The Candidates Respond: Affordable Housing

Nine candidates are running for the Orange County Board of Commissioners in the upcoming Democratic primary election on March 15.

  • At Large (1 seat): Andy Cagle, Matt Hughes, Mark Marcoplos
  • District 1 (2 seats): Jamezetta Bedford, Mark Dorosin, Gary Kahn, Penny Rich
  • District 2 (1 seat): Bonnie Hauser, Renee Price

OrangePolitics asked the candidates to answer five questions, and all provided responses. We're posting the candidates' responses to one question every Monday. We previously posted the candidates’ answers about the county-schools relationship, the 2016 bond referendum, poverty, and economic development. Today, we post the responses to the fifth question:

With rising home prices, rents, and property taxes, how should the county promote the development of more affordable housing and prevent displacement of lower-income residents?

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Andy Cagle

We should work to lessen the complicated procedures that involve affordable housing.

All the cost saving benefits and adjustments needed in regard to affordable housing can be accomplished from within the County.  Homebuilders and realtors would welcome the variety of housing inventory, and this would fill a void that has long been gone from the housing industry.

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Matt Hughes

As a county we must recognize that making Orange County affordable is paramount for keeping our community socio-economically diverse. Lower-income residents are suffering because of apartment complexes that are no longer accepting Housing Choice Vouchers (e.g. Section 8), and the cost of rentals, particularly in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, are not affordable for many, especially for those living in single-earner households. Additionally, we know that the student housing market at the southern end of the county really skews the housing landscape, in that developers focus on creating student oriented housing, instead of housing for lower-income earners as a whole. This not only occurs in new apartment development, but when existing homeowners rent out their homes: homes that would have been available for rent by lower-income residents are often now taken by students. I believe we have to address this problem from multiple standpoints.

We are already working with partners in this area, including Habitat, Community Home Trust, EmPOWERment, the Jackson Center, etc. to increase the supply of affordable housing. I believe we should continue to support these partnerships in order to address the current housing crisis. To assist these partnerships, the county can proactively increase the supply of affordable housing by making county-owned land, such as the Greene Tract, available for construction of affordable rentals, to include apartments and duplexes. I believe the county should work with the municipalities to make it attractive for developers to build these affordable units. We also need to focus on workforce housing, to allow those people working within our county to live here as well instead of being forced to commute to lower-priced housing communities.

However, affordable housing is only one part of a larger issue: an affordable community. We need jobs that pay well, retail that is reasonable to moderate income earners, and transportation hubs that service those without personal transportation, if we are to address all of the issues of affordability.

The price of a home just over the Chatham County line is cheaper, and often very desirable. We see that scenario personified in the example of a model home: in one county a home is far cheaper than the same model in Orange County. If we want the diverse community we say we value, then we need to make a concerted effort to make homes more affordable for buyers. No one knows better than I, a millennial who would like to buy a home in our community, that affordability can be a struggle within Orange County. This is something we must address.

Again, we need to increase our revenues from sales taxes and commercial property by recruiting businesses to Orange County.  To do so would encourage our residents to spend dollars in our local economy. Think of the funding we could provide to our local schools if we stopped sending all of our sales taxes to retail businesses in Alamance and Durham Counties.

We also have to acknowledge that our restrictive land use regulations, and our expensive and slow permitting process all contributes to our unaffordability. Decisions made decades ago are still in place. It is time to have a broad based community conversation on this issue and I would advocate and spearhead this directive.

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Mark Marcoplos

We must accelerate our affordable housing efforts. The County, Chapel Hill, & Carrboro jointly own a 169 acre parcel of land called the Greene tract which is between the Rogers Road community and Weaver dairy Extension. We should immediately begin making collaborative plans for some affordable housing projects there, since land costs would not be an issue. Let’s create an experimental transitional, tiny home village for homeless people. We are likely to learn what many studies have concluded – that it is less expensive for a community to house a homeless person than to use tax money for the various social services that person requires without a home. Successful transitions to an independent life for homeless people begin with having a home.

We should get more bang-for-the-buck by building smaller homes and rentals with smaller units. Quick thought – instead of Orange High students building one 1700 sf affordable home per year, how about three 600 sf homes?

As a member of the Orange County Housing Authority, I know that the County is ramping up efforts to enlist more landlords in the Housing Choice Voucher program. We must keep focused on this.

We should have a county-level discussion about possibility owning and operating some public housing. Chapel Hill currently owns 335 units. This may be a way to increase housing stock and provide living wage jobs to those employed on these projects.

Preventing displacement of lower-income residents presents many challenges. Here are a couple of initiatives that could help:

  • Prohibit large-scale luxury developments in at-risk neighborhoods. These type of developments are known to cause displacement.
  • Senior homeowners often need help to stay in their homes and they are the most likely to sell and leave their communities. Often, the decision to sell is prompted by needed home repairs that are unaffordable for the elderly homeowner. We should create a fund for a senior home repair program.

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Jamezetta Bedford

If I knew “the answer” to this, I’d be making millions selling the solution to other communities across the nation!  That said, I met with Carrboro Alderwoman, Bethany Chaney, who works in this field and she has expertise and some ideas for us to draw upon.  Partnering with nonprofits with experience in affordable housing development is an option. For example, Chapel Hill plans to partner with nonprofit DHIC, to construct affordable apartments using federal tax credits for investors as administered by the NC Housing Finance Agency. The town is donating the land and Chapel Hill and the county provided low cost loans of about $300K.  The tax credits will generate about $7.2 million in financing.  These 80 apartments are for those with incomes at or below 60% of the local median income.  It’s a start, but the need is much greater.

The Seattle Times reports Jan 1, 2016 that cities and counties are partnering a low-interest loan program to lend to developers to buy land or existing apartments near transit stops that would be reserved and priced for people earning less than 80% of the area median income. It is expected that developers would also line up other funding sources such as the federal tax credits. This loan program is intended to pass the first hurdle of acquiring the land or existing apartments.  It is modeled on similar programs in Denver and the Bay Area.  I also think developing a locally funded rent subsidy program needs to be researched.  Another area of concern is the substandard quality of some existing rental units.  Could a low-interest loan program be used to help landlords make repairs while requiring that rents remain low?

Some states have senior citizen and disabled exemptions that reduces property taxes by 50% for those over age 65 and earning below some threshold such as $29,000 (NY). In NC those 65 years old or older, or who are totally disabled, and have income below $29,500 may apply for the Homestead Exclusion Program for a discount of $25,000 or 50% of the appraised value of your permanent residence plus the value of up to 1.0 acre of land, whichever is greater.  We can advocate for more significant tax relief or for the power for the county to have the right to adjust this, at the state level for homeowners, but this does not help renters.

The county is landbanking to have some land available for displaced mobile units.  That’s creative. We can review ordinances for any changes needed to consider allowing smaller homes that are currently classified as trailers. We need to do a literature search, ask our professional staff to investigate other communities’ work in this area, ask if the chambers can provide assistance with gathering this information, ask our residents and check in with our universities for their knowledge and research.  The towns, county and UNC need to collaborate as well on these solutions.

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Mark Dorosin

We are fortunate to have some outstanding affordable housing providers working in the county. However, even their best efforts do not adequately address the breadth of our housing challenges, including rental housing for very low-wealth residents, low-wealth seniors, and persons with disabilities.  We also need to more effectively explore the possibilities for manufactured housing and the challenges that residents of that housing now face.   Reaching these diverse communities necessarily requires additional and direct investment from the County, potentially through the provision of land or infrastructure.  The commissioners have set aside one million dollars in the Capital Investment Plan for land acquisition and land banking.  In addition, criteria for use of the anticipated bond funds should prioritize identified needs.  Housing development should also be coordinated with other anti-poverty efforts underway, including the Family Success Alliance, and mindful of other services necessary to provide our residents with the requisites of a decent life.  

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Gary Kahn

The county should work with developers and the towns to create subsidize housing  for the local low and middle income families and stop building housing for only the upper class.

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Penny Rich

This is not an easy problem to fix, and we are not alone. Affordable housing is a growing problem across America. Federal funding has been shrinking, and the Federal Government stopped investing in Public Housing in 1968. Landlords who do not readily accept Housing Choice vouchers because they can get higher rents by following federal guidelines exacerbate the problem.

As a result, we rely heavily on non-profits to provide housing for low-income residents. We must continue to support them through both land and dollars. Building and selling homes to people at 70% of area median income requires subsidy, and renting apartments for people in jeopardy of being homeless requires even more subsidy. The market is not providing inexpensive homes or apartments, because the land in our area is too expensive to do so. We have heard that we just need to tell developers that they have to build affordable housing. Unfortunately, there is no state or federal law that requires developers to do so. Instead, the municipalities and county need to partner with developers to achieve the outcomes needed to eliminate this crisis.

My solutions:

1. We need to review our land use ordinances and amend them to be more flexible in allowing cluster housing, Granny flats, and micro housing options. Along with this, we will need to re-visit the impact fee requirements. A micro house should not be paying the same impact fee as a 4000 square foot house.

2. In 2014, the BOCC began a fund, with a one million dollar commitment, that is specific to land banking. The fund is a safety net for mobile park home residence that will be displaced when the landowner sells the property. I propose we continue to add to this fund and expand the scope to land purchase and banking along transit corridors.

3. We should increase the total amount of public dollars spent on affordable housing. We currently spend $891,000 yearly. A resolution to move this number to 1 million passed in 2015. I think we need to do more. I propose that we begin with 1 million and raise that amount each year. I would invite our partners, Community Home Trust, Empowerment and Habitat for Humanity to help us formulate an appropriate increase based on future needs.

4. We should utilize the land we currently own to build housing. Orange County has pockets of land that we can build on, and we are partners with Chapel Hill and Carrboro on the Greene tract. I suggest we keep a large portion of the 104 acres open space and agree with the work of the Greene Tract Workgroup (2002) recommendations to jointly build affordable housing on 18 acres. I would expand this to workforce housing as well as some mixed-use development to support the residence with needed amenities.

5. It is vitally important that we partner with the municipalities on affordable housing efforts. Affordable housing and public transit go hand and hand. Lowering the cost of commuting by utilizing public transit can help families meet needs such as food and utilities. It is also better for lowering our carbon footprint as our population grows.

6. How do we pay for this? The 2016-17 budget will be the first for our new manager where she has complete control. Ms. Hammersley understands the BOCC’s desire to do more for our housing needs and will guide us through the budget recommending options from the General Funds and CIP (Capital Improvement Plan). One of our priorities identified at our 2016 retreat was to have measurable outcomes. I would like to come back to this question in the future with data showing how our efforts paid off, how many homes were built, how many families we helped and how our energy today will benefit our community tomorrow.

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Bonnie Hauser

I’d like to start with a map that shows locations in the county that are suitable for affordable housing and the kind of housing (low income, workforce, senior) that’s desired. Since most of the county is zoned one or two acre minimum, costs of land, permitting, roads, well and septic make housing unaffordable.

Areas of the county that are remote and lack access to transportation and services are probably not well-suited for affordable housing. Areas such as Efland, areas near schools, and the Green Tract (near the Rogers Road Community) have access to services and sewer infrastructure and could be excellent locations for affordable housing. Each area has a different demographic and community profile, and different housing needs. A good plan would clarify what kind of housing best fits the community.

With a map in hand, the county can begin to update zoning in designated areas to allow greater density and expedited permitting for affordable housing. These actions would greatly reduce development costs. In some cases, affordable housing may be achievable without a subsidy from the county. With good planning, the county can continue to protect farms, water quality and rural lifestyle from sprawl and incompatible development.

Gentrification and displacement is less of an issue in the unincorporated areas that the county controls. There are many suitable areas for development, and in many cases, well planned affordable housing will enrich communities. and move us all forward to creating inclusive, diverse communities.

With a plan for housing in areas with good schools, transportation and services that collectively make communities more affordable, Orange County can stay strong and remain a desirable place to live. In my opinion, community based solutions will be an important factor in Orange County’s success in the future.

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Renee Price

The cost of living in Orange County is becoming more burdensome for senior residents on fixed incomes, young families with limited earnings, and displaced workers with existing debts. This is unacceptable, particularly in an area also known for its affluence. I believe that every person deserves to be able to live in a decent and secure home.

One of the steps that the County should do to promote the development of more affordable homes is to coordinate efforts with the municipalities. Homes in an urban setting potentially offer more services at more affordable costs—i.e., city water and sewer, bus transit, proximity to jobs. At the same time, I maintain that people should have the option of living in rural or urban areas, and we should allow for the development of modest homes in the unincorporated areas—i.e., the countryside.

The County also should make a greater effort to encourage developers to build smaller, less expensive homes. We need to look at the appraised value of land, the cost of building and permitting fees, and other variables that affect the selling price or subsequent rental of a house, town home or apartment. Where can we offer special allowances or adjustments so that builders can increase our housing stock while also keeping their businesses profitable?

Finally, the County can seek more partnerships with nonprofit organizations that are in the housing business, both for rental and homeownership. Through partnerships, we should be able to implement creative financing to help retirees stay in their homes, secure vouchers for veterans and people with disabilities, and repair and rehabilitate older homes and housing complexes for families with children.

Various tools have been used across the nation for years to prevent the displacement of lower-wealth households and provide standard housing for households in need. Orange County has implemented some of these programs and should continue to take advantage of them while researching other potentialities—i.e., land trusts, sweat equity developments, housing cooperatives.


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