Name as it appears on the ballot: Jason Merrill
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.bikeboro.com
Occupation & employer: Founder and former owner of Back Alley Bikes.
Years lived in Carrboro: I moved here in 2001, and I’ve always lived within a mile of downtown, but I’ve hopped back and forth across the Carrboro/Chapel Hill border several times with a cumulative total of about 10 of those 22 years on the Carrboro side.
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?
I am running for Carrboro Town Council because I want to be a steward of the community that provided sanctuary to me as a young outcast from eastern North Carolina.
I moved here in 2001 to be closer to the Cat’s Cradle because that seemed like plenty of reason to 23-year-old me, but I found much more than just one legendary rock club; I discovered that Carrboro was a town bustling with activists, artists, and working-class weirdos like me, and I ended up sticking around for much longer than I ever planned.
Motivated primarily by a desire to help get more folks on bikes in the best way I knew how (by fixing all the broken bikes), I opened Back Alley Bikes in 2007 with a box of tools and a $7500 family loan. I was unsurprised to find that there were a lot of sad bikes in desperate need of repair, but I was very surprised to discover my golden opportunity to become a reluctant entrepreneur. Over the course of 15 years, the business grew from a shade tree operation that barely paid my bills into a local institution that turned out thousands of bike repairs a year and provided living wage jobs to a staff of seven.
Running a successful business left me feeling disconnected from my higher values, so I volunteered in 2014 for the Chapel Hill Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board, where I served for six years, two as chair, and developed a taste for the minutiae of local policy-making. When I sold the bike shop last year to my friend and neighbor, Tamara, and began looking for ways to help address some of our town’s biggest challenges, like our affordable housing crisis, the path led seamlessly to my current election campaign.
2) Please identify the three of the most pressing issues Carrboro currently faces and how you believe the town should address them.
In order to maintain Carrboro as a place of opportunity for future generations, we need to dramatically grow our inventory of affordable housing, close the equity gaps that threaten our vibrancy and diversity, nurture our local business community to create more living wage jobs, and expand our multi-modal transportation network. The recently adopted comprehensive plan, Carrboro Connects, outlines our collective priorities, with these among them, as well as strategies to achieve these goals and I am excited to serve on a Town Council that is motivated to turn this plan into action!
3) What’s the best or most important thing the town council has done in the past year? Alternatively, name a decision you believe the council got wrong or an issue you believe the town should have handled differently. Please explain your answer.
The adoption of the comprehensive plan, Carrboro Connects, is the best decision that the Town Council made last year. It is the result of a multi-year process of award-winning outreach, and it spells out a vision that embodies the highest values of our community. I am very ready to help make this plan a reality!
4) What prior experience makes you qualified for and passionate about the town council and its duties? What made you seek this position?
My lived experience has served as both the motivator and the qualifier for this role.
As the child of a single, working mother, I grew up with assistance from every type of public subsidy available and my later successes would not have been possible without those programs.
As an activist for housing, I participated in political squats and worked as a crew leader for Habitat for Humanity.
As a supporter of multi-modal transportation, I fixed hundreds of bikes for free at community bicycle co-ops and served on the Transportation Board.
As an advocate for workers, I helped organize labor when I worked for others and paid a living wage to everyone who worked with me at the bike shop.
I am a product of and a proponent for sharing community resources for our collective benefit.
5) As with most places in the Triangle, Carrboro is grappling with issues related to affordable housing. How would you like to see the town approach affordability issues over the next few years?
Unfortunately, the tools for increasing our supply of affordable housing that I would most strongly support, rent control and affordable housing mandates, have been preempted by the state government, so we must devise more creative solutions.
Carrboro currently collects a 1.5 cent property tax for the Affordable Housing Special Revenue Fund and I would like to see that revenue combined with the $1 million we’ve allocated through ARPA to identify potentially transformational, large-scale projects that can provide a meaningful amount of housing stock.
It is also time to update our Land Use Ordinance. Under our current rules, the easiest option for most commercial developers is to buy a smaller, older home and tear it down to build a gigantic, expensive home, but that is not what Carrboro, or the Triangle, needs more of. Finding ways to encourage commercial developers to build a wider variety of housing options is an attractive idea but market-based solutions often lead to unintended consequences because our culture values profit over community, so we will need to be selective in how, when, and where we change rules or allow exceptions in order to ensure that we get the best outcome.
And of course, we must continue to support our community partners whose mission is to preserve and build more affordable housing, like Habitat for Humanity. We can do that through more than simply providing funding, but also by lowering regulatory hurdles and allowing additional development of affordable housing on publicly-owned property.
6) What should the Town of Carrboro do to increase the community’s engagement with local government?
Most folks become aware of town actions when a long-planned decision creates a visible change in our physical space, and regardless of whether they love it or hate it, once a project is in progress, the time for input has long passed. If a business ran that way, it wouldn’t last long because telling people about products that were available five years ago is only going to breed disappointment. Likewise, the Town needs to do a much better job of letting folks know what’s happening before it happens so that we can find the solutions that work best for our community.
In the past year, the Town of Carrboro has reached out into the community to actively solicit input and encourage engagement in advance of recent decisions, and that is a program that I would like to see expanded.
On a more personal level, several current members of Town Council and our current mayor, Damon Seils, regularly hold informal meetings in social spaces, like coffee shops and bars, which is a great way to make themselves and the workings of our local government more accessible and inviting, and it is a model that I plan to duplicate.
7) For those who rent or own homes in Carrboro already, how should the town and county address tax revaluations that increase property taxes and rising rents, particularly for residents in public housing and those low-income residents who face displacement?
After recent revaluations dramatically and disproportionately increased the burden on homeowners in our historically working-class neighborhoods, it is evident that the county’s process needs a comprehensive review. Regardless of the timeline or outcome of that review, I support the expansion of the Orange County Longtime Homeowners Assistance property tax relief fund to provide aid to property owners affected by systemic inequities in the property revaluation process. I would also strongly support a progressive taxation structure to ensure that residents with low and fixed incomes can continue to stay in their homes, but as with rent control and affordable housing mandates, options for local governments to create solutions that are tailored to our needs are limited under state law.
8) Should Carrboro move forward with plans to develop a greenway running alongside Bolin Creek? Please explain your answer.
Yes! A completed Bolin Creek Greenway that connects the existing phases in northern Carrboro to the Bolin Creek Greenway in Chapel Hill will improve access for almost everyone to our town’s greatest natural resource, Carolina North Forest, and will provide safe, easy connections for non-motorized transportation between neighborhoods, schools, and parks for users across the widest possible range of ages and abilities. This long overdue improvement has been buried in process for 14 years, but with the recently completed town survey clearly showing that an overwhelming majority of citizens (65%+) prefer this alignment to the proposed alternatives, I am hopeful that we will see real progress soon.
9) How should the Town of Carrboro encourage more walking, biking, and public transit use?
According to the latest surveys, 45% of Carrboro commuters are already arriving at their workplace without a car, which is something to be very proud of, but we can do better still. I am committed to continuing the expansion of our transit routes, to growing our network of bike facilities, and to improving our sidewalks in and around town in order to better serve everyone.
10) What role does Carrboro have in developing the Greene Tract in partnership with Chapel Hill and Orange County? How do you think that land should be developed? What are your priorities for the property?
The Town of Carrboro holds joint ownership with Orange County and the Town of Chapel Hill of 107 acres of the 167 acre Greene Tract. A resolution adopted in late 2021 identified 60 acres of county owned land to be designated as a preserve with the remaining acreage to be divided into portions for additional preserve (22 acres), an elementary school (16 acres), and mixed-income housing (66 acres). I believe that this is a great foundation for planning the best use of this land to address the future needs of our community. Given the scarcity of affordable housing in our area, my highest priority would be to see this land developed holistically to provide more opportunities for working folks. If I could snap my fingers and make it so, I would love to see a sub-community like Southern Village, with a small-scale commercial zone and business incubator spaces, that has some market rate and 80% AMI housing throughout the neighborhood but is mostly made up of housing affordable to workers earning below 60% AMI and 30% AMI.
11) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
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