Sunday, December 3, 2006


What a Thanksgiving! With our two and a half year old grandson and his eight month old sister visiting (yes, they brought their parents along too), it’s been a really fun time. It’s something getting acquainted or reacquainted with Thomas the Train, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Sesame Street, Higglytown Heroes, and Little Einsteins, but what could be more fun?

As we sit on the floor of the family room playing and watching and laughing, the weather outdoors is no problem because of the warmth of our home. We have much to be thankful for and it’s difficult not to think how different the days and nights are for the homeless. Those parents and kids who have no warm home to live in are far too numerous.

Thankfully, we are trying to address the problem through the Orange County Partnership To End Homelessness. Key to any solution, however, is having a stock of housing that people with a range of incomes can afford to buy or rent. We like to call this “affordable” housing, but I prefer the label “workforce” housing. As with most labels, we need to be clear on what we mean. I think workforce housing should be affordable to the entire range of incomes in our community. It should simply mean that all people, and especially those who work here, can find a home to fit their budget.

While we were in Madison on the Chamber’s Inter-City Visit in September, we had a breakout session on workforce housing. Housing stalwarts Robert Dowling, executive director of the Orange County Community Housing and Land Trust, and Delores Bailey, executive director of EmPOWERment, Inc., led the session. We heard about the Madison approach from Bill Perkins, the executive director for The Wisconsin Partnership for Housing Development, Inc.

Madison is in Dane County and they studied their situation and concluded that they had a serious problem. They found that to be able to afford the fair market rent on a two-bedroom apartment required an hourly wage of $12.45, or $25,896 annually. Some 30% of their workforce made this wage or less. Some of the jobs represented included emergency medical technicians, restaurant cooks, home health aids, preschool teachers, nursing aides, and many others.

They also found that an income of $34, 100 was half of what was needed to buy their median-priced home in 2005. Sadly, 55% of their workforce made less than $34,100. Bus drivers, secretaries, dental assistants, maintenance workers, and police, fire and ambulance dispatchers were in this group in 2005.

So to buy that median-priced home in 2005, the annual income required was $68,200. They were distressed to learn that 94% of the Dane County workforce made less than that required income, and that included among others teachers, police officers, firefighters, mental health counselors, school counselors, and licensed practical nurses.
What’s the situation in Orange County? Sad to say, it’s generally worse. Did you know that in 2005, the median price for a single family home in Orange County was $286,000? Are our workers paid what’s required to afford that home? Not usually, so it’s no surprise that too many who work here can’t afford to live here. They live in other counties and must drive into Orange County everyday. Meanwhile, many who can afford to live here work outside of Orange County and they drive out every day. What’s wrong with this picture?

Our Community Housing and Land Trust, EmPOWERment, and Habitat for Humanity, are making a herculean effort to increase the housing stock so that our workforce can afford to live where they work. The Town of Chapel Hill also took a big step last September when they established a task force on inclusionary zoning.

With representatives from various constituencies including the development and real estate communities, the business community, nonprofits engaged in providing affordable housing in Chapel Hill, and interested citizens, they hammered out a proposal on inclusionary zoning that was presented at the Town Council Meeting on November 20th.

At its simplest, inclusionary zoning requires that a certain percentage of homes be set at officially "affordable" prices, along with market-rate homes in the same project. We need several tools that will work and this has the promise of being one of those tools. Stay tuned to see how this plays out, but remember, the solution to the housing situation cannot be placed entirely on our developers.

As those of us who can afford to enjoy our loved ones in our own warm homes, let’s remember that there are too many who can’t do the same in the community where they work. We have to do better, and doing that will be a good thing.

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