When Orange County commissioners approved plans this year for a $125 million school bond vote in 2016, it passed with little public input, scant public outreach and one absent county commissioner.
Now some county residents are calling for commissioners to reconsider their priorities, particularly their decision to exclude public-housing funding from the deal.
By a 4–2 vote, commissioners limited the bond—which is expected to raise the county property tax rate by almost 5 cents per $100 of property value—to schools, which some are calling a missed opportunity to deliver on years of promises to alleviate the county's housing woes.
"When you spend all the money on the schools, you're building a school system that's only for the people who can afford to live here," says Commissioner Penny Rich, who voted for including housing in the bond. "It's a Catch-22."
Commissioner Mark Dorosin, an outspoken affordable-housing advocate, was absent from an April meeting in which Rich and Commissioner Barry Jacobs voted against limiting the bond to school spending. Instead, a majority—Chairman Earl McKee and commissioners Mia Burroughs, Bernadette Pelissier and Renee Price—ignored pleas to bundle housing, parks and senior-services funds in the bond, citing the extent of the school needs.
Officials with both school systems—Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro—estimate it could cost up to $300 million to fully fund their building needs, some of which have been long deferred.
"The decision not to include affordable housing gives the appearance that while we talk passionately about this issue, that's all we do," Dorosin says. "It's a mistake if we don't make the kind of commitment a bond represents. I think it's time to think more boldly and innovatively as a community about affordable housing."
Commissioners have allocated $1 million in the 2015–'16 budget for affordable-housing initiatives, but some board members and housing leaders say that seems a flimsy commitment to one of the county's most pressing needs. The county has one of the most notoriously expensive housing markets in North Carolina.
Orange County's median home price in 2012 was more than $319,000. That's higher than any county in the Triangle, which is already among the priciest regions in North Carolina. The median rental is $872, higher than any other in the region. And more than half of the county's renters spend greater than 35 percent of their income on lodging, surpassing the affordable-housing threshold of 30 percent set by most housing experts.
The problem is likely to only get worse. Federal funding for housing needs in the county has been halved in the last decade—from about $750,000 in 2008 to a little over $300,000 this year—due to budget squabbling, says Susan Levy, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Orange County.
With rent control forbidden by state law, local governments have practically no tools for managing the escalating cost of rentals, the fastest growing segment of Orange County's housing market.
"You simply cannot develop housing that's affordable without subsidy," says Levy. "We're going to come to a screeching halt without funding. I'm really hoping that we can reverse that decision."
There is still one more chance for commissioners to change their minds. They are expected to approve a resolution this fall to finalize the bond. But a majority of the board, including McKee, is committed to limiting the bond to schools.
"From my perspective, the needs of the infrastructure in the school system are so great we are not going to be able to address all of those needs even with a $125 million bond," McKee says.
Both Levy and Mary Jean Seyda, chief operations officer at Triangle housing nonprofit CASA and a housing coalition member, say the issue needs the firm commitment of a voter-approved bond tied to tax dollars. In 2012, Durham City Council for example, passed a Penny for Housing referendum that increased property taxes by 1 cent per $100 of property value, with the revenue allocated to affordable housing. Last year, Chapel Hill did the same.
Jacobs says a $75 million county bond package in 2001 was preceded by public engagement meetings, polling and rigorous debate. In the end, leaders agreed to divide the money between schools, housing, parks and senior needs.
"These kinds of chronic problems and enduring challenges don't go away," Jacobs said. "If we're committed to certain principles, then we need to commit resources and give the public the opportunity to participate."
Board members said citizens should have been meeting this summer to discuss local housing initiatives, as well as other possible bond priorities. Instead, board members are on their summer retreat with no meetings scheduled until September.
"I think it's inconsistent with Orange County citizens' values to not include them in the decision-making process," Rich says.
She proposes allotting the bulk of the bond, or about $100 million, to schools, with the remaining $25 million split between housing, parks and senior initiatives.
McKee denies that board members tried to avoid public scrutiny, pointing out that commissioners began discussing the need for a bond as early as last year.
"Unless you're going to leave it open-ended forever, there has to be a decision at some point," he says.
McKee says the board might change its mind about the 2016 bond, but he believes the county's housing troubles can be addressed in the annual budget.
Dorosin says that's shortsighted: "To suggest that giving the schools $100 million is somehow 'taking away from the schools' is positively Orwellian."
This story has been corrected to reflect Durham City Council, not a referendum, passed the Penny for Housing tax increase.