This week's Indy Week features this article, documenting how affordable housing, parks, and senior services have so far been left out of the proposed 2016 Orange County bond referendum.
When Orange County commissioners approved plans this year for a $125 million school bond vote in 2016, it passed with little public input, scant public outreach and one absent county commissioner. Now some county residents are calling for commissioners to reconsider their priorities, particularly their decision to exclude public-housing funding from the deal.
At this point, the Orange County Board of Commissioners, in a 4 to 2 votes, voted to only include funds for schools that will go before the voters in 2016.
Commissioner Mark Dorosin, an outspoken affordable-housing advocate, was absent from an April meeting in which Rich and Commissioner Barry Jacobs voted against limiting the bond to school spending. Instead, a majority—Chairman Earl McKee and commissioners Mia Burroughs, Bernadette Pelissier and Renee Price—ignored pleas to bundle housing, parks and senior-services funds in the bond, citing the extent of the school needs.
Some funds have been dog-eared for affordable housing by the board, but not enough given our community needs.
"The decision not to include affordable housing gives the appearance that while we talk passionately about this issue, that's all we do," Dorosin says. "It's a mistake if we don't make the kind of commitment a bond represents. I think it's time to think more boldly and innovatively as a community about affordable housing."
Commissioners have allocated $1 million in the 2015–'16 budget for affordable-housing initiatives, but some board members and housing leaders say that seems a flimsy commitment to one of the county's most pressing needs. The county has one of the most notoriously expensive housing markets in North Carolina.
Orange County's median home price in 2012 was more than $319,000. That's higher than any county in the Triangle, which is already among the priciest regions in North Carolina. The median rental is $872, higher than any other in the region. And more than half of the county's renters spend greater than 35 percent of their income on lodging, surpassing the affordable-housing threshold of 30 percent set by most housing experts.
The problem is likely to only get worse. Federal funding for housing needs in the county has been halved in the last decade—from about $750,000 in 2008 to a little over $300,000 this year—due to budget squabbling, says Susan Levy, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Orange County.
The Board could still go back and add other components to the bond referendum, but at this point the four who voted for school funding only seem committed to maintaining that.
There is still one more chance for commissioners to change their minds. They are expected to approve a resolution this fall to finalize the bond. But a majority of the board, including McKee, is committed to limiting the bond to schools.
"From my perspective, the needs of the infrastructure in the school system are so great we are not going to be able to address all of those needs even with a $125 million bond," McKee says.
Jacobs says a $75 million county bond package in 2001 was preceded by public engagement meetings, polling and rigorous debate. In the end, leaders agreed to divide the money between schools, housing, parks and senior needs.
"These kinds of chronic problems and enduring challenges don't go away," Jacobs said. "If we're committed to certain principles, then we need to commit resources and give the public the opportunity to participate."
What do you think? Should this bond only cover schools? What else would you want to see the bond funds pay for?