Storrow 2013? UNC SBP Hopefuls Struggle with Town Relations

On Monday night, the UNC Young Democrats hosted one of the first candidate forums for this year’s crop of Student Body President hopefuls.

As is somewhat customary at the Young Democrats forums, one of the questions asked was about local politics here in Chapel Hill. All four candidates responded to that question by saying they supported Chapel Hill Town Councilmember Lee Storrow in 2013.

The problem with that answer is that Storrow wasn’t up for re-election in 2013. Elected in 2011, his term will be up in 2015.

It’s troubling that none of the SBP hopefuls knew that, and also troubling that they didn’t know the names of any of the other seven Town Council members. How can an SBP be an effective advocate for students without a basic understanding of the Town of Chapel Hill’s government?

A cursory glance through the platforms of this year’s candidates shows that candidates either completely forget to mention town-gown relations, or only vaguely talk about “increasing communication” with town officials. Rather, as is fairly standard for these platforms, the focus is almost exclusively on expanding student services - but why? Most students never use the kinds of services SBP candidates promise to provide, and most of these ideas never come to fruition anyway. A truly effective Student Body President could the position to advocate to make students’ lives better as Chapel Hill residents - and make Chapel Hill a better college town for future generations of students to come.

Students make up a considerable part of Chapel Hill’s population. They have a unique set of concerns and issues that affect them, and a vision for what Chapel Hill can be that is perhaps in conflict with what older town residents may want. Too often, the perspective of young people is left out of the discourse in our town, despite the fact that one-fifth (20.7%) of Chapel Hill residents are between the ages of 20 and 24 alone.

Source: 2013 American Community Survey

And this 20.7% figure doesn’t capture the full number of students who live in Chapel Hill, either. The true percentage is certainly higher. According to UNC’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, there were 29,127 students enrolled for fall 2013. Certainly, some of these students live in Carrboro, Durham, and other places, but most of them probably live within the Town of Chapel Hill, meaning that in all likelihood, about a third of Chapel Hill residents are students.

Source: UNC-Chapel Hill Office of Institutional Research and Assessment

There are a number of issues in town that directly affect students, and an effective SBP should be able to advocate for students on each of those issues. Right now, students have been facing eviction because they’re in violation of the town’s 4-unrelated-people-per-house policy. Some students may be aware that they’re living in violation of the law, but many likely don’t. Rather than punishing the landlords and rental companies who offer 5- and 6-bedroom houses for rent at $600+ per bedroom, the town’s policy punishes the students who rent and just want the freedom of living off-campus with a few of their friends. I think that’s problematic, and an effective SBP would advocate for a policy change and engage meaningfully with the town on the issue.

The town’s parking policy for the Northside and Pine Knolls neighborhoods has also affected students nearly exclusively. Student awareness of that policy wasn’t widespread when it went into effect, and if students don’t like the policy, then an effective SBP should be talking with town officials to find a way to make it less burdensome on students, or to find alternative ways to address the multifaceted concerns that affect the Northside and Pine Knolls neighborhoods where students and longtime residents live together.

An effective SBP would also be forward-thinking enough to advocate for development in Chapel Hill that will make it a better college town for generations to come. Rents have increased and increased and increased over the past several years in part because Chapel Hill has done little to expand the housing supply even as demand for housing in Chapel Hill has increased. Students have borne much of that burden as the per-bedroom average rent for a bedroom within walking distance of campus has risen to $650 or more per month. Lux Apartments and Shortbread Lofts will help increase the supply of housing, but two new luxury student housing projects still aren’t enough to meet the demand that has driven rents up, nor do they provide affordable housing for students who can’t afford luxury-level rents.

In today’s Daily Tar Heel, there’s an article about overcrowding on buses. Students are the backbone of Chapel Hill Transit’s ridership. While the town may be doing all it can to improve transit service, having a dedicated student voice in the conversation would help facilitate improved service, and would lead to greater trust and less confusion about what is being done to meet service demand between town officials and the UNC student community.

These are just a handful of real issues that directly affect a majority of students. An effective SBP could turn his or her role into an advocate that creates real change for students during their years in Chapel Hill rather than promising student services that no one asked for and that will never become realities anyway. Having a real, dedicated student advocate would enhance our town dialogue on a range of issues, and improve the quality of life in Chapel Hill for all residents.

UNC and UNC students are central to Chapel Hill in every way imaginable. Even as individual students come and go, the student population itself will remain - and that’s why it’s so important for each generation of students to be active and engaged with the Town of Chapel Hill, so that our town can move forward in a positive direction and provide an even better college experience for the many generations of students to come. It’s past time that UNC’s Student Body Presidents (and student government representatives generally) refocused their effort and energy on issues that really matter to everyday students, and to the future our town.

We don’t really do bylines here at OP, but for full disclosure, Travis Crayton is a May 2013 graduate of UNC who continues to reside in Chapel Hill. He was a member of UNC’s Student Congress as an undergraduate.



So, I would agree that whoever the SBP is, there is room to improve the level of engagement Student Government has with the town. That being said, it is a bit more complicated. The tone with which I've heard some community members discuss the student population in Chapel Hill leaves a lot to be desired. I've found too many who simply view students as an annoyance, yet expect to University to continue to help fund projects in town. Do you like your free busses, Chapel HIll? Thank a student. Ultimately it's a two way street and it's a lot to ask students, who are only in town for 4 years, to dive headfirst into Town politics. Especailly if when they participate, their opinions are marginalized due to their age.  The Town should work with the new Student Gov to help provide avenues for students to get involved, and help make the process accessible for anyone who wants to help make Chapel Hill a better place. 

"also troubling that they didn’t know the names of any of the other seven Town Council members"

If just one didn't know it, I'd be inclined to think they didn't do their homework. If they all didn't know any council members beyond Storrow, then it seems more systematic and I think it speaks to a need for the other folks running for council to reach out more proactively to the students, in addition to the SBP candidates needing to do their homework.With the General Assembly's attacks on higher education, on youth voting, on UNC specifically, and on so many other issues, there are a lot of levels of government that could benefit from increased student participation, attention, and from hearing student voices. But it's also important to recognize that students often don't have the same level of privilege and power as many of the adults who do interface with government more often.So while I think student-government relations should be a two way street, I see more of the burden as falling government side of the equation.

The relationship between the student body and town issues is what first got me involved with local politics almost a decade ago now, and I wish I had something better to show for my thinking about how to improve that relationship in all the time since. But frankly, it's a tough nut to crack. The only thing I'm sure of is that there's no single answer to the problem that's going to make things better. It's going to take proactive efforts at communication from a whole lot of people in a whole lot of roles. (Just for some context, I wrote about SBP candidates' platforms and their relationship to town issues here on OP six years ago.)

And here's my own open letter to UNC students written nine years ago: excerpt:

There can be no doubt that students are impacted by town policies (transit, sidewalks, housing, downtown businesses, University development, just to start.).
But many people forget how very much students have to offer the rest of the town. Students created what would later become the municipal bus system in in the 1970's. Students have brought many important social causes to the community's attention, from apartheid and sweatshops far away, to housekeepers and cafeteria workers and the civil rights movement here at home.
All of this points to the value of student leadership in our community, and I believe strongly that students have a lot to contribute to the town, BUT... what do we have to do to actually get you involved? Why do we keep hearing from the Daily Tarheel and and student government that the town needs to make more room for them, when students rarely even apply for advisory boards or even come to Town Council meetings?


We did have one school board meeting last year with a good # of students.  It was clearly an assignment for some class , but I'd rather they be there once even if coerced.And a shout-out to Eric Houck, education policy professor at UNC,  for inviting school board members to speak to his class on occasion.  I was really impressed by the deep thinking of the questions from students on local and state ed issues.

That's a cool way to get engagement. I think there is a knowledge and inertia barrier to overcome so having incentives to create that first interaction to break the ice seems like a great idea. I'm also a fan of shortening advisory board terms to 1 or 2 years rather than something longer that makes it impossible for a student to complete it during their tenure. And online applications would be a plus too, because what 19 year old does a lot of faxing or mailing these days?There are also a lot of adults who have never been to a council meeting either who could probably use some kind of enticement to get involved. I'd wager there are more non-student Chapel Hill residents living in city limits who haven't been to a council meeting than there are students who haven't.I wonder if a school board meeting or town council meeting were held in a classroom or auditorium on campus and well-advertised, if people would show up? Even if it was just an annual or semi-annual thing.

"I'd wager there are more non-student Chapel Hill residents living in city limits who haven't been to a council meeting than there are students who haven't."  At times the bulk of  attendees at Council meeting are members of UNC classes (just as James mentioned for School Board meetings).  Other times there can be a room full of folks on an issue -- often the same folks as we've seen before, and sometimes not. I believe the census figures would show there are at least 35,000 more non-students (UNC) than students in Chapel Hill.  Ed Harrison


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