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How much does Orange County's Board of Commissioners want to invest in affordable housing? Not enough, according to local activists.

On Tuesday, June 20, with little comment and no fanfare, the Orange County Board of Commissioners approved $122.4 million in appropriations for the 2000-2001 fiscal year. Buried deep in the allocations was a small bone for local housing activists: $250,000 to support the development efforts of area nonprofit housing groups like Habitat for Humanity, EmPOWERment, Inc., and Orange Community Housing Corporation (OCHC).

The allocation fell far short of the one penny of the property-tax rate that the activists, collectively known as ABODE, had sought, an amount estimated at $715,000. These funds were to be accumulated by permanently dedicating one penny of every $100 of a homeowner's property assessment to affordable housing. Under the plan, the owner of a $100,000 home would pay $10.

Though the commissioners had expressed their support for the principle of expanding affordable housing in the tight, excruciatingly expensive Orange County land market, their instinct for caution won the day.

Susan Levy, the executive director of Orange County's chapter of Habitat for Humanity, sounded a common reaction, "It's disappointing, given the broad level of support this proposal had."

In addition to the array of activists and political leaders (including Chapel Hill and Carrboro mayors Rosemary Waldorf and Mike Nelson) promoting the housing trust fund, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, a stronghold of local business interests, had thrown its weight behind the proposal.

The reasoning was simple, according to director Joel Harper. "The No. 1 concern behind our support was that our members can't find and keep good help. This is not an affordable community. We need people who can afford to live and work here, and support our businesses."

Robert Dowling, executive director of OCHC, pointed to the average closing price of an Orange County home in 1999: $219,000--just short of the $250,000 allocated by the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night. The board's funds will subsidize about 14 homes, Dowling said. While this money is certainly helpful, he added, it fails to provide the effective resource that ABODE members say is needed to make the county an affordable place for low- and middle-income workers.

The average closing price of an Orange County home dwarfs the prices commanded in neighboring Wake and Durham counties: $175,000 and $147,000, respectively. Part of the discrepancy is a consequence of Orange County's smaller quantity of available land, acreage which is further reduced by the rural buffer around Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Dowling, who does not support developing the rural buffer, said that housing prices are driven up further by the lengthy development-approval process.

In this stratospheric market, it is all but impossible for people of modest means to purchase a home without institutional support. One fortunate person is Beth Flora, a 43-year-old Carrboro woman. In March, 1999, Flora, with the help of EmPOWERment, was able to purchase a modest house in an inconspicuous working-class neighborhood of two- and three-bedroom cinder-block homes. She purchased the home from EmPOWERment for a sum well below $100,000.

"I was really disappointed [in the board's decision]. The problem is getting worse all the time. I don't like to see this area become so exclusive. It's driving out all the regular people."

A day after the vote, Flora proudly showed off the extensive repairs performed by EmPOWERment, which included covering the cinder block with slate-blue vinyl siding, refurbished plumbing and electricity, new carpeting and shrubs.

Flora also pointed to a more subtle benefit of the work of local housing nonprofits. She noted that the refurbished houses, including hers, had previously fallen into serious disrepair, and had paved the way for increased crime.

"Not only are these groups providing affordable housing, but they're renovating neighborhoods. They're having a far-reaching effect. [The county commissioners] should be grateful--they should be willing to provide more funding."

Flora is a woman who should be able to afford a home without undue difficulty. She's a single woman with a bookkeeping job, and she has no children to feed. She has the resources to commute from outside the area, but prefers the convenience and cultural opportunities of Carrboro. Acknowledging this, she notes that several of her neighbors lack cars, and are consequently dependent on public transportation. "These people have to live near work. Even if they have cars, what if the car breaks down and they can't afford to fix it?"

But the Board of Commissioners doesn't seem to share Flora's sense of urgency. Rather than giving money to nonprofits and allowing them to run with it, the commissioners prefer a top-down approach. But comprehensive approaches take time--and they require the formation of task forces to study all sides of the issue, which is what the commissioners have done.

The board is also reluctant to go solo on the issue. A few days before the vote, Chair Moses Carey said that the commissioners were "all in support of affordable housing, but we want to see other groups get involved." He cited local businesses, the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and, in particular, the university.

Carey endorsed the prevailing view of the board that a comprehensive plan must be drawn up before the county will commit substantial resources to the work of affordable housing.

The commissioners have been willing to fund large projects, including a new OCHC development on Legion Road, near the Omni Europa. The board released $140,000 from the $1.8 million affordable-housing bond issue that Orange County voters approved in 1997. OCHC is using the money to build 14 townhouses that will sell for $85,000 to $98,000. But the bulk of the $1.6 million project's funding is drawn from the town of Chapel Hill and federal pass-through money.

Groundbreaking isn't until next month, and completion is scheduled for March, 2001, but nine of the two- and three-bedroom homes have already been purchased.

Stephen Halkiotis is one commissioner who dissents from the take-it-slow approach. The lone member to support the full penny proposal, Halkiotis said that in the initial budget meetings, the plan was to distribute exactly nothing to the development of affordable housing. "Over the course of three or four meetings, we increased the funding," until consensus finally stalled at $250,000.

Halkiotis described the community as a ladder, remarking that the commissioners are paying too much attention to the needs of those on the higher rungs. A ladder with neglected lower rungs, he concluded, "will have no means for the people on the bottom to climb up."

EmPOWERment executive director Myles Presler shared Halkiotis' impatience. "It's not the community's fault that the commission doesn't have a plan. Let's support worthwhile projects while we develop long-range plans."

Presler's group renovates and builds single-family homes and low-income apartment buildings, and sells them at below- market prices to first-time homeowners. EmPOWERment also offers five-week home-buying courses.

"All of us [housing groups] are fighting for land and homes in an open market that is out of control," Presler continued. "If we value living in a diverse community, let's invest in it. If we don't, well, let's become Cary."

Presler said that assistance from local government is essential because federal support is dwindling, which means that his group has to rely more heavily on foundations and individual donors. He expects such cuts to continue in the not-unlikely event of a George W. Bush administration.

Habitat's Levy said that having money readily available in a housing trust fund would give her organization more flexibility in pursuing development opportunities.

"It's very difficult to fit federal money into a development schedule. We're in competition with the for-profit sector. Land is at such a premium, and if we can't act relatively quickly to opportunities as they arise, we can't compete.

"If we had [a housing fund], our dreams could become a little more real. We build about 10 houses a year and it's always a stretch for us. If we had this money, we could be more ambitious and creative," Levy said.

With this year's battle for the housing trust fund now over, all people in the debate expect the issue to heat up again next year.

The Chamber of Commerce's Harper emphasized that the Chamber sees the housing fund as an initial palliative step in the search for a comprehensive solution. He called for "a greater regulatory environment, which will ensure that lots of affordable homes will be built. If we don't do something, prices will not go up two times, or even three times, but x to the third."

When asked if he thought the political will existed to address the housing shortage aggressively, Harper paused before replying, "I'm not so sure. But the issue won't go away." EndBlock

Download ABODE's report on housing in Orange County at www.angelfire.com/nc2/ ABODE.

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