Name as it appears on the ballot: Theodore Nollert
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: theodore4chapelhill.com
Occupation & employer: PhD candidate, UNC-Chapel Hill
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 1.5 years within city limits, 4 years at UNC and working in the town
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running?
Young folks like me are inheriting a world full of crises: a housing crisis, a climate crisis, an income crisis, a mental health crisis. I’m not going to sit on the sidelines and complain – I’m rolling up my sleeves and making an effort to shape the world that I’ll spend the rest of my life living in. That’s part of what motivated me to lead a successful pay raise campaign last year to achieve the largest ever one-time increase in graduate stipends in UNC history.
I’m also running because I know firsthand what it’s like to struggle to find housing as a low-income person in Chapel Hill’s workforce. The high cost of housing is part of why 40,000+ commuters drive to work here, which is bad for our climate, bad for our commuters, and bad for Chapel Hill’s economy. I joined the Planning Commission because I wanted to tackle that problem and help Chapel Hill prepare for the challenges of the future. The way we design our town shapes our culture and our lifestyle, and we owe it to Chapel Hill to invest in its future as a community that is open to all.
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?
I’d like to see more progress in economic development and town programming. We desperately need to increase commerce – and thus commercial revenue – so that local businesses can survive and so that the Town can pay for amenities without relying entirely on property taxes. High commercial rents pose a threat to the character of Chapel Hill and we have to find creative ways to deal with that, whether it means spearheading an initiative for an independent entity to purchase under-utilized storefronts and fill them with unique local businesses, or exploring incentives for higher uses and penalties for under-use. Coordinating the artistic, cultural, and athletic talent and resources of the area are also promising ways to boost sales and occupancy tax revenue.
Additionally, CHTC must improve its outreach and engagement. Our issues are complex and building trust takes a lot of time and a lot of allies. We’re trying to navigate conversations involving market conditions, legal conditions, environmental conditions, and personal desires – or personal enmities. But we’ll all still be neighbors when this election is over. I’ve found while knocking doors that Chapel Hill residents don’t feel like they have an objective, trusted source of information. The Town has a website and a newsletter, but no one has ever mentioned those to me as their go-to source of information. Consequently, people who feel sure that they *do* know what’s going on in town become their neighbors’ primary news sources – and they’re not always right about how things work, what’s happening, or why! Part of the solution to our engagement and information problems is for the Town Council to lead a Day of Knocking once or twice a year when we, other elected officials, and civic volunteers all get out to share a town survey and spread awareness about town resources and regulations.
3) What are the three most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you address them? Please be specific.
Housing, transportation, and commerce. We have 40,000+ commuters coming to Chapel Hill for work, some from as far away as Mebane or Siler City. If housing costs keep rising, folks will come from further and further away. That’s expensive for them (in time and money!), bad for our environment, and bad for the town because those folks are less likely to spend money here in town or to pay taxes here. Our town and the University have an important partnership; UNC Health recently agreed to create a $5 million revolving loan fund to help with affordable housing. That partnership could extend to creating UNC workforce housing as part of a retention and recruitment strategy. Our approach to growth and housing needs to be driven by the goal of helping municipal employees, service workers, teachers, healthcare workers, and other essential folks who work here afford to live in Chapel Hill, too.
Young folks are looking for a more connected, less suburban lifestyle, one that provides access to substantive green corridors and to quality public gathering places. The greenway system of linear parks is a step in this direction, but we need to advertise to developers that successful projects will seriously incorporate Chapel Hill’s tree canopy and link to each other not only with pavement, but with traversable green space. Competing for grant money, especially money in the Inflation Reduction Act, is critical to upgrading our infrastructure, supporting our businesses, investing in parks and sustainability, and providing more recreational and cultural amenities.
We also need to create an entity that leverages the very widespread desire to preserve the ‘character’ of Franklin Street to purchase one or two critical storefronts and dedicate them to local anchor tenants – even if that means charging less than market rate rents. Epilogue and the Daily Tar Heel both enjoy leasing situations motivated by precisely this devotion to placemaking over profit. That’s what Franklin Street needs.
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.
The power of the pulpit, of community outreach and relationship building, is a huge asset for the Town Council. Relationship building and soft power are the key to accomplishing things politically, and those are skills I practiced at UNC over the course of our successful pay raise campaign last year. That’s what we’re doing in the working group that the Southern Environmental Law Center and Senator Graig Meyer assembled to think through the future of UNC’s cogeneration plant. Since so many of our restrictions come from the state level, it’s going to be critical to coordinate with other towns across the state to pursue a shared vision of economic success, health, and wellbeing.
We retain a lot of power to draft ordinances, design our development review process, and negotiate over conditional zonings. None of that is trivial. We have to use those tools to address our housing crisis, reduce car dependency, create quality public gathering places, and support robust local businesses. That’s the kind of town people will want to live in for the rest of this century.
I’ve received more than thirty endorsements, which you can see here, including former State Senator and Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee; Mayors Pam Hemminger, Mark Kleinschmidt, Rosemary Waldorf, and Ken Broun; more than ten current and former Town Council members; more than ten Orange County officials; and multiple community leaders. One of my goals is to build alliances with folks across this state working to create a North Carolina that invests in helping ordinary people, which is why I’ve also been endorsed by elected officials across the state and groups like the AFL-CIO, the Sunrise Movement, Equality NC, and others.
UNC fans may, like me, consider it pretty exciting that I’ve also been endorsed by Armando Bacot.
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 do support the plan. Affordable housing generally refers to housing for those making less than the area median income. Our options are basically to subsidize low-income housing by donating land and funding nonprofit builders to construct it, or negotiating with for-profit developers to include housing for people who make less than the area median income (around $75,000 for Chapel Hill).
When the Town Council negotiates with for-profit developers, they don’t get to know what a project will cost exactly, or what the developer’s anticipated profit margins are. It takes skill and open-mindedness to drive the best bargain for the Town, which is one reason why we’ve got to work on creating a development process that allows us to build partnerships with developers who are part of this community and live with the consequences of their choices. What we have seen with projects like 157 E. Rosemary Street is that providing added height enables us to get a higher percentage of affordable units than we would otherwise get. Until we are in a position to see massive state and federal subsidies dedicated to low-income housing, that is the best option we are likely to get.
I would add, though, that we’ve seen a distinct decline in the demand for traditional office space, and I think areas that are zoned for commercial office space should be opened to housing moving forward. That’s part of adapting to changing lifestyle preferences among young folks, who value proximity to school, work, shopping, and recreation, and it’s part of adapting to a changing economy. Much as we left hitching posts behind when we stopped using horses, so will we need to reshape our cities as office utilization shrinks and as car dependency declines. Especially in the case of the latter, our climate demands it!
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 Town needs more money to spend, and that will come from a combination of boosting sales and occupancy tax revenue, developing our land to the highest and best use, and creating amenities that help us brand the town in unique ways. We also have room to pursue more grant money – for infrastructure, for arts and culture, for transit, for economic development – which will help us to counterbalance the property tax revenue that the University doesn’t pay.
Chapel Hill should also explore increasing the availability of recreational facilities and sports tournaments as revenue drivers, increasing the number of downtown residents, and partnering with the University to attract visitors and therefore revenue. We’ve got to do small things, too, like help folks navigate the permitting process. The tremendous cultural diversity of the town and the student body represent an opportunity to build a vibrant community and generate commerce at the same time.
Ultimately, we’ve got to make people feel safe and comfortable downtown, have enough downtown customers for businesses to survive in town that our businesses can survive, and capture a couple extra storefronts for committed local merchants. That’s all part of designing an attractive town and creating commercial tax revenue.
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?
What we look for on the Planning Commission are projects that provide ambitious, affordable housing strategies, are designed to make walking, biking, or busing easy, and that are situated close to key amenities like grocery stores, restaurants, schools, workplaces, and recreation areas. It is also critical that projects incorporate serious green space for residents to use. The greenways can act more or less as linear parks, tree-lined green corridors that connect housing, workplaces, shopping, and more. It’s appealing when these are central parts of new projects.
In the case of The Reserve, we can look to the example of Glen Lennox, where all the residents who would have been displaced by the new development were voluntarily rehoused in the completed project, at their old rental rate, by the developer. This is an example we can hold up when other folks look to redevelop projects. Sometimes buildings reach the end of their lifespan, and we do need sometimes to use land more efficiently by building up on existing low-density properties. But we must do everything in our power to ensure that we are not kicking out low-income residents to make room for high-income folks. To do that, Chapel Hill has got to identify developers who value this community and then build constructive relationships with those folks so that we are proactive about avoiding displacement when new housing gets built.
Generally speaking, the key features for complete community are: a variety of unit types on site (especially since unit size is our best proxy for price); high levels of multi-modal transit integration (pedestrian and bike infrastructure, bus stops); quality public gathering spaces and outdoor amenities; and easy access to groceries, restaurants, or shopping. Those are the most important criteria to me.
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?
There is a great deal of writing and public comment from folks in the Rogers-Eubank neighborhood who have advocated for development in this area. The future St. Paul AME Village is one of the best projects we’ve ever seen in Chapel Hill and a model for the Greene Tract: it incorporates green space and trails into a community with mixed-use commercial and retail, structured parking rather than sprawling surface lots, affordable and market-rate housing, and connectivity via bike lanes and bus lines. It’s possible to develop affordable housing on much of the Greene Tract while preserving natural corridors and ecologically important areas; but at a time when Chapel Hill’s historically black population is shrinking, it’s critical that we take action on decades-old promises to build in that area in ways that help Chapel Hill remain diverse, bring our commuting workforce closer to town, and provide quality public gathering places and natural amenities to the folks who live here.
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?
Our number one focus should be on proactive outreach, including by knocking doors, to share Town surveys and resources. The basic principle is that government needs to meet people where they are- all of the people, not just the most powerful. Half the residents of this town rent. We’ve got to be talking to renters as well as homeowners about the amenities that they want and they need. We’ve also got to spread good news! People need to know that we have a lot to celebrate, whether that’s the affordable housing we’ve constructed, the parks we’ve invested in, the greenways we’re going to build, or our community festivals. I truly believe that the best way to increase the uptake of Town information sources is to tell people, face to face, that they exist. From there, we’ll end up tapping into those organic leaders within the diverse communities of Chapel Hill who help bring folks into our information network and that will help to improve the sampling in our surveys that we use to think about what people most desperately want in town.
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?
We already leverage our relationship to have a fare-free bus system (the University pays half the operating costs) and recently gained a $5 million revolving loan fund. In the big picture, the Town and University’s next shared goal is workforce housing for UNC employees and planning the expansion of CHT. I hear often from folks who use CHT that if service were more frequent, later, or more reliable, that they’d use it more. It’s already a pretty good system, but there’s room for growth and improvement. There’s also meaningful opportunities for partnership on smaller-scale issues that improve the livability of the town: expanding our partnerships on artistic and cultural programming; working together to grow the Good Neighbor Initiative, which helps to tackle neighborhood etiquette, street parking, residential integration between students and their neighbors, and open communication
Absolutely the Town should be trying harder to keep – and to attract! – young talent. The way we design our towns shapes lifestyle and culture. Young folks want to feel connected. They want to be able to walk downstairs for a coffee, hop on a bike to go to dinner, or ride three bus stops for a concert and drinks after work. Denser housing is appealing to a lot of us, especially if it creates opportunities to buy. In the meantime, it’s imperative that we pursue strategies that help renters get to where they aren’t paying 40-50% of their incomes to rent! There are going to be tradeoffs for that: smaller unit sizes can lower rents, and that means we need really good places for people to go to get out of the house.
We also have got to be thoughtful about our economic development, looking for businesses that work well for our live-work-play mentality, and recruiting folks who can tap into UNC’s strongest academic areas and create a pipeline for folks to come out of their undergraduate or graduate programs and enter the workforce here (or go away for a couple years and come back, rather than coming back only upon retirement). It’s appealing to young folks like me to live in towns that aren’t as car dependent, in part because we’re thinking a lot about tackling the climate crisis. The kind of culture and lifestyle that we got used to in the previous century aren’t sustainable. If we continue to plan our towns in that way, we will not get our emissions under control, and that will spell disaster for our children and grandchildren. That’s why it’s so exciting to be part of a town that is taking the threat of climate change seriously and taking action to make a new kind of healthy, enjoyable lifestyle possible.
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