Guest Column by Ellie Kinnaird
Our community has a severe shortage of affordable rental housing as well as a large homeless population — one of the largest in the state in proportion to our population. There were 153 homeless people in Orange County in 2018, a 13-percent increase from 2017!
Even though we have solutions to these seemingly intractable problems, they are still with us. Why?
Because it is essentially a political problem. To state it baldly, it is a NIMBY problem.
We all talk a good game, but when the chips are down, no one seems to want low-income or formerly homeless living next to them.
Let’s examine the history.
Let’s start with the homeless shelter on MLK Blvd. When it was proposed, the neighbors objected to placing the shelter on the property of the United Church because they were already “burdened” with Freedom House, the Women’s Shelter and the Southern Human Services Building.
They argued that the proposed facility was too close to playgrounds, soccer fields and baseball fields, three preschools and two afterschool programs, raising anxieties, among other things, about homeless sex offenders. (Convicted sex offenders cannot be within 300 feet of any place where children are by law.)
To meet those challenges, the town and church worked out a “Good Neighbor Plan” that prohibits any change from the current shelter program and limits the number of people at the shelter on cold nights. Unfortunately, those terms prohibit any change in the future in the function of the shelter or building any other facilities that provide services to poor (predominately black) people in the area.
That agreement is now obstructing a change of the shelter from long-term transition to a more effective short-term shelter that gets the homeless into permanent housing more quickly.
Another example: a Habit For Humanity project called Weaver Grove has met strong neighborhood resistance such that the first proposal forced Habitat to redraw and scale down its plan, thus housing fewer people.
When Habitat came back with that proposal, there was the neighborhood again finding any excuse possible to persuade the town to abandon the project. First it was storm water run-off onto their property. That was solved, so another excuse was raised: traffic. Neighbors complained there was already a traffic problem with crowded roads during commuting hours.
Let’s analyze that: there are 200 homes in this neighborhood, most likely with two cars per household and one for the 16-year-old to drive to school. Few Habitat people own a car, relying instead on the bus system. So, who is creating the traffic problem? Not Habitat folks. But certainly those three cars commuting from the neighborhood every day. In addition, many Habitat residents work evening and night shifts, further reducing commuting cars on Weaver Dairy and Sunrise Roads.
Then there is the Greene Tract, which has lain fallow for 30 years because it lies in three jurisdictions that couldn’t come together with a plan to develop it — until this year. Sixty-seven acres out of 164 acres were proposed for affordable housing that would go a long way to solve our housing crisis. But it was not to be.
Orange County and Carrboro agreed to the plan and after all those years and hard negotiations, Chapel Hill at the last minute rejected the agreement in favor of an alternative to be decided at some time in the future. Apparently 30 years is not enough time.
What happened? All those people who enjoyed walking and mountain biking in the beautiful forest they considered to be their own personal space didn’t want to relinquish that luxury and sabotaged the plan, even, apparently at the expense of housing for those less fortunate.
There was a great deal of anger that night at that hearing, and much discouragement. Starting over from a good plan and not knowing how or when it will be solved was heart-breaking and a betrayal of leadership. Can we not relinquish a walk in the woods so a homeless child doesn’t spend the night sleeping in the back seat of a car?
We also know how to solve the homeless problem, according to the Partnership To End Homelessness. The program is called “Rapid Rehousing” and the organization has identified what it would take to be successful.
There are 10 “gaps” that, if filled, can eliminate the homeless population in Orange County. The cost in the jurisdiction’s budgets is proportionally not that high. The proposals range from income-based rental units to 24-hour bathrooms to memorial service funds to a day center with services. Funding is available through the dedicated penny on the tax dollar from Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County.
So how many more years until we realize we can house all the people in our towns and county? And how many more years until we realize that what we have is not a homeless problem, but a political will problem?
Let’s come together to do what is right and what we know we can do.
Ellie Kinnaird served as a state senator for Orange County for 16 years. She is also a former mayor of Carrboro.