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The Daily Tar Heel

Editorial: UNC Facilities Services workers should be able to afford Chapel Hill

Protestors demand $20/hr and free parking for UNC housekeepers outside of South Building on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

Almost 80 percent of UNC Facilities Services employees are burdened by Orange County housing costs, according to The Daily Tar Heel's analysis of Facilities Services salary data compared to the average housing costs in the county.

About 37 percent of these employees make less than a living wage in the Durham-Chapel Hill area, which is $17.32 an hour for one adult with no children.

In other words, hundreds of Facilities Services workers are priced out of living in Chapel Hill — not to mention others who may earn more than a living wage but choose to live outside Chapel Hill in favor of lower-cost areas. 

In this horrible irony, a large fraction of the University’s essential workers are excluded from partaking in the benefits of the very community that relies so heavily on their contributions. 

This spatial mismatch, the gap between where jobs are located and where people live, threatens the livelihood of our Facilities Services employees, as it can result in high unemployment and extended joblessness.

It also means many workers commute and pay for parking daily, making the journey from home to work a costly one. A daytime parking pass for workers making less than $32,000 annually costs between $453 and $596 per year, which is another expensive financial burden on already low wages.

The spatial mismatch is largely due to the lack of affordable housing in Chapel Hill, which has led workers such as housekeepers to call for higher pay as they cannot afford local rent.

This shortage of affordable housing and livable wages is even more alarming given that Facilities Services is undergoing a “high volume of staff vacancies,” according to its website. How can we expect employees to want these positions if they can’t afford to work and live here?

Without affordable housing, the burden faced by our essential workers is only exacerbated. Despite Chapel Hill's efforts to address racial and economic barriers to adequate housing, Facility Services workers still struggle to support themselves, with miserly pay raises being nothing more than "minor jokes" that provide little relief to struggling employees. 

In the past, the University has increased housekeeping wages, but the most recent increase in December 2022 only amounted to a 90-cent raise and came about after extensive advocacy by organizations such as The Workers Union at UNC and the Campus Y.

Another miniscule wage raise will not improve things. In fact, anything short of a large wage increase — in terms of thousands to tens of thousands of dollars more a year — would be a drop in the bucket for employees to afford housing in the area. 

But even wage increases are solutions aimed at addressing the symptoms instead of the root cause — which is an affordable housing crisis.

To truly address the issue at hand, Chapel Hill needs more affordable housing options to offset the aforementioned spatial mismatch. However the Chapel Hill Town Council approved a comprehensive affordable housing plan at a meeting this month that requests $10 million annually from the Town for the next five years to support the goal of developing 900 new homes and preserving 400 homes.

Admittedly, adding enough affordable housing is easier said than done, as exemplified by the uproar surrounding a June rezoning ordinance aimed at allowing more affordable housing. 

UNC could also do its part by increasing the affordable housing supply. For example, it could renovate the abandoned Odum Village instead of moving forward with demolition efforts. These apartment buildings were the main housing option for married students until 2005, and they last housed students during the 2015-16 academic year. 

Given that the apartments' namesake, Howard W. Odum, studied the effects of racism and poverty on income in the South, it would seem more fitting in Odum's legacy to repurpose the area for adequate housing options and even free parking for workers. 

Residents of Chapel Hill should welcome efforts to increase affordable housing in the area. While this town's history is unique, it is far more important that our essential workers are able to live in it. It boils down to real human needs versus aesthetic and historical arguments against affordable housing.

Facilities Services employees are valuable to our campus and community. The dedication they put into keeping UNC a top institution is vital. But the care our workers have for this school should not be a prerequisite for living here and rather, a reason there needs to be a serious change.

Considering the enormity of the housing crisis and the need to fill Facilities Services staff vacancies, this change needs to happen soon. 


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