Name as it appears on the ballot: Jess Anderson
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.jessformayor.org
Occupation & employer: UNC, Professor of the Practice in the Department of Public Policy; Town of Chapel Hill, Council Member
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 13
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running?
Eight years ago, I ran for Council on a platform that was about planning for our future together. Since then, I’ve worked hard to deliver on that promise—and we’ve made tremendous progress.
However, our most important work is left to do as we strive to remain a preeminent, 21st century college town.
Earlier this year, we adopted the Complete Community framework—a new approach to development which I championed through Council. It’s a transformational, forward-looking way for us to manage growth—rather than simply letting it manage us. Complete Community will help us plan for the things we need—like new housing options for young families, seniors, single parents, and our local workforce—as well as make us less car dependent. It will also help us preserve the things we love about our town, such as its important natural areas, tree canopy, and character.
To get this plan right, Chapel Hill will need a mayor who has significant experience in local government, expertise in policy analysis, and the ability to get things done—no matter who is at the County, School Board or dais next to them.
My record over eight years—including two as Mayor Pro Tem—has earned me endorsements from 26 current and former elected officials and five Chapel Hill Mayors. This list Includes Congressman David Price, State Senators Howard Lee and Eleanor Kinnaird, Mayor Pam Hemminger, all five County commissioners who represent Chapel Hill, and all five council members who have endorsed for mayor this season. I’ve also been endorsed by respected community leaders like Reverend Campbell of the Rogers Eubanks Neighborhood Association and Jamil Kadoura of Mediterranean Deli, as well as residents and families from across our Town.
With your vote, together we can make our vision of a Complete Community reality.
2) If you don’t currently serve on the town council, what is something members could be doing better? If you do, what has been your biggest accomplishment during your time in office?
My biggest accomplishment was getting the Town to adopt the new Complete Community framework – the culmination of eight years of my work as a council member.
I was elected in 2015 largely because much of the community was dissatisfied with the Ephesus-Fordham (now called “Blue Hill”) District’s form-based code. Advisory boards and community members had voiced concerns that the code wouldn’t deliver on things Chapel Hill residents value—such as pedestrian and bike connections, public spaces, stormwater management, and affordable housing. There were also concerns about aesthetics. Every development project that has gone up in Blue Hill—including those luxury apartment buildings you see being built today—was submitted under this code.
To be fair, these projects provide much-needed housing and some retail we enjoy—in addition to producing significant tax revenue. Nevertheless, the missed opportunity for a walkable, connected and attractive district that continue to validate the community’s concerns.
Unfortunately, rescinding the code entirely—or even putting development on pause—are not legal options. So, during my time on Council, I’ve worked with my colleagues to improve the code as much as possible, including passing five sets of code amendments between 2016 and 2021.
This experience helped me realize that to get the outcomes we want we must move away from site-by-site development and toward building complete and connected communities.
Our new Complete Community framework—which was adopted last May—lays out a clear vision for our town that will allow us to “lean in” to our values and truly meet the moment. We’re facing a climate crisis, a housing crisis, an affordability crisis, and a mental health crisis. By managing growth head on, we’ll be able to become a more inclusive community while fostering much needed connection with each other.
At the heart of our Complete Community plan is an “everywhere-to-everywhere” greenway network. This network of “linear parks” will ensure everyone can walk, bike, or roll to schools, jobs, parks, shopping, transit, green gathering spaces, and more. We’ll also be offering new housing options along transit corridors so individuals who have been traditionally priced out—like teachers, firefighters, young families—can afford to live here.
This plan was the result of many months of hard work, advice from one of the world’s leading experts in urban planning, and community input—including from traditionally underrepresented groups. I’m excited that we finally have a clear roadmap for managing growth and are taking charge of our future as we move forward.
3) What are the three most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you address them? Please be specific.
The Town’s three most pressing issues are:
1. Managing growth
2. Climate action
3. Data transparency & communication
Depending on where you look, the Triangle is either the first- or second-fastest growing region in the nation. It’s clear growth is happening. Our choice is whether we tackle this growth head on, or simply let it happen to us. I prefer the former. That’s why as mayor, implementing our Complete Community framework will be my top priority for the next two years.
The new framework will help us plan for the things we need as a community while preserving the things that matter to us. That means we’ll be prioritizing parks, important natural areas, and green gathering spaces. We’ll also be creating an amazing “everywhere-to-everywhere” greenway network so more of us can walk, bike, and roll to the places we want to go. Initially, one of my key priorities will be working with CHCCS leaders to create safe connections to our neighborhood schools, which will be a game-changer for kids and parents who navigate traffic in the mornings and afternoons.
A second focus of the framework is housing. Right now, over 40,000 cars commute in and out of Chapel Hill every day. These are the people who are teaching our children, caring for our sick, and fighting our fires – and doing an amazing job. The fact that these valuable members of our community can’t afford to live here is not only sad, but frustrating from a traffic standpoint and terrible for the environment. If we continue on the path toward becoming an exclusive community, these individuals may stop coming here altogether, which will impact the quality of services we all get in our town. Providing diverse housing options—condos, townhomes, and duplexes—especially along transit corridors will improve traffic and allow people who work here to live here. And for those of us who already live here, these options might make it affordable for our children or grandchildren to live close by or for us to remain in the town we all love as we age.
In 2021, the Town adopted its first-ever Climate Action & Response Plan and declared a climate emergency. We also funded additional, dedicated staff to start implementing it. Currently, we’re on track to meet our climate goals as long as we don’t waiver from the plan. Ultimately, success will require us to make hard choices on land use—like the Housing Choices Initiative and Shaping our Future Transit-Oriented Development plan—in support of our long-term goals.
As an organization, the Town creates a small percentage of the total greenhouse emissions produced by Chapel Hill. To truly move the needle, we must engage everyone in this effort. As Mayor, I’ll apply my proven abilities at working across our community to make this happen.
Some of the ways we could address climate action include providing e-bike rebates, implementing new green policies and standards for future development, creating an EV infrastructure to support and encourage the move to electric vehicles, and educating and incentivizing people to make changes in their businesses and homes.
Data and Communications
As an organization, we need to improve transparency to inform strategy, clearly communicate results, and hold government accountable.
Data is the lifeblood of effective public policy. During my time on council, we introduced an affordable housing dashboard. This dashboard has helped hold us accountable, make mid-course corrections, track our progress and keep the public informed.
It has also helped us achieve historic gains in affordable housing.
As mayor, I’ll insist on more dashboards—along with data-informed decision-making—to help us stay on track, achieve better outcomes, and demonstrate our progress.
4) Local government, given the construction of the North Carolina constitution, is often highly limited in its jurisdiction. How would you best leverage the powers of the town council? What prior experience will make you an effective member of the town council? Please note any endorsements you have received that you consider significant.
Despite the constraints put upon us by the North Carolina Constitution and the General Assembly, there are many ways we can act as a Council to fulfill our goals and improve the lives of our residents.
A good example from recent years is in affordable housing, where we’ve used a multi-pronged approach to realize historic gains over the past five years. Among the strategies we’ve used are: 1) an inclusionary zoning ordinance that addresses for sale housing; 2) collaboration with affordable housing providers involving cash subsidies plus grants of land; 3) negotiations with developers for voluntary commitments of affordable rental units; and 4) leveraging federal funds whenever possible.
The cash subsidies we’ve provided to our partners have come from a combination of ARPA funds, our “Penny for Affordable Housing” program, the Town’s general fund, and proceeds from a $10 million voter-supported affordable housing bond.
In addition, my colleagues and I have not hesitated to leverage the powers of the Town Council—particularly with developers. For instance, over the past few years, we’ve been clear and direct with the development community that Chapel Hill is particularly interested in “missing middle” housing. As a result, we’ve seen a sharp increase in the number of proposals we receive for “for-sale” town homes and similar housing types. And this has translated into 1,100 new “missing middle” units in the development pipeline, including close to 200 new affordable units.
Finally, I’ll look forward to the opportunity to participating in advocacy work on issues such as transportation, housing, and public safety as part of the North Carolina Metropolitan Mayors organization.
As a trained policy analyst with over a decade of professional experience and two terms on Council, I’m uniquely equipped for the role of mayor. Because of my training and background, I know how local government works and what it takes to be an effective civic leader in Chapel Hill. I’ll be ready to lead on day 1.
Since joining Town Council, I have served in several leadership roles and earned a reputation for being a collaborative and solutions-based leader. These include:
- Mayor Pro Tem (2 years)
- Council Committee on Economic Sustainability (Chair, 2 years)
- Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness Executive Team
- Chapel Hill Library Advisory Board (Council Liaison)
- Orange County Library Funding Task Force (Council representative)
- Splash Pad & Inclusive Playground Task Force (Council liaison)
My record over two terms has earned me endorsements from 26 elected officials and 5 Chapel Hill Mayors—including Representative David Price, Senators Howard Lee and Ellie Kinnaird and Mayor Pam Hemminger – as well as all five County commissioners who represent Chapel Hill. I’ve also earned the support of all five Council Members who have endorsed this election season – many of whom I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with.
I also have the support of several downtown business owners—including Jamil Kadoura of Mediterranean Deli, Scott Maitland of Top of the Hill, and Andrea Reusing of Lantern—and residents and families from across our town.
Finally, I’m honored to have the support of key local advocacy organizations like EqualityNC, the NC State AFL-CIO, as well as the Sunrise Movement of young activists working to combat climate change.
The reason I’ve earned the support of nearly every elected official and organization that has endorsed this election cycle is because they know I’ll make fact-based decisions and produce real results. They also know I’ll work with everyone and for everyone in service of a more inclusive, sustainable, and equitable future.
5) Community members frequently show up to town council meetings to share that they work in Chapel Hill but cannot afford to live here. With rising rents, even some that already live here are worried they will no longer be able to afford it. The town recently passed an affordable housing plan and investment strategy, which provides a general path forward. Do you support this plan? How would you, on the council, move forward to increase Chapel Hill’s affordable housing stock?
I strongly support our new five-year Affordable Housing Plan and Investment Strategy. And as mayor, I’ll continue to build on our reputation as a national leader in affordable housing.
I believe creating accessible housing for our marginalized communities is a critical component of our town’s racial equity work. My role on the Executive Leadership Team for the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness is proof of my passion for this work. But even more important is my voting record. I’m the only candidate in this race who has supported every affordable housing project that’s come across their desk.
During my time on Town Council, we’ve made historic gains in Affordable Housing. We’ve done this by deploying different strategies and partnering with organizations to fill specific needs. There is no silver bullet.
For example, we’ve been able to create home ownership opportunities by negotiating with developers for new townhomes and condos and by working with Habitat for Humanity of Orange County to produce the exciting new Weaver’s Grove community. To create affordable rentals, we’ve asked developers to give us options for units at 65% and 80% AMI and to accept Section 8 vouchers. Over the past two years alone, these negotiations have resulted in 200 new, affordable units for rent and purchase.
We’ve also leveraged town-owned land. The cost of land in Chapel Hill is so high, that the only way to meet the needs of our lowest wealth individuals—those earning 30% AMI or less—is to use some of this land for housing. I voted to do this at the Legion Property, where we will be creating up to 150 affordable units on the frontage, as well as at Tanyard Branch Trace (Jay Street) where we are creating 48 affordable homes. Both locations will allow people to live in safe, family friendly communities that are walkable and bikeable to jobs, parks, a greenway, and more. This past August, the Tanyard Branch Trace Apartment project was one of four projects in North Carolina that was awarded Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC). (Of note: the use of town-owned land for affordable housing is a key point where my opponent and I differ. He voted against both of these projects, which passed the Council 8-1.)
As Mayor, I’m excited to continue with our successful, multi-pronged approach. I’m also looking forward to leveraging some new tools in our new five-year Affordable Housing Plan—such as the no-interest revolving loan fund that UNC Health seeded with $5 million as part of our negotiation over the Eastowne Medical Campus—to create even more affordable housing opportunities.
I’m also committed to exploring options for working proactively with residents and developers in situations where redevelopment of a property may displace people from their homes. We have good examples where we’ve been able to save people from displacement, such as with Glen Lennox. We also have funding, through our Housing & Utilities Assistance fund available to help people stay in Chapel Hill.
6) In June, Chapel Hill approved its largest tax hike in years. In a town built around a tax-exempt public university with large land holdings, how can the council finance future projects? Should the town look to build a larger commercial base? Increase residential taxes? Some other way?
Financing our infrastructure, facility, and amenity projects continues to be a big priority. It’s also a big challenge since a good deal of Chapel Hill’s land is owned by the University, and as such is not on the tax rolls.
This past year, we made the difficult decision to raise residential taxes to keep up with inflation and pay our employees fairly. It was our first increase in a long time. To the extent possible, we try not to increase taxes. We don’t want to make Chapel Hill unaffordable for people or small businesses to stay and thrive.
Overall, our Town is in excellent financial shape. We emerged from COVID with an AAA bond rating—one of only 16 municipalities in North Carolina to do so. And over the past eight years, we’ve taken a number of important steps to make sure we continue to be financially sustainable:
- Introducing a new 5-year budget strategy. Our new tool moves us from year-by-year budgeting to a looking out into the horizon so our town manager and Council can make better long-term budgetary decisions.
- Coordinating more closely with our partners at the County to make sure we are making the best use of county-town funds by clarifying roles and eliminating overlaps.
- Maintaining our AAA bond rating so that, when we do borrow, we qualify for the best rates. We have a talented staff and good financial advisors helping us with this.
So here are some alternative solutions to financing projects:
- Building a larger commercial tax base. During the eight years I’ve been in office, we’ve made major inroads at growing and rebalancing our tax base so less of the burden falls on our residents. Some of the actions we’ve taken include proactively rezoning a new Millhouse Road Enterprise Zone, partnering with UNC and others on the Downtown Innovation Hub, and using performance-based incentives to lure Wegmans—now the Town’s highest sales tax producer—away from Durham. Investing in commercial properties is important because they pay the same amount in taxes (including to our schools) while using fewer services. And if they happen to be retail spaces or hotels, they may also contribute other types of revenues (sales taxes and occupancy fees).
- Leveraging outside funding opportunities. We have learned over the years that having “shovel ready” projects in the pipeline at all times allows us to be more competitive or federal funding (the government does not like to give money out to folks who do not have a plan!). Federal grants can also help our money go much further. For example, federal grants covered 80% of the total project costs for the Estes Drive Connectivity Plan that will be completed soon (around $5 million in round numbers). There are also opportunities outside of Federal grants that we can tap into. Last year, a colleague and I lobbied the Town to hire a full-time grant writer on our staff for that exact reason (in conversations we had with Asheville last year, we learned how they had pulled together $35 million in funding for a greenway project. I want to see us do the same thing here!).
- Pursuing public-private partnerships. Another way we can make our dollars go further is to partner with entities. For instance, building Fire Station #2 on Hamilton Road was done through a public-private partnership with Orange County and East West Partners that saved construction costs and improved the overall development.
- Issuing Bonds. In 2018, we had a referendum on a $10 affordable housing bond. This bond—which the public approved unanimously—is helping us achieve our affordable housing goals. Prior bonds have helped finance our new library, expand greenways, complete parks projects and more.
In the next few years, the Town will begin realizing significant revenues from Wegmans (projected to be $500k a year) and other new commercial properties that were brought here with the help of performance-based incentives. With these funds hitting the books and the strategies listed above, we are in good position to move forward on the town priorities and projects.
7) Much of the work of the town council involves judging rezoning requests for new developments. Looking especially at recent proposals such as The Reserve at Blue Hill and Chapel Hill Crossings, what criteria should developers meet in order to gain approval?
With our new Complete Community development framework, we’ll be moving away from site-by-site approvals and toward creating complete and connected communities across our town. As we make this shift, we’ll be thinking about the approval criteria for projects a little differently.
A good example of how we’ll be thinking about things abit differently is taking place right now, with the work we’ve been doing in the East Parkline (formerly “Gateway”) area near Wegmans.
Four different developers came to us proposing four different adjacent—but disconnected—projects. We asked those developers to take a step back and work with our urban designer to come up with a high-level plan for the whole area which included a greenway running through it. That way, in keeping with our Complete Community goals, people will be able to walk or bike to jobs, shopping, parks, and more. We also asked them to consider the best locations and opportunities for other community needs and amenities such as diverse housing types, parks, and new retail or office space. And we wanted to see how the developers might create connections with nearby existing neighborhoods so that more people in our Town could benefit from the new amenities they were planning.
So, as you can see, this new approach will emphasize physical connectivity (i.e., Does the project have roadways, sidewalks and bike lanes, greenways – both within the area and to surrounding areas?). Developers will also have to meet criteria related to sustainability, as well as gathering areas for people to connect. To make sure we get consistent outcomes, we’ll need to build certain requirements—like EV charging station availability, expectations around parks accessibility and updated stormwater standards—into the town code. We’ll also be developing a matrix for our staff that will help everyone easily see how a project aligns with our goals. Having certain things codified will allow Council to focus on negotiating for affordable housing or other area-specific community benefits, such as commercial space for new or existing businesses or preservation of open space (like the 3-acre forest recently agreed to at Chapel Hill Crossing).
The key to our success will be in how well we implement the new framework and improve processes. So far, it looks like we are making that shift rather seamlessly, which is encouraging. But there is still much more to do!
8) How should the Greene Tract be developed? Should affordable housing be built on part of it? How much should preservation be balanced with development?
To honor the promises we’ve made to the Rogers Road community over the past 40 years, portions of the Greene Tract should be developed – and that future development should include affordable housing.
During my time on Council, I was pleased that we finally made good on our promise to brings water and sewer to the Rogers Road community. It is now time for us to follow through with the other recommendations from the Rogers Road: Mapping Our Community’s Future work, where the community expressed interest in housing and environmental preservation.
With respect to how to balance preservation with development:
Years ago, after hearing concerns from several Rogers Road area neighbors, I successfully advocated for an environmental assessment of the Greene Tract to be conducted in advance of further planning. That assessment has been completed. Since then, the County has recombined parcels to preserve the Greene Tract’s most environmentally sensitive areas as part of the 60-acre Headwaters Preserve, and applied the strongest stream and creek protections to create the 22-acre Greene Tract Preserve. Once we apply Chapel Hill’s tree canopy requirements, we’ll further protect green space on the property. All-in-all, I feel that we are doing a good job of balancing environmental and developmental interests. Furthermore, should the RENA community feel more needs to be done, I am confident they will let us know.
In recent years, there have been efforts on the part of local recreationalists and nearby neighbors—including my opponent—to limit or prevent development on the portion of land that has been set aside for that purpose. This has, unfortunately, led to a difficult dynamic for making progress and honoring our Town’s promise, as well as the vision and voices of the RENA community.
For this reason, I’ve received the endorsement of Reverend Robert Campbell, RENA’s President and long-time advocate for social and environmental justice. He trusts that I will keep his community at the forefront of ongoing discussions and see our promises through.
Over the next year, the County will be leading a public engagement process to come up with a master plan for what types of housing should be developed on this site. In a recent council meeting, we approved the new St Paul’s Village which may change some of the dynamics in that area. As a result, it may be reasonable for us to re-examine some of the previous requests—such as for a small amount of retail and services—that were set aside because of a lack of density.
9) How can the town improve its community engagement process to make sure that residents, especially those who do not have the time or resources to attend town council meetings on weekday nights, have their voices heard?
Empowering and supporting underrepresented individuals and groups is critically important to the work we do as a Town, and to driving shared progress in general.
Over the past eight years, we’ve put a number of programs in place to open new avenues to foster inclusion. These include meeting refugee communities where they are through Building Integrated Communities (BIC) with UNC; educating community members about town government and building connections through the People’s Academy; providing resources (childcare, meals, transportation, and translation services) so that people can participate in events or on boards, and hiring our first Diversity Equity and Inclusion officer to help us identify and implement new strategies such as the use of stipends to compensate folks for their participation.
Fortunately for all of us, community partners like IFC, CEF, and EMPOWERment are also working to elevate all voices and connect people to our decision-making processes.
More recently, with Complete Community, we piloted a new community engagement process. This involved designating Community Champions as a way to bring people with various perspectives together to talk through issues, build consensus when possible, and identify outstanding concerns to be mitigated. In many instances, those meetings were held over lunch or other times that were convenient for attendees—rather than in the evenings. While these discussions did not go as deep as I had hoped, I did see evidence that this approach opened the door to more informed and inclusive discussions. It’s certainly a process worth revisiting.
As mayor, I am committed to listening to all voices, seeking people out when we aren’t hearing from them, and supporting programs and initiatives that advance inclusion and engagement.
10) How can the town leverage its relationship with the university to achieve its goals? Should the Town be trying harder to keep young talent here?
A strong town-gown relationship benefits us all. Over the past several years—due to hard work by the Mayor, the Chancellor and the Councils on which I have served—UNC and the Town of Chapel Hill have made important strides forward. As the current Chair of the Council Committee on Economic Sustainability I have been a strong supporter of all of this work. Some examples of the work are currently doing together include:
- Continued partnership on Chapel Hill Transit
- Work to support our historically Black neighborhoods through the Northside Neighborhood Initiative
- Efforts to revitalized downtown through the Downtown Together Partnership, and
- Creating a new affordable housing loan fund with help from $5 million in seed money provided by UNC Health as part of the Eastowne development agreement.
While UNC is clearly at the table on so many fronts, there are still plenty of opportunities to do more together.
One of these areas of opportunity is housing. In 2021, The Town and the University jointly commissioned a Housing Needs Assessment—the first of its kind. One of the key findings was that more than 40,000 people commute in and out of Chapel Hill each day for work, illustrating the need for workforce housing, The study also showed that creating this housing would provide benefits for our entire community, such as reducing traffic.
Since I joined Council, we’ve taken a number of proactive steps to create more workforce housing. Our Complete Community framework stands to produce even more. We’ve also created historic numbers of affordable housing units; however, despite the gains we are making, the housing pressures coming from students and workers are adversely affecting our Town’s overall affordability, local employers’ ability to recruit and retain workers, and the feasibility for some people to stay in our community.
As a major landowner in town, UNC needs to be part of this solution. I’m excited that we’ve finally brought them to the table on this issue and feel optimistic about continued collaboration with them to address our diverse housing needs.
One way we’ve been able to successfully partner with UNC is with our Downtown Together Partnership.
Launched in 2021, the Downtown Together Partnership, is focused on improving the economy and vitality of our downtown. One of its goals and purposes is to keep young talent in Chapel Hill. To that end, the Town and the University have partnered on a Downtown Innovation Hub that straddles East Franklin and East Rosemary Streets (formerly the old CVS Tower). The Hub is anchored by the new Junction space which is bringing together organizations and resources that support innovation across the university and the community. These include Launch Chapel Hill and Durham Tech.
In addition to entrepreneurship, there are opportunities to retain and grow companies in the life sciences fields—another core strength at UNC. The University receives billions of dollars in federal funding for research each year and a solid track record for producing spin-off companies. Market and University data show that we will benefit from a commercial lab space downtown. By adding such a space, UNC researchers who currently have their private labs elsewhere would be able to have them within walking distance or a short bus ride from their UNC offices. Other benefits of the innovation hub and wet lab space will include more in-town internships for students, new revenues from property taxes, and the presence of more year-round workers downtown to support our local businesses.
Separately, we are looking for ways to keep young and talented community members who choose a non-university path. Much of this work is being done in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, through implementation of the Town’s ReVive Economic Recovery Plan. It’s also being done by supporting other non-profit agencies that help with business development or workforce training, such as Hope Renovations and EMPOWERment.
All of this is exciting; however, as we’ve mentioned earlier, having space and programs are just one piece of the puzzle. To be able to attract and retain talent, we need to have housing that is available and affordable so that people who work here can live here too.
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