Chapel Hill leaders leaning towards $15 million in affordable housing in fall referendum


By Adam Powell

Chapel Hill town leaders continue to push ahead with plans to present a bond referendum to voters this November. The referendum would provide the town with more than $40 million in additional funding for a wide range of long-desired projects in the coming years.

At a Friday, May 3 board work session, members of the council listened as town manager Chris Blue laid out the objectives and goals of town leadership with this year’s proposed bond issuance.

Time is of the essence for Chapel Hill to specify its directives and aims with the bond referendum if the ballot measure is to reach voters later this fall.

“In order to get a referendum on the ballot this November, we really need to come to a consensus about what bond orders will be on the ballot and in what amounts, and to figure those orders in amounts and craft a successful education campaign,” Blue explained to the council. “We really need some broad agreement about the projects that could be realized with these dollars. We have limited resources, we have shared values, and we have a lot of critical needs.”

The current plan is for Chapel Hill to issue bond funds in three phases: an initial issuance of approximately $13.5 million in 2025, an additional issuance of $10-15 million in 2027, and a final issuance of approximately $10 to $15 million in 2029.

At the May 3 session, Blue presented three different scenarios for how Chapel Hill could spend the funds.

In the initial scenario, top priorities for the initial 2025 funding include $2 million for a proposed Fordham Drive side path, along with $700,000 for Tier 1 sidewalks $4 million for affordable housing, specifically directed at the Legion Road and Partner Projects.

But by far, the biggest proposal in the initial bond issuance scenario would be $7.5 million, which would be directed towards funding a new fire station for Chapel Hill. This would be the fourth fire station built for the Chapel Hill Fire Department and has long been a much-needed and desired goal of that agency.

“A lot of fire stations are in desperate need of long overdue repairs, renovations, and rebuilding,” the town manager explained. “Addressing that critical need will improve public safety and employee morale.”

In the second scenario, staff provided a revised recommendation that kept the allocations for the Fordham side path and fire station while increasing the affordable housing bond order to $15 million and reducing the allocations for public facilities, streets, and sidewalks by $2.5 million.

Blue’s third scenario called for $20 million of the $44 million bond allocation to be used for affordable housing.

“We heard from you that you’d like to see a scenario that allocated $20 million to affordable housing,” Blue said. “In order to increase the additional affordable housing allocation by an additional $5 million, we would reduce streets and sidewalks by $1.5 million. We’ve reduced the recreation facilities order by $1.5 million and the open space greenways order by $2 million.”

“This [scenario] would be the largest of three allocations for affordable housing,” Blue said. “This would commit almost half of the bond amount to one bond order.”

Blue recommended that Chapel Hill allocate $15 million of the bond funds for affordable housing while reducing funding for public facilities, streets, and sidewalks.

Blue added that the initial issuance of $13.5 million for 2025 is scheduled to be allocated for the Fordham side path ($2 million), Tier 1 sidewalks ($700,000), Fire Station 4 ($7.5 million), and affordable tax credits for Legion Road Low Income Housing project ($4 million).

As it stands, it appears that at least five council members—Mayor Jessica Anderson, Mellissa McCullough, Amy Ryan, Adam Searing, and Elizabeth Sharp—are prepared to move forward with a bond that will include $15 million in funding for affordable housing.

When staff presented a bond proposal to the council back on April 15, only $10 million of the bond monies were allocated to affordable housing. A new proposal presented to the council on April 26 increased the allocation to $15 million, of which $2.5 million would come from proposed public facilities upgrades, and another $2.5 million from proposed street and sidewalk improvements

Despite the increase to $15 million, multiple board members, including Paris Miller-Foushee and Karen Stegman, want $20 million allocated to affordable housing and did not appear prepared to vote for the current bond proposal as it stands without that particular amount set aside.

“There are so many projects that our partners are ready to go on and will be delayed or missed opportunities if we don’t allocate more money and have it available when needed,” said Stegman. “Our public housing is an embarrassment as far as keeping up the quality and the dignity of our residents who live here. It’s just been very frustrating for me. I feel kind of played a little bit.”

“With all due respect, I reiterate the sentiment that Karen just stated,” added council member Paris Miller-Foushee. “I was very disappointed to see that initial $10 million [allocated for affordable housing] and then it moved up to $15 [million]. Our attention was going to really center on how much this council is willing to put towards affordable housing in this bond.”

“There is merit for all of what we want to do. And I’m not disputing that all of it has merit. We have a lot of needs,” Miller-Foushee added. “In this moment, housing is front and center. I want to be clear on where I stand. I’m still at $20 million.”

Other board members did not seem as driven on the affordable housing question, as they focused on some of the town’s other pressing needs, such as the new fire station and a wide range of municipal improvements, including substantial upgrades to the town’s recreation and parks facilities.

“I think certainly for some council members, it [affordable housing] is clearly their highest and prime priority,” said council member Amy Ryan. “I think, speaking for me, it’s important, but I am trying to look across all of the categories. So there isn’t one of these that is more important to me, or less important to me. Some need more money. Some need less, and we have to balance it all. But I don’t think this is just a housing meeting or just a housing bond. This is about town needs and town interests and the broader interests of our community.”

“What I keep reminding myself is that voting for $15 over $20 [million] Isn’t voting against affordable housing,” added fellow council member Elizabeth Sharp. “We are voting for millions and millions of dollars in affordable housing funding. But it’s also not enough for streets and sidewalks, Parks and Rec, or open space and greenways. It’s not enough for any of the categories. And some of those really do tip into equity issues for me if we don’t pay attention to keeping them up and developing them.”

“My particular interest, among many, is the Parks and Rec,” added council member Adam Searing. “And being the one category where we reduced it a couple of million in order to pay for renovations to our rented building for our police station – that’s fine. I understand it illustrates the competing needs. I think where I am is I think we should be putting more money into our parks and recreation and open space. I think we’re creating a two-tier system of recreation in the community where if you can afford to join, you know, a private club, you get to be at the waterslide and the pool. But if you can’t, then you’re having to go travel to another town.”

Council member Theo Nollert, who seemed to be in support of more than $15 million for affordable housing, proposed a compromise, in which $18 million would be set aside for affordable housing, taking a proposed $2 million out of the Recreation and Parks allocation. That proposal did not gain traction with his colleagues, however.

“We know it’s unpopular to spend on the fire station. We have a responsibility to do it anyway,” Nollert said. “And that is what is making so much pain for us right now – that if we did not have to spend on that category at that amount, we could have parks and connectivity and more for affordable housing. But we cannot responsibly make that choice, is my understanding. I say that as a guy who did not know anything about municipal budgets 18 months ago. We heard from staff that we cannot responsibly make that choice.”

“I pushed on it hard at the first meeting. And the next day somebody died in a fire, so I felt pretty bad after that line of inquiry,” Nollert continued. “These are responsibilities that we have to meet, and it is painful for us to meet them.”

Council member Camille Berry was willing to commit to Nollert’s compromise at $17.5 million partially, but she wished to keep an additional $500,000 in the referendum for recreation and parks. While Berry and Nollert did not commit to the $15 million allocation for affordable housing at the May 3 session, they do not seem to be as committed as Miller-Foushee and Stegman to the $20 million figure.

Blue added in his presentation to town leaders that Chapel Hill could feasibly ask voters in 2028 to dedicate an additional $10 to $20 million to affordable housing and numerous other big-ticket municipal projects.

The council will take up the matter once again at its meeting on the evening of Wednesday, May 15.

Adam Powell is a reporter on local news and sports and an education communications professional. A 2001 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Powell has served as managing editor of multiple local publications, including the Mebane Enterprise, News of Orange County and The public information officer for Rockingham County Schools in Eden, N.C., Powell is the author of four books and lives in Mebane with his wife and two children. This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocal

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