those numbers make it nearly impossible to live in Chapel Hill earning much less than a well-paid professional's salary. The average house sold in Chapel Hill went for a little more than $311,000 last year. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $763.

That's where public housing comes in. While public housing has a bad rap for breeding crime and drug use, and although it was vilified during the Republican's welfare reforms in 1996, it is a lifesaver for millions of Americans. It is useful as a policy tool -- even here. There are 336 households in public housing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, residing in 13 complexes. And there are still 148 people on the waiting list.

Increasing affordable housing and helping middle- and low-income people call Chapel Hill "home" has always been a goal of the Chapel Hill Town Council. Last week, it made a step in the right direction -- albeit a small one.

The Town Council unanimously passed a resolution that establishes flat rents for families living in public housing units. In accordance with regulations set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, public housing agencies must establish flat rents based on the reasonable market value of similar private housing units in the area instead of basing rent on how much the tenant makes, and Chapel Hill complied.

The idea is that flat rents allow people to save more of their income since pay increases do not translate into higher rent. The more people are able to save, the faster they are able to leave public housing and get their own place. Under the HUD rules, however, public housing families can still opt to pay rental rates based on income.

While the new federal guidelines look good on paper, they don't translate well around here. Sure, basing public housing rent on market value would work wonders in Durham, or even Raleigh. People would pay reasonable rates and be able to save up more of their paychecks.

But market values are so overpriced in Chapel Hill and Carrboro because of the University that this program will not go far in moving people out of public housing. In most cases, the market value of the apartment would be higher than the tenants' income-based rent.

In fact, the change will only immediately affect five families in a positive way! Don't get me wrong, the change by the Town Council was a necessity. However, if the town wants to move more people out of public housing, different means are necessary.

Housing advocates say the best policy is to promote programs already out there. Also, there are a myriad of local, state and federal programs, ranging from job education to childcare subsidies, which could help move people off public assistance. Most times, it's not a matter of laziness among those on the dole. They do not know all of their options. Helping people help themselves is the best form of public assistance we can offer.

Columnist Jonathan Chaney can be reached at

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