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Habitat for whom?

On the road to a more elitist Chapel Hill 

Habitat for whom?

Connect-the-dots may be a child's game, but in Chapel Hill, it's the adults who could use a primer. The town has been grappling with a number of divisive issues in recent months. Citizens have been lobbying, with varying results, to kill the Apple Chill Festival, restrict panhandling, move the homeless shelter away from downtown, cut bus service to Southern Village, and slash the number of Habitat for Humanity homes proposed for a tract off Sunrise Road near I-40. Despite major obstacles, residents who live south of town are still insisting that a new high school be located in their district.

The justifications they offer in support of their positions are often presented with great dramatic flair, even if the facts are a bit exaggerated or entirely false. "This once storybook town, known throughout the country as one of the most appealing towns to visit, let alone to live here, now has a begging Bum on almost every busy corner," wrote a former downtown business owner who wants to sweep panhandlers from the streets. "Fights, shootings, drugs, even killings are attributed to the Bum sector."

Sometimes, in good liberal fashion, the spin is altruistic--it's for their own good. The Habitat residents, as a petition filed by existing Sunrise-area homeowners at the June 9 Town Council meeting noted, would suffer harm by exposure to noise from the interstate. The shelter at the corner of Rosemary and Columbia streets offers homeless children no place to play.

Mostly, though, the arguments are presented in a manner that appeals to basic reason and logic. Apple Chill is overrun by rowdy out-of-towners and no longer benefits the community. Downtown businesses lose masses of customers who fear being accosted by aggressive beggars. Buses roaming the narrow streets in Southern Village pose a safety threat to the children. A cluster of 68 Habitat houses and townhomes will conflict with the character of the existing Sunrise neighborhoods and bring down property values.

The logic, however, tends to break down in the face of additional information. Some college students who have never been to a city with a population larger than 15,000 are no doubt deterred from wandering around town alone by the prospect of unwanted solicitations from the tattered, mostly black panhandlers who have been a town fixture for years. A few have said so, and their comments have been embroidered in bold on anti-panhandling battle flags. But the much-discussed struggles of downtown retailers--more than usual went under last year--are far more attributable to the latest economic downturn coupled with absurdly inflated rents (many of which exceed those in Southpoint and Meadowmont) for deteriorating storefronts. Silk Road Tea House is gone because tea couldn't pay the bills, not because its Boho crowd couldn't hack the hobos.

The attempt to curtail bus service in Southern Village lacked even the anecdotal excuses. Prospective homebuyers knew what they were getting: An urban village built around alternative transportation modes, with bus service an integral part of the model. And according to Chapel Hill Transit Director Mary Lou Kuschatka, there has never been so much as a fender-bender involving a bus in Southern Village, let alone a pedestrian casualty. "No problems out there at all," Kuschatka says.

Similarly, stats show that the property values of homes near Habitat projects suffer no damage from proximity to their lower-income neighbors, which may explain why opponents of the Sunrise project have shifted gears and are now questioning the noise impacts. On the other hand, several previous (and ultimately aborted) plans to develop the property that would have landed pricier homes near the freeway drew no such concerns from the Sunrise crowd.

The many issues facing the town seem unrelated, and have been addressed that way by policymakers. But a thread links them, and whether it's made of gold or burlap depends on who's doing the weaving. To some, limiting bus service to high-end residential neighborhoods, eliminating panhandlers, deleting Apple Chill, relocating the homeless shelter and limiting Habitat homes adds up to a safer, friendlier Chapel Hill. A more civilized Chapel Hill.

But to others, those same changes equal a more elitist, exclusive Chapel Hill, one reserved for those who can patronize fancy eateries and chain boutiques. A less tolerant Chapel Hill, closer in spirit to Cary than the town Jesse Helms once believed was riddled with left-wing agitators. As one resident asked during the panhandling debate, "Is this an attempt by some economic interests in our community to further homogenize our downtown into being indistinguishable from a ritzy shopping mall, free from unsightly homeless people? It sure looks that way."

There's no question that the town's policies have fostered a clash between upscale and down. Approving the plans for Meadowmont and Southern Village meant an influx of wealthy residents, many of them commuters, whose self-interest is defined more in terms of the home front (hey, it's like Cary with better schools!) than the community at large. And it's a relatively short-term interest--after all, the people who are most twitchy about property values are the ones who don't intend to stick around.

At the same time, the council's furtherance of such equalizers as affordable housing, services for the poor and alternative transportation has meant an access and a cultural mingling that causes uneasiness among those who fear the Other. And the town's historical liberalism has meant that the less savory realities found in any urban area remain distinctly visible in Chapel Hill. Placing the homeless shelter downtown may benefit the less fortunate and serve as a reminder to the affluent, but the Chamber of Commerce will never buy in.

Unfortunately, few in town seem able or willing to talk about these subtexts. To even suggest that race or class issues are behind some of the recent initiatives is to invite attack, as council member Mark Kleinschmidt did when he suggested at a meeting that the push to restrict panhandling had a racial aspect. "This has nothing to do with race," thundered a Chapel Hill News letter to the editor. "It has to do with feeling comfortable in our own town. ... I think [Kleinschmidt] owes the people of Chapel Hill an apology."

Without an open and honest debate, however, the issues will continue to be discussed in peripheral terms that will yield no satisfactory resolutions. The most vocal Sunrise Road residents have made it clear they won't accept the Habitat plan without dramatic reductions, despite the overwhelming need for affordable housing in town--few of the service workers who staff the shops and restaurants in Chapel Hill can afford to live there, let alone buy a home--and the dearth of land available for it. But instead of a discussion about affordable housing and town priorities, the residents are making noise about noise.

Down the road, this communication gap will likely translate into votes from Southern Villagers who don't get their bus route cuts and neighborhood school, from downtown merchants who will still have to live with Apple Chill, from Sunrise Road residents, all of whom will seek candidates sympathetic to their causes. Communications from neighborhood activists often include warnings to council members that their decisions will have consequences at the ballot box. Residents may lament the erosion of Chapel Hill's quaint village atmosphere (another subtext there, since that quaint village atmosphere hasn't existed for decades). But a Town Council bent on ministering to the elites will change the landscape on Franklin Street more radically than panhandlers ever could.

There are signs that the Cary-fication of Chapel Hill may not be that rapid, or even inevitable. One of the most adamant of the Southern Village bus-cutters has given up and moved away--to Cary, where buses are the vehicular equivalent of the snail darter. Habitat supporters from the Sunrise area, including residents of the Carol Woods Retirement Community, have written letters urging the council to move forward with construction. An ad-hoc committee has recommended that Apple Chill remain part of the cultural fabric.

Until people can consider the issues affecting the town in their broader context, however, the dots will remain unconnected, and the debate will continue to take on absurd dimensions.

Historical fact: It wasn't the panhandlers or homeless who rioted in the streets when UNC won its NCAA basketball championships, smashing cars and causing tens of thousands of dollars in property damage.

Maybe the students should be banned from downtown after dark. EndBlock

Contact Burtman at burtman@indyweek.com

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