Name as it appears on the ballot: Erik Valera
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: valeraforchapelhill.com
Occupation & employer: Chief Operating Officer, El Centro Hispano
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 16
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running?
In 2007, my family and I moved to Chapel Hill, not because we had ancestral roots here but because we found a community that shares our values of diversity, safety, affordability, and education. From the moment we arrived, I’ve been deeply involved in the community, from working on community-based research projects at the UNC School of Medicine to serving with local nonprofits like CommunityWorx and El Centro Hispano. I serve my community as a Chapel Hill Planning Commissioner and as a member of Governor Roy Cooper’s Advisory Council on Hispanic Latino Affairs.
Chapel Hill is evolving, and while some oppose its growth, I want to shape it collaboratively. The goals of this campaign are: Inclusivity, Connectivity, and Affordability.
Chapel Hill’s government should actively work to undo social and structural disparities, celebrate our diversity, and ensure arts and culture are elevated, especially from under-represented communities. I’m eager to support local businesses, especially those from Black, Latinx, Immigrant, and Student communities.
We must become better neighbors. I champion creating third spaces that foster a sense of belonging, making walking, biking, and public transit convenient, and establishing Chapel Hill as a benchmark for college towns through expanding greenways and collaborating with transit partners. We need a Complete Community.
We need comprehensive solutions to our affordable housing crisis. This includes removing barriers to new constructions, expanding affordable homeownership and rentals, and collaborating with partners from private, public, and nonprofit sectors to employ equitable solutions quickly.
I seek your support for a seat on the Chapel Hill Town Council. Voting for me is endorsing a vision of Chapel Hill that cherishes diversity, sustainability, inclusivity, and prosperity. Together, let’s craft a Chapel Hill that is a model of multiculturalism and opportunity.
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?
One of the main reasons I decided to run for council was to advocate for communities often underrepresented in our government. Our council has done well with the Complete Communities framework to begin addressing transportation, housing, and environmental issues facing our town. However, there’s still plenty of work to be done to address our equity issues.
The town needs to take much more direct and concrete action to address issues affecting underrepresented populations including gentrification, which has, over decades, priced historic communities of color out of Chapel Hill; lack of representation in town leadership positions, not just in elected but in hired positions, that provide perspective and context to our town’s decisions; lack of artistic and cultural spaces and opportunities, which would make Chapel Hill feel more like home; and access to officials, who may not understand a resident’s language or who hold meetings that are inaccessible to those with the most to contribute. These are crucial issues that can fall by the wayside as we focus all our attention on development or growth. That development, however, works best when it is done equitably and with care towards BIPOC, Latinx, houseless, and student residents.
The town staff made a first step forward by publishing the Gaps Analysis and Engagement Study– a good analysis, but only impactful if its recommendations are implemented. I believe that the town council should make executing its recommendations a priority, not something that can happen when convenient. Our members need to be open about having tough conversations about gentrification. We need council members who can communicate with and advocate for residents who don’t speak English. The town council needs to implement, not just imagine, a more equitable Chapel Hill.
3) What are the three most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you address them? Please be specific.
1. The Affordable Housing Crisis. North Carolina, the Research Triangle Region, and Chapel Hill are all expanding. A persistent issue we grapple with is housing affordability. It’s important to distinguish between government-subsidized housing and homes affordable for middle-income families, yet both are imperative. The rising cost of living jeopardizes individuals who earn below the median income of roughly $77,000, effectively pricing out essential community members, including staff from UNC, UNC Health, Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools, and the Town. The community’s well-being hinges on a comprehensive housing strategy. The Town’s Affordable Housing Plan and Investment Strategy, which was unanimously approved by the Council in September 2023, prioritizes four key areas over the next five years; 1) streamlining housing construction, 2) promoting affordable homeownership, 3) sustaining affordable rentals, and 4) amplifying staffing and financial input. This initiative, expected to demand around $50 million over five years, aims to facilitate the establishment of about 900 affordable homes and maintain 400 existing ones.
Despite these measures, resistance from some affluent residents poses hurdles to new housing initiatives, inadvertently inflating costs and deepening the housing crisis. I am resolute in advocating for high-density developments, fostering robust community links, and sidestepping unwarranted objections hampering vital housing projects. The Town’s comprehensive plan offers a ‘Complete Communities’ blueprint, urging developers to create a diverse housing array that melds with public facilities and crafts vibrant communal spaces.
2. Transit and Infrastructure. To diminish car reliance, Chapel Hill should transition its complimentary public transit from a hub and spoke model centered on the University to a more interconnected model. We have secured grants to explore and blueprint a broader greenway network and secure walkways and bikeways. We should not perceive public transit as an alternative to driving but rather as the convenient choice. I support our town’s transit and planning staff in their ongoing upgrade endeavors, specifically championing projects like the Transit Oriented Design and the expansive greenway initiative, ensuring these remain at the forefront of our town’s growth agenda.
3. Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change. The implications of climate change are immediate, with future projections predicting more volatile weather conditions. It’s essential to understand that vulnerable populations often bear the brunt. Chapel Hill’s counteraction mandates a holistic method, emphasizing resource conservation, safeguarding green expanses, and pioneering sustainable policies. I firmly back the Town’s 2021 Climate Action and Response Plan (CARP), which kick-started numerous eco-centric actions. By 2025, we aim for transformative advancements in eco-friendly infrastructures, including green construction norms, and public transit improvements. Our vision for 2050 is ambitious, spotlighting fully electric and energy-efficient facilities, marked reductions in vehicular travel, a pivot to green transportation, and a zero-waste community.
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.
One of the most effective ways to leverage the powers of the town council is through robust civic engagement, particularly by amplifying the voices of those most impacted by our decisions. I believe it is crucial to include perspectives from diverse communities when addressing challenges like affordable housing, transportation, and climate change. As the sole Latino candidate in this race, I offer a unique perspective and representation to help the Latino community, immigrant communities, and other communities of color feel acknowledged and considered. If elected, I am committed to ensuring diverse representation by actively recruiting and voting for individuals from diverse backgrounds for our Town boards and commissions.
While municipalities might sometimes feel limited in power, it’s essential to recognize that a Town Council Member has an influential platform. This position allows us to advocate passionately for the interests of Chapel Hill at various governmental levels, be it county, state, or occasionally federal.
My experience lends itself naturally to this role. I’ve always advocated for community engagement, especially when it involves creating genuine partnerships that elevate voices typically left on the margins. As a current Chapel Hill Planning Commissioner, I’ve assisted the Town Council in striving for orderly growth by actively evaluating, recommending, and implementing policies that focus on responsible land use and long-term planning.
My connection to Chapel Hill is deeply personal. Over the past 16 years, my family and I have benefitted from the amenities our Town provides, including parks, greenways, summer camps, and our beautiful library. I’ve experienced firsthand the challenges many residents face, from grappling with rising rents as a newcomer to eventually achieving the dream of becoming first-time homeowners. Understanding these experiences positions me uniquely to make impactful decisions for our community.
I’m honored to be endorsed by the Anderson-Thorpe-Battle Breakfast Club, NEXT Action Fund, Equality NC Action Fund, and the NC State AFL-CIO. Additional endorsements include Chapel Hill Town Council Members Camille Berry, Paris Miller-Foushee, Tai Hyuhn, and Carrboro Town Council Members Barbara Foushee and Eliazar Posada. These endorsements highlight the confidence various stakeholders have in my ability to serve our community effectively.
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 the recently passed Affordable Housing and Investment Strategy; as a Council Member, I would work to implement and eventually expand upon the plan. Broadly, this means increasing the housing supply overall, thoughtfully developing land the town already owns, and protecting existing affordable housing.
To increase the supply of housing overall, we need to build more densely within the town. Properties like duplexes, mixed-use apartments, and models like St. Paul’s Village increase the housing supply, provide options for lower-income households, and also work to build and enhance community. Duplexes especially make housing accessible to first-time homeowners, given that part of the property can be rented.
Of course, much of the power to determine what gets built lies with the owner of the land. Luckily, the town still owns several plots that could be excellent places for community-oriented housing and recreation. For example, the American Legion property; I believe maintaining most of the land as a park would more than preserve its natural appeal, but how better to appreciate that than to have housing within walking distance on the same property?
Lastly, it doesn’t make sense to build affordable housing that negatively impacts or displaces the people that need it. I support the County-wide Manufactured Home Strategy Action Plan to preserve manufactured home communities and provide relocation assistance as needed. Providing tax incentives for housing units along Rapid Transit lines, especially for those displaced due to redevelopment, is how we prove that we’re serious about helping the residents who need it most.
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?
The recent tax increase in Chapel Hill reflects the ever-evolving need to support our Town’s growth. All the same, it’s essential to provide some perspective. Over the past 14 years, the Council has only raised taxes five times, leading to a cumulative increase of just 6.68 cents since 2009. This averages to less than a 1% increase each year. Our Town does not take on more debt than we can handle, and our financial sensibility is proven by maintaining a AAA bond rating from Moody’s and Standards and Poors.
The current rate, set at 52.2 cents per $100 in property value since 2020, is supplemented by county taxes and a dedicated tax for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. It’s important to note that we’ve often bridged funding gaps creatively – leveraging one-time funding opportunities like federal COVID recovery funds, operating without filling some vacant positions, and maximizing savings from our annual budgets. It’s worth noting that around 75% of it goes towards the salaries of our over 700 town employees. We have been operating with a streamlined budget with limited room for further reductions without compromising essential services.
An opportunity lies in the affordable housing crisis. If UNC were to develop housing for its service and facilities staff within the town or initiate a master leasing program, it would considerably ease housing concerns. This is not unprecedented; the Odum Village case serves as an example. Built in the 1960s for graduate students and families, it was rendered obsolete by modern safety standards, leading to its closure and eventual demolition in 2016, but not replaced with comparable housing. Yet, given the prevailing political climate, obtaining the approvals to subsidize housing for students or employees from the University Board of Trustees seems unlikely.
That said, our relationship with UNC offers a silver lining. It positions us uniquely to bolster our tax base by fostering emerging businesses, especially those complementing existing enterprises around the Triangle. This strategy could stimulate our economy but circles us back to the housing challenge. While we aim to cultivate local talent and job opportunities, we must also ensure affordable housing in proximity to these workplaces. Expanding our commercial base appears to be a feasible avenue to enhance revenue. However, in the interim, a holistic approach that complements comprehensive housing solutions with commercial growth will be our path to maintaining the financial health of our town without unduly burdening our residents.
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?
The Reserve at Blue Hill must strictly align with the established Form-Based Code from 2014. This unique code prioritizes the physical form and structure of buildings, streets, and blocks. Its creation was motivated by the desire to revitalize areas dominated by aging commercial hubs such as East Gate, Rams Plaza, and Village Plaza. Furthermore, any new development within the district mandates acquiring a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Community Design Commission and a subsequent Form District Permit.
The Chapel Hill Crossing serves as a testament to the potential of the Complete Communities strategy. This framework champions diverse housing options to accommodate a wide range of residents, from students and professionals to families and retirees. The core philosophy behind this approach is to weave affordability into housing designs while promoting social cohesion. As residents step outside, the environment should encourage interaction and engagement.
While individual zoning codes focus on specifics, a broader perspective is essential. The Form District, for instance, emphasizes walkability and density. However, developments should not stop there. Comprehensive projects should integrate greenspaces, civic areas, and efficient transit systems. Connectivity, in particular, is essential, ensuring that residents can easily encounter and engage with multiple facets of the community.
The overarching vision for Chapel Hill requires that all new developments resonate with the town’s forward-looking strategies. The Complete Communities Strategy is a perfect example, actively assessing the town’s capacity to meet evolving housing demands. This initiative is characterized by ongoing dialogue with community stakeholders, pilot projects, and subsequent implementations. The strategy has already influenced pivotal amendments to the Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan, encapsulating new initiatives and roadmaps for the town’s future.
Moving forward the Town should approve developments with a blend of strict adherence to zoning codes, a vision for holistic community development, and an alignment with the town’s strategic objectives to foster connected and vibrant communities.
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?
Affordable housing is crucial, especially for those at or below 30% Area Median Income (AMI), and the Greene Tract undeniably has potential as a site for development. Before delving into the Greene Tract, though, I would want to prioritize developing affordable housing on the American Legion Property to address the immediate housing needs without compromising the Greene Tract’s ecological integrity.
The American Legion Property, given its closeness to transit and other essential amenities, is a more enticing option for development. While a faction exists that pushes for preserving this land exclusively as open park space, I see merit in a mixed-use development approach. Such a development can combine gathering spaces with a comprehensive network of greenways, fostering both community connectivity and environmental consciousness.
I would be amenable to reviewing plans for housing on the Greene tract, which preserves at least 75% of the town-owned land in its natural state. The development of the Greene Tract, and with every plot of land, requires a balanced approach considering both the pressing need for affordable housing and the ecological value of the land.
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?
In ensuring that the town of Chapel Hill is truly representative and inclusive, the community engagement process must evolve to prioritize the voices of those often marginalized or unable to attend town council meetings. I’m stepping into the race for Chapel Hill Town Council because I believe in the power of diverse representation. Our community’s strength lies in its diversity, and there is an urgent need for voices like mine on the Council to champion the cause of underrepresented individuals.
True community engagement transcends basic outreach. It is about fostering genuine, trusted partnerships that prioritize and validate the voices and viewpoints of those often sidelined or underestimated. One of my central campaign tenets is to champion the cause of these traditionally underrepresented voices in town governance. I’m committed to redefining how the town council interacts and engages with residents of every background.
The Community Engagement Gap Analysis demonstrates the populations not being served are primarily the Black community, Latinos, immigrant communities, renters, and students. I applaud the recommendations suggested by the Affordable Housing and Connected Communities staff and suggest we fund these recommendations adequately. I’d also like to the Town go further:
On-demand live interpreters. The Town should promote having interpreters available at ALL public meetings, including community meetings, boards, commissions, live Council meetings, and the internet feed of Council meetings. We should have interpreters on staff available to assist in Spanish, Karen, and Mandarin across departments and on demand.
Inclusive Meeting Scheduling and Amenities. The current meeting timings often clash with personal and professional commitments of many residents. Scheduling meetings at more convenient hours and providing additional incentives like monetary compensation, childcare, and refreshments can make community participation more feasible and welcoming for everyone.
Meet them where they’re at. A truly representative government and Council should proactively build trusted partnerships with constituents between election cycles, not just during an election. Town staff and council members should take the initiative, visiting local communities or organizing town hall meetings in various neighborhoods. As a Town Council Member, I aim to back up town staff at community meetings and to build trust among constituents that have been traditionally underrepresented and overlooked; I will invite my colleagues on Council to join me.
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 in the area?
The relationship between the Town of Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina is invaluable, offering a mutual platform where both can thrive. As a college town that has always prided itself on fostering education and embracing student culture, Chapel Hill stands to gain immensely by further strengthening its ties with UNC Chapel Hill. This partnership ought to be about co-creating a future that leverages the University’s academic excellence and youthful energy.
To retain students beyond graduation, we must get a grip on housing, affordability, and infrastructure. Developing mixed-use commercial spaces, diverse housing options, and building a connected community not only to address the immediate needs of students and faculty but also facilities and service staff and their families. Such an ecosystem strengthens social bonds, providing an environment where students and young professionals can see a future.
Further, uplifting Arts, Culture, and international sports as economic drivers can invigorate the community in unique ways. For instance, hosting concerts at venues like Kenan Field or the Dean Dome, otherwise hosting international FIFA soccer matches. The Chelsea vs Wrexham soccer match this past summer demonstrated the demand for international soccer, and highlighted how a relatively small town in North Carolina can rival any big city in America.
Beyond UNC Chapel Hill, we must also acknowledge the potential of institutions such as Durham Tech, North Carolina Central University, and Chapel Hill- Carrboro City School alums. Each of these educational institutions produces young talents who, if given the right opportunities and environment, can contribute significantly to the growth of Chapel Hill. As a parent and a proud local, I envision a Chapel Hill where our homegrown talents, like my son studying at NC State, see a future for themselves here – building careers, families, and communities.
My vision for Chapel Hill is an innovative place that offers equitable opportunities, rewarding careers, affordable housing, and instills a deep-rooted sense of belonging and pride in its diverse multilingual community. By leveraging our relationship with the University and other educational institutions, we have the tools to become the college town to which all other college towns compare themselves.
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