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Column: Millionaires are trying to buy Chapel Hill’s election. Here's why.

Average rent for an apartment in Chapel Hill is rising

DTH Data Visualization

There's $120,000 worth of millionaire Political Action Committee money coming into Chapel Hill politics, Triangle Blog Blog first reported. And if you ask me, they absolutely do not want you voting in the election. 

Some local millionaires are gearing up to spend four times what outgoing mayor Pam Hemminger spent in her last election. This election is fundamentally about housing and whether Chapel Hill is an affordable, vibrant and diverse college town — or a wealthy exclave for retired millionaires. 

Chapel Hill, like the rest of the Triangle, is in the midst of a housing shortage and rent crisis. According to data obtained from Apartment List, the average monthly price of a one-bedroom rental in Chapel Hill increased by 40 percent over the past five years, from $850 in February 2017 to $1,200 in January 2023.

The impacts of this are severe for many. For example, UNC’s minimum stipend for Ph.D. students is just $20,000 for a nine-month period. This means if they want to actually live in Chapel Hill, they would have less than $3,000 left for other expenses. UNC housekeepers who make under $17 an hour are similarly locked out of living in the community. 

Housing impacts everything, and according to 2021's Projected Housing Needs study, Chapel Hill needs to build 485 new units a year to keep up with the current growth rate. 

From 2010 to 2019, the Town built an average of 357 per year. As a start, Town staff presented a proposal to change the Town's zoning code to allow building up to quadplexes on single-family lots. This was ultimately changed to just allowing duplexes.   

Town staff received negative feedback on this, from what was frankly a sham engagement survey. Any community engagement survey that ignores the nearly 20,000 undergraduate students that make up the lifeblood of the Town, is not one that should be taken seriously.  

Mayoral candidate and Town Council member Adam Searing was one of three who voted against the Housing Choices amendment which passed in June. A week prior, Searing announced he was running for Mayor. 

Searing claimed his opposition to the housing choice amendment was out of a concern for the amendment's ability to generate affordable housing, and he said that the people impacted wouldn't be those living in “fancy neighborhoods” or the “historic district."

According to an email from an organizer of the PAC which was acquired by Triangle Blog Blog, Searing was pushed to run for mayor by the same group of millionaires pledging to spend $120,000 to run a "get out the vote" operation, targeting single-family homeowners for the express purpose of getting Searing and his allies elected this fall. 

To see it for yourself, take a look at the “say no to rezoning" and other signs supporting Searing and his allies.

According to the petition on the Town website, there's opposition in Chapel Hill's richest neighborhoods that Searing told me he wasn’t concerned about.

Mayor Hemminger, council members Michael Parker and Tai Huynh are not running for reelection, and with Jess Anderson running for mayor against Searing, this election is going to bring turnover on the council.  

The candidates have essentially fractured along the housing issue. Anderson, and council candidates, Theodore Nollert, Melissa McCullough, Erik Valera and Jon Mitchell are running on campaigns to continue the work started with the housing choices amendment. 

This isn’t going to be the kind of highly partisan election you’re used to, the pro and anti-housing sides are using similar rhetoric – they all talk about affordable housing.

Searing says he is not anti-development. He voted for multiple new housing developments, and according to his website, he voted for over $9 million of public investment in hundreds of units worth of affordable housing. His commitment to parks and greenspace is admirable, though I think prioritizing parks over homes is poor policy.  

He also said on his website that his campaign does not coordinate with PACs. But this does not mean anything, because like every candidate, Searing is legally barred from coordinating with PACs. 

Regardless, this PAC was started by the same people who encouraged him to run, for the purpose of getting Adam and his allies elected and then overturning the Housing Choices amendment. 

Searing and his campaign are 'not coordinating' with these millionaire NIMBYs. But if elected he would be in their pocket. 

@samadran

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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