Name as it appears on the ballot: Tai Huynh
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.taiforchapelhill.com
Occupation & employer: Morehead-Cain Scholar at UNC Chapel-Hill; Founder & CEO of Acta Solutions LLC
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 3.5
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running? Why should voters entrust you with this position? What are your priorities, and what would you want to see the town council do differently or better over the course of your term?
My first year at UNC, I noticed that a Carolina Dining Services worker was eating on break alone, so I joined her. We hit it off, and she became one of my dearest companions in the Chapel Hill community. She invited me over for lunch multiple times to her home in public housing. Through becoming her friend, I learned about the affordable housing crisis in our community. I wanted to advocate for her and people like her and help solve this problem so I joined the Housing Advisory Board for the town.
Serving as Vice-Chair on the Housing Advisory Board, on the Committee for Civic Engagement started by Councilmember Allen Buansi, and volunteering at the Rogers Eubanks Neighborhood Association Community Center over the years have all exposed me to the underlying inequities that we must address in our town. I’m running for Town Council because I want to bring these inequities to the surface and to bring together parts of the community that haven’t always been invited to the table. There is a lot to be proud of in our town and yet there is still much work needed to ensure that all of those residing in Chapel Hill have access to necessary services and opportunities to live with dignity.
My platform centers around the priorities of affordability, sustainability, and inclusivity. As councilmember, I will advocate for holistic solutions to tackle (find replacement for intersectionality) of the issues facing our community. For example, decreasing our community’s car dependency through investments in a multi-modal transit system both increases affordability and greatly reduces our carbon emissions, making our community more environmentally sustainable.
In the future, I want the town to focus on doing two things differently: apply a racial equity lens to decision-making, and regularize performance evaluation of our programs so that we know how our spending is solving our most pressing problems, and can adjust or innovate accordingly.
2) Given the direction of Chapel Hill government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?
Chapel Hill is starting to incorporate more residents into the public process so that solutions to our most pressing problems are community-backed and effective. The People’s Academy, Chapel Hill’s participation in the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, and the Police Department’s placing of a social worker in the public library are all steps towards increasing public awareness of equity and access to vital resources. While these are great first steps, Chapel Hill still has work to do in order to make sure policies and programs are written with and by the voices of residents directly impacted by our town’s challenges that range from a dearth of affordable housing, lack of smart, intentional growth, and an unbalanced residential and commercial tax base.
Our town also tends to view growth in terms of trade-offs. We are charting our future under the false notion that development directly competes with environmentalism or that building affordable housing directly competes with green land preservation. However, smart growth is not about mutual exclusivity between principles of development and conservation, it is about integrating the two so that we can become a town that serves all of our residents while maintaining our green character.
To build on our inclusive practices and combat our trade-off mindset, I will institutionalize a racial equity lens in decision-making. To do this, I will work with my colleagues to ensure that we pass the REIA requirement for all major town decisions. To combat our trade-off mindset, we need to start looking future land use as a way to integrate development and environmentalism–to allow for upzoning and gentle density so that we can become a transit-oriented community with a range of housing types (not just single family homes), and welcomes residents of various socioeconomic backgrounds.
3) What are three of the most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you propose to address them? Please be specific.
Our town faces the crisis of climate change due to carbon emissions, an affordable housing crisis, and a lack of balance in the tax base.
On council, I will advocate for the following specific changes:
1. Advocate for mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable communities along transit corridors in the LUMO rewrite to help residents work, live, and play without having to get into a car
2. Push to create a comprehensive, multi-modal transit system with protected bike lanes and greenways that connects our community both internally and regionally.
3. Adjust zoning to make it easier to build “missing middle” housing along transit corridors.
4. Leverage public-private partnerships to make residents’ homes climate resilient and energy efficient. 5. Build a robust innovation ecosystem with wet labs and office space that attracts and retains entrepreneurs while diversifying our tax base. 6. Implement a workforce development pathways program that connects residents to strong technical training offerings at the Durham Tech Orange County campus to increase socio-economic mobility 7. Institutionalize a racial equity in our town’s decision-making process by working with my colleagues to make sure our decisions pass REIA requirements.
4) What prior experience will make you an effective member of the town government and advocate of the issues listed above? Please note any endorsements you have received that you considered significant.
I’m a Morehead-Cain Scholar at UNC Chapel Hill studying Computer Science with minors in Anthropology and Business Administration. Students make up a significant part of the Town’s population and we should be engaged in issues impacting us such as housing, transit, etc. I also have relationships with UNC as a long-time student leader that I can leverage on council.
I have a wide-ranging professional background that provides me with the ability to tackle our town’s challenges with an interdisciplinary, holistic approach. In the public sector, I have worked as a Civic Digital Fellow for the Chief Information Officer of the U.S. Department of State and as a consultant for a public-private partnership in Greensboro.
In our town, I have served on the Committee for Civic Engagement led by Councilmember Buansi, and I currently serve as Vice-Chair of the Housing Advisory Board (HAB). Over the years on the HAB, I have pushed developers for more on-site affordable units, advocated for creating more diverse housing options in our community, and evaluated and recommended funding for affordable housing projects that have created or preserved over 100 affordable units in our town.
In the private sector, I worked as a real estate broker while in high school, and I’m currently a local entrepreneur. I run a government technology startup that recently graduated from the Launch Chapel Hill Accelerator.
Through local action, I’ve developed a grounded perspective on the issues that impact our more vulnerable communities. I will bring a unique perspective to the Town Council as an American-born child of Vietnamese refugees, a local entrepreneur, and a first-generation college student from North Carolina.
My experiences have taught me to listen to stakeholders and those impacted by problems, to sift through the noise, and find measurable, achievable, and impactful solutions attached with measurable outcomes. My interdisciplinary time in local government and experiences as a local business owner have pushed me to approach issues such as economic development, affordable housing, resident engagement, and workforce development as integrated and connected issues that require strategic planning and holistic vision.
For example, I approach affordability in our town as a multi-dimensional problem that doesn’t stop just at building more affordable housing units, but includes improving transit, access to services, and increasing socio-economic mobility of our residents.
I am honored to have been endorsed by these organizations: the Sierra Club, NextUp Victory Fund, and NEXT Chapel Hill Carrboro Action Fund.
Some of the significant personal endorsements I have received include: Renee Price (Orange County Commissioner), Jane Stein (long-time community leader), Reverend Robert Campbell (Roger-Eubanks Neighborhood Association President), Jim Merritt (Chapel Hill 9 and previous Chapel Hill Town Councilmember), and Dave Mason (Chapel Hill 9).
5) What concerns do you have related to short-term rentals? What regulations do you believe the town should enact? What municipalities do you believe have put in place successful models?
Short-term rentals attract tourists, increase economic activity in our town, and supplement the incomes of residents. However, they also have a ripple effect on the affordability of homes in our town, and require some regulation in order to be productive and not destructive elements in our community. In order to regulate short-term rentals, I will advocate for a fixed number of low-cost permits that will be issued on a first-come, first-serve basis. The fixed number of permits should be re-evaluated on a decided-upon
basis. In order to ensure that short-term rental units are not all cluttered in the same neighborhood, I will push for a requirement that such units cannot exist within a certain number of feet from each other. For example, Las Vegas requires that Airbnb’s cannot be within 600ft from each other to ensure that affordability of properties in any given neighborhood is not disproportionately impacted by a cluster of Airbnb’s. In my opinion, no one municipality has found the perfect solution for regulating short-term rentals, but a combination of L.A’s and Las Vegas’ approach would be ideal because such properties have to be registered, a fee has to be paid every three years to keep registration, and short-term rentals are spaced out so that no one neighborhood is negatively impacted by an overwhelming presence of Airbnb’s or the sorts. The money from the fees are pooled and used for building affordable housing.
6) Last year, town voters approved a $10 million affordable housing bond, but affordable housing remains a concern. UNC students consume a large portion of rental units throughout Orange County, while zoning and historic preservation rules sometimes the supply of housing. What are the next steps you believe the town should take on the affordability front?
The biggest barriers to building affordable housing are the price and availability of land and the cost of construction. This is why, on council, I will maximize use of Town-owned land for development of affordable housing. We also need to build the “missing middle” of housing (duplexes, triplexes, and quads) so that we can accommodate a range of family types. My priority is to advocate for changes in the LUMO so that it is easier for us to add accessory dwelling units and build mixed-use, mixed-income, transit-oriented, walkable communities. A good example of this type of development is Carrboro’s Winmore.
With regards to student housing, right now, UNC housing is at 98% capacity, and there will be no net gain of beds for the foreseeable future on campus according to the UNC Housing Master Plan. This means that students have to look for housing options off campus. I think more collaboration between the university and the town is needed around housing planning because the university should take more responsibility for the housing pressures it places on the town.
Local government should provide more money to support affordable housing in Chapel Hill, but it should also make sure that each dollar is being spent responsibly and effectively. In terms of how much more funding, the town spends on-average $25,000/unit to subsidize the creation of a new affordable unit. In this fiscal year, our goal is to develop 95 new units, and we have developed 78. Therefore, the gap in units would cost roughly $425,000 in subsidy.
We can increase funding by diversifying our tax base through economic development, cutting down the costs to develop, and applying for project-specific grants. When the commercial tax base increases, the town will have a larger pool of funds to leverage more effectively to pay for affordable units. Our convoluted development approval process adds unnecessary cost and burden to affordable housing developers. As councilmember, I will advocate for an expedited review process for affordable housing developments, such as 2200 Homestead. We should also be actively looking for outside sources of funding, specifically project-specific grants from foundations and the Federal government. If we bring together the amazing partners we have in our community, we can create innovative affordable housing projects that would make for
competitive grant applications. As councilmember, I would advocate for a collaborative effort to create an innovative proposal for our public housing redevelopment.
I support a more holistic strategy of both creating new units and preserving the NOAH that we already have. Not only do we need to fund more affordable housing, but we also need to make sure that the affordable units we build are accessible to residents with disabilities and seniors. This means that affordable units need to have the proper infrastructure to accommodate residents of all ages and abilities. We also need to spend money to weatherize affordable units so that residents can build climate resilience in their own homes.
On council, I will leverage public-private partnerships to make sure that the money we do have is being used not only to build more affordable units, but to make sure that the affordable housing in our community is weatherized, climate-resilient, and energy efficient. I will continue and expand programs like the Northside Energy Savers program that makes sure that all residents have access to the consultation and resources they need to reduce their utility bills and make their homes energy efficient.
7) In what ways do you believe the town should seek to grow its tax base? What are the best methods to encourage business growth in Chapel Hill and attract start-ups to promote economic development?
Our tax base is currently 81% residential–meaning that residents carry our town’s financial burden. In order to diversify our tax base, we must invest in attracting and retaining both locally grown start-ups and larger employers. Right now, more than 85% of scientific research at UNC is commercializable, but this technology is not being commercialized in Chapel Hill because we don’t have the wetlabs or office space to support such start-ups. As a result, start-ups that are spun out from the university leave for cities like Durham or Raleigh that offer such resources.
Our current permitting process for starting a business in Chapel Hill is convoluted, and hard to navigate. This turns away residents who own or want to establish their business in Chapel Hill. Additionally, women and minority-owned businesses do not have access to our Town’s current entrepreneurial resources because programs like Launch are not intentionally marketed towards them. Last, our workforce is not trained to handle the technical demands of our changing economy, and therefore does not attract the employers that will make a difference in our commercial tax base.
To address these issues, I support building an Innovation District and enterprise zone that has wetlabs and office space for start-ups to commercialize, grow, and pay commercial tax in our town. Grubb’s CVS Tower is a great potential opportunity for this. I will also work to expand Town resources with regards to permitting by assigning a “case worker” to each business to help them navigate the permitting process from start to finish without convolution. To attract minority and women-owned business, I will push for spaces like Launch or the UNC E-ship center to host workshops and networking events for women and minority business-owners. By raising awareness of the great resources like Launch in otherwise underrepresented communities, and by building a community of diverse entrepreneurs, we can establish
ourselves as a town that nurtures minority and women-owned businesses. Finally, in order for our residents to have the most access to our county’s strong offerings in technical training, I will work to establish a workforce development pathways program through Durham Tech OC Campus so that residents can acquire the technical training they need to acquire higher paying jobs. By training our workforce in the technical skills of the future, we can attract companies–adding to our commercial tax base, and as a result, increasing the affordability of our town.
8) On September 25, the town council unanimously sent to staff a Downtown Partnership petition seeking a traffic impact analysis for the restriping West Franklin Street that would add protected bike lanes and reduce pedestrian-crossing distances, and generally slow traffic. With the caveat that the analysis has yet to be conducted, how would you describe your vision for the future of West Franklin? What would you like to see happen to this part of Chapel Hill over the next decade? Over the next decade, I want to see West Franklin as a complete street with bike lanes that is protected by street side parking and green streetscaping. Therefore, I support the restriping of West Franklin Street that would make room for protected bike lanes while reducing pedestrian-crossing distances. These are changes that increase access, equity, and mitigate climate change in our town. I also want to see more residents use our public transit system, especially the NS Bus Rapid Transit that will allow residents to access downtown efficiently without a car. In moving forward with the NS Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), I will advocate for BRT best practices such as a dedicated lane for the bus and sensor traffic lights so that traffic is always moving smoothly. Therefore, I will support sensor outfitting of most or all traffic lights because in order for this system to work, the entire traffic light system must be equipped with smart sensors that recognize all modes of transit.
Overall, I want to see more people out of their cars, and able to access efficient, reliable transit or safely ride a bike or walk to where they need to go on West Franklin.
9) Relatedly, what changes, if any, would you like to see in the parking system downtown? Do you believe there is a more efficient way to create parking? Right now, there is no organization of or systematic way to find parking downtown. The Town released a website called “Park on the Hill” to find parking downtown, but it is not user- friendly and does not have real-time updates. The Town recently replaced the parking meters and installed a new app system, which I think is a step in the right direction. Ideally, it would allow residents to easily pay for spaces; however, this is not the case. The new payment system is confusing because there are not clear instructions posted at public parking to ensure ease of use. This is yet another indicator that we need to incorporate those who will use a solution into its design process to effectively address our town’s problems.
To address these issues, I will advocate for getting rid of surface level parking lots such as the ones along Rosemary Street, and better utilize these urban spaces for green space, businesses, or other effective third spaces where residents from all backgrounds can come
together and connect. Additionally, I support the current parking plans to add 100 units to the Wallace Deck, and to build another parking deck downtown in order to consolidate our parking. These parking options should be clearly signed so that residents know exactly where they need to go for parking and how to use the payment system. We should also make sure that the signs and instructions are in the most popular languages spoken in our community: English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Karen. We also need to make sure that residents who work downtown and in our future innovation district also have access to reliable, affordable parking. Accordingly, I will advocate for an Innovation District and Downtown employee permit parking system that secures parking in the decks for such employees.
While the aforementioned solutions are meant to address current problems with Chapel Hill’s downtown parking system, they should be coupled with efforts to reduce car dependency in our community. Increasing the reliability, extensiveness, and efficiency of our public transit system coupled with safe biking and greenway infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians will only help alleviate our traffic and parking situation downtown while also significantly decreasing our carbon emissions. As councilmember, I will strongly advocate that every Town employee be given a free GoPass so that they have the option to commute to work without increasing personal emissions.
10) The town has environmental awareness as one of its goals. Name three ways you believe Chapel Hill can work toward this goal.
I believe our town should move past environmental awareness, and should prioritize action. Environmental plans with outreach components are the best way to couple awareness and action. On council, I will accomplish this by advocating for the following programs:
1. Continue and expand the Town’s current programs to greenify its fleet, make Town
buildings energy neutral, and educate town employees on green/sustainable purchasing. We should also follow Carrboro’s move to fit its Town Hall with a green roof. By incorporating more sustainable practices and infrastructure in public buildings and public personnel, we will establish ourselves as a town that cares about reducing its carbon footprint. 2. Partner with local organizations to highlight local businesses that have sustainable practices so that we move towards becoming a town known for its sustainable business and environment climate. 3. Follow in the footsteps of the Northside Energy Savers Program by partnering with
energy firms, and increasing awareness in low-income neighborhoods of how residents can make their homes energy efficient, and save money on utilities by doing so. We need to partner with alternative energy organizations like Alternative Grid NC that builds solar infrastructure in low income neighborhoods while providing residents with the technical training they need to secure jobs in the green energy sector. This initiative would raise awareness of solar infrastructure’s role in all neighborhoods regardless of income. The ability to greenify one’s home and live environmentally should not be determined by socio-economic status.
11) In what ways can the town foster a more inclusive environment and better engage with historically marginalized groups?
As an entrepreneur, I am constantly reminded of the importance of human-centered design. Human-centered design means incorporating residents who will ultimately use or benefit from a solution into its design process. We should listen to historically marginalized residents in order to get a clear picture of the context surrounding the challenges they face, including their motivations, needs, and wants. Only when we can empathize with impacted residents should we begin to devise solutions.
I have a long track record in incorporating residents in decision-making, and see the value of empathy in solution-design. On the Housing Advisory Board, our most impactful actions such as Greenfields and the Master Leasing Programs were the direct result of listening to and incorporating the experiences of residents into our decisions. Working with the Rogers Eubanks Neighborhood Association Community Center, I collect and incorporate the concerns and priorities of historically marginalized residents into the way I think about the future of Chapel Hill. My commitment to people, especially those who have not always had a seat at the table, is attested to by the endorsements I have received from leading civil rights leaders in our community–Jim Merritt, Dave Mason, and Minister Robert Campbell.
As councilmember, I will strongly push for engagement meetings to happen in the community so that we bring the table to the communities affected by the affordable housing crisis instead of constantly trying to get them to the table. I will advocate for historically marginalized residents impacted by the issue to serve on advisory boards so that they can call for the changes they want and deserve. I will also advocate for ways to institutionalize human-centered design into our town programs and projects. For example, I would push for an ordinance that would require the town to conduct a certain number of stakeholder interviews with impacted residents before a council can be made.
12) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
I’m running on a holistic platform centered around the themes of affordability, sustainability, and inclusivity. The most important goal I want to accomplish is to institutionalize a racial- equity lens in our town’s decision-making process. This way, we can grow in an intentional, inclusive manner, and think critically about how the way we design our communities impacts various groups differently. Our town recently joined the Government Alliance for Racial Equity, and it’s a great first step in the right direction. We need to not only train our staff on racial equity, we also need to incorporate a racial equity lens into the process so that it is long-lasting and agnostic of leadership.
This starts by acknowledging an inconvenient truth about our current engagement process. The squeakiest wheel is the one that gets attention, and right now not everyone in our town has the privilege to make noise. A racial equity lens will allow us to understand what about our engagement process is exclusive, about how our understanding of affordability and urban
design is racialized, and how we can be intentional about building for, serving, and connecting everyone in our community.