The Town of Chapel Hill recently released its Building Integrated Communities project report, which details the Town’s findings from listening sessions with immigrant and refugee residents.
The project is facilitated by The Latino Migration Project at UNC. It is part of a statewide initiative which seeks to engage local governments and community groups with foreign-born residents to improve relationships, enhance communication and promote newcomers’ civic participation and leadership in local government.
Since 2017, the Town has researched which issues need to be addressed through meetings with 160 immigrant and refugee residents as well as analysis of interviews and data.
Based on this information, the Chapel Hill Town Council identified five key issues affecting immigrant and refugee populations: public transportation, housing, public safety and law enforcement, leadership and government communication.
Sarah Viñas, Chapel Hill’s BIC project manager, said many of the recommendations made by Chapel Hill’s immigrant and refugee residents were consistent, despite the diversity of the actual residents.
Council member Nancy Oates said the listening sessions are an important way to learn how local government and community partners can best support Chapel Hill’s diverse residents.
“I think one of the things that I see as having a healthy, functioning town is to be able to have a lot more diversity and not gear ourselves towards one particular demographic," she said, "So in order to do that, we’ve got to be able to make room for people with different cultures because my observation is pretty much everyone wants a good life for themselves and their families."
Among Chapel Hill residents, 16.5 percent were born outside of the United States, the majority of which were born in Asia or Latin America.
The median household income for foreign-born residents of Chapel Hill is $6,172 higher than it is for those born in the United States – but when this statistic is broken down by citizenship status, the disparity becomes starker. Citizens born outside the United States have a median household income of $106,250, while non-citizen foreign-born residents have a median household income of $46,045.
Viñas said this income and education disparity creates a housing divide.
"We have extremely educated, upper-income foreign-born residents who tend to come from countries like China and India and Korea, and then we have Latinx residents, who we know from the data tend to be lower-income, don’t have as much formal education and are maybe working in the service industry or other low-wage industries," she said. "So we have a really diverse immigrant and refugee community."
She said the Town is working with mobile home residents along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to learn the residents' household demographics and housing preferences, so the Town can develop strategies in the event that development should force these residents to relocate.
Viñas said there are no formal development applications at this time, and the $10 million Affordable Housing Bond Referendum that passed earlier this month will facilitate affordable housing initiatives.
Oates said it is important that these initiatives encourage long-term residence in Chapel Hill.
“We’ve approved a lot of apartments, but if people see apartments just as something temporary and not what they want to stay in, then they’re going to look elsewhere for where they want to permanently settle in," she said.
She said this remoteness of public housing and mobile homes and the late-night shifts of many immigrants and refugee workers contribute to the Town’s need to expand bus routes as well as increase late-night and weekend service.
Council member Michael Parker said the Town has to conduct a thorough analysis of cost implications before creating an action plan for public transportation improvements.
Viñas said many foreign-born residents spoke about communication barriers, a complaint which was common among all ethnic and socioeconomic distinctions.
"A big focus for us is looking at that issue, and we plan on developing a language access plan, which will help improve the Town’s communications, and in the meantime, we’ve already been doing some things multilingually and testing them out and have gotten a positive response on that,” she said.
Parker said the council members will continue working on BIC initiatives, but they don't have a clear timeline at the moment.
“I think our Town staff with the support of the council will continue working on them and trying to make Chapel Hill a better place for everybody to live, but certainly our foreign-born communities,” he said.
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