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Column: It’s always been about housing

A sign intended to protest against the Chapel Hill Town Council’s rezoning efforts stands in front of a home on Hillsborough Street, Chapel Hill on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

There’s an election happening – right now. 

Early voting in Orange County began on Thursday and will run through 3 p.m. on Nov. 4. Election day is Nov. 7 and, once the results are finalized, Chapel Hill will have a new mayor and at least three new council members. 

In a predominately progressive town like Chapel Hill, it can be hard to tell local candidates apart. President Joe Biden got nearly 75 percent of the vote in Orange County. 

This is deep blue territory, in more ways than one. 

This election is more than a partisan issue, though — there are multiple issues at play. Mayoral candidate and current town council member Adam Searing and his slate have made parks a big part of their campaigns. Erik Valera is an experienced community leader who would give a much-needed voice to Chapel Hill’s Hispanic community. Mellisa McCollough would bring decades of environmental experience through her work with the Environmental Protection Agency, and Elizabeth Sharp’s business experience could help keep Franklin Street vibrant and bustling. 

Considering their ideological similarities, it seems that housing policy is the only major difference between a Searing or Jess Anderson victory in next month's mayoral race.

Housing issues in Chapel Hill are complicated. Affordable housing for the lowest-income residents isn’t profitable for developers without town subsidies. Studies in the town show that we need to be building 485 units per year to keep up with growth. Hitting that mark will – best-case scenario – keep housing costs where they are. To actually reduce costs, you need a housing surplus. 

Creating that in Chapel Hill should require two things. First, is UNC stepping up and building more student housing? One building the size of Hinton James Residence Hall houses nearly 1,000 people. Even if UNC builds more apartment-style housing like Taylor Hall, that's 247 students taken out of the Chapel Hill rental market. The second is making it easier to build housing of any kind. 

That's the point of June's land use management ordinance (LUMO) amendments: allowing more forms of housing to be built in more places, without needing approval from the Town. 

Mayoral candidate Jess Anderson and town council candidates Theodore Nollert, Amy Ryan, Jon Mitchell, Valera and McCullough would all represent a continuation of the policies the Town has been implementing on housing for the last few years. That’s not to say they are a monolith. 

Council member Ryan, for example, voted against the LUMO text amendments. But generally, they are in favor of the solutions that would make housing easier to build, more accessible and more affordable in Chapel Hill. 

In the last two years, the Town has approved thousands of new housing units, passed the LUMO amendments, adopted the Complete Communities Strategy to align the Town’s housing policy with its transportation and environmental goals and adopted an affordable housing investment plan. Anderson and Ryan worked on these as council members, and Mitchell, Valera and Nollert are all members of the Town's Planning Commission. 

Searing and the town council candidates aligned with him – Renuka Soll, Elizabeth Sharp, Breckany Eckhardt and David Adams – all say they support affordable housing and more growth. I’m inclined to believe their hearts are in the right place, but the rhetoric and policy they support just don’t match up. 

Take the Legion property, for example. It’s a 36.2-acre piece of Town property. The Town is planning on building a park on it and using nine acres to build affordable housing for Chapel Hill’s lowest-income residents.

Searing and his slate oppose this plan because they want the entire property to be a park. When Soll was asked about whether she would support a bond for affordable housing within the next two years, she said she would prefer the next bond be for new park projects. 

Considering this, there's also the shocking reality that the entire slate was recruited to run for the express purpose of overturning the LUMO text amendments passed last year. 

The Searing slate talks a lot about green space and the environment. But the policies they support mean more people driving long distances from Chatham and Durham counties into town for work, as well as more clear-cutting of trees and destruction of green spaces for single-family housing and sprawl. It's an attempt to preserve the town in amber, while the rest of the state moves on without us. 

The reality is this: The Searing slate has made it clear they support parks and splash pads over people and housing. That would be fine and dandy if the town wasn’t in a housing crisis. The Searing slate is made up of intelligent, accomplished people, but they aren’t the leadership we need. 

Anderson, Ryan, Nollert, Valera, McCullough and Mitchell have shown a commitment to tackling our biggest crisis head-on. Let's give them the opportunity to keep fighting for an equitable Chapel Hill. 


@dthopinion |

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