Name as it appears on the ballot: Hongbin Gu
Party affiliation: Democrat
Occupation & employer: Quantitative Medical Researcher at UNC
Years lived in Chapel Hill: 27
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 name is Hongbin Gu. I’m running for Chapel Hill Mayor, because I’m concerned about the future of Chapel Hill. Recent years have seen significant developments in Chapel Hill, almost all of them are luxury apartments. They drove up land value and housing costs with little benefits to our town, causing deforestation, storm water runoff, while displacing working-class communities and locally-owned small businesses. The 39-million 1100-space downtown parking lot puts more cars and traffic in our downtown, created a tax haven for the developers while leaving the town in a capricious financial situation. These developments do not reflect our value and cause long term damages to our town.
My Plan, Chapel Hill Green Recovery is a comprehensive plan to address interconnected challenges we are facing.
1) Diverse Economy. It will create a diverse economy by supporting local small businesses and providing a diverse housing supply for our low-income communities as well as teachers, nurses and firefighter;
2) Green Environment. It will prevent tree clear-cut, reduce car-centric developments, invest in bike/walk connectivity, and install community-wide green-infrastructure to control storm water;
3) Strong Community. It will invest in our community public amenities with easy access to healthy food, safe sidewalks, parks and public spaces.
I’m running for Chapel Hill Mayor with the goal to prioritize the wellbeing of people and environment over the corporate profits. It’s time to turn the page and for a better future of Chapel Hill is more green, inclusive and resilient.
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?
Wrong course. As concluded by the Chapel Hill Housing Report. The town faces enormous growth pressure with no data or comprehensive plan to guide our development. We are “flying blind” with a “splitting baby” approach to be driven by the developers from project to project. In the meantime, we have significant unmet housing needs of missing-middle, which hollows us out as a vibrant, diverse community.
If elected as mayor, I will commission a compressive study of Chapel Hill’s housing needs for a plan to address our intertwined challenges of housing, mobility, environment, and economic disparity. I’ll hire a good urban designer who understands the big picture, and launch a public campaign to map out the next land use plan LUMO that reflects the vision for a more green, inclusive and resilient Chapel Hill.
3. What are three of the most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you propose to address them? Please be specific.
My platform Chapel Hill Green Recovery is a comprehensive plan to address intertwined challenges for economic development, climate action and strong resilient community. The 3 top priorities are
- Diverse Housing and economy: to provide a diverse housing supply for the vulnerable mobile home park residents and the workforce housing. This will be accomplished through a multi-pronged approach with our partners by land donation, no/low interest loans and community ownership. We should lower/remove the barriers for gentle density development in our existing communities to bring housing diversity over time. I’ll create a diverse economy by supporting local small businesses through funding, shared spaces and mentoring network, especially for women and minority businesses.
- Environment: to reduce car dependency by discouraging car-centric developments (parking decks, storage buildings and gas stations), invest in green transportation with reliable transit, bike/walk connectivity to work/school, and enforce environmentally responsible development standards to protect forests and water and build a community-wide green-infrastructure against storm water runoff and flooding.
- Build equitable and strong community by introduce neighborhood access to healthy foods, parks, greenway and public amenities;
4. What prior experience will make you an effective member of the town council and advocate of the issues listed above? Please note any endorsements you have received that you consider significant.
I had lived-experience of gentrification and flooding in mismanaged developments in a fast-developing region. I’m a current member of the Chapel Hill Town Council, and served on town’s environmental stewardship advisory board before that. I am a strong supporter for greenways and organizer of multiple community environment initiatives. I’ve served on the Transportation and Connectivity Board and the Joint Transit committee, and a strong supporter for NSBRT, protected bike lane and pop-up bike/walk projects. I’m one of the organizers of multiple community park and culture events, including community gardens, multicultural festival, and LightUp. Throughout the pandemic, I organized multiple PPE donation and vaccination events around Triangle, especially to the minority and small business communities.
5. Last year, town voters approved a $10 million affordable housing bond, and so far $5.2 million has created nearly 300 affordable units. But affordable housing remains a concern. How would you like to see the town approach affordability issues over the next few years? Should it promote apartment living, duplexes, and/or triplexes? Encourage density in single family housing? What do you believe the town is doing right? What could it do better?
The mobile home park residents remain the most vulnerable residents who face housing instability on a regular basis. The other unmet need is the workforce housing. These are very different affordable housing needs and I’d like to see the Town employ more targeted approaches for the diverse affordable housing needs. The mobile home housing stability will be accomplished through a multi-pronged approach with legislative tools of restrictive zoning, partnership with other government agencies through land donation, no/low interest loans, loan-to-own and community ownership. Work force housing for teachers, for example, can be accomplished through special interest loan and grants, and to lower/remove the barriers for gentle density development of duplexes and triplexes in our existing communities to bring housing diversity gradually over time.
6. How should the town and county address tax revaluations that increase property taxes, especially in neighborhoods such as Northside? How should local governments address rising rents, particularly for residents of public housing? What role does the town have in ensuring its residents who live in mobile home parks remain housed in light of development pressures? Homelessness has increased by 40 percent in Orange County in 2021. How should the town and county address this issue?
The tax reevaluation situation is concerning. The public has the right to know the cause for the over 90% adjustment ratio at Northside, whether it’s driven by race, or house value? We will then address the systematic irregularities in reevaluation. The rising rent cost is influenced by the excessive liquidity in the economy, and the local government may need to be prepared for remediation when the housing bubble pop with the increase of interest rate. The mobile home housing stability will be accomplished through a multi-pronged approach with legislative tools of restrictive zoning, partnership with other government agencies through land donation, no/low interest loans, loan-to-own as well as community ownership. The cause for the increase in homelessness in Orange County needs to be examined to know the cause, whether it is pandemic related, and address the cause accordingly. The Rescue and Recovery Fund will be an important source of funding to address the current needs.
7. The town recently approved the Aura and University Place projects and more large development projects will continue to come before the council. What do you want to see from large development projects such as these and should the town develop comprehensive long term goals for projects? What role do developers have to connect with the Chapel Hill community and surrounding environment? What, if any, concerns do you have about traffic, scale, preservation of green space, and potential effects on the environment?
We need a comprehensive plan to map out what housing needs in each income level we have in order to maintain the overall vibrancy/resilience of our community. According to community character and infrastructure capacity, where to put the housing and how to manage the traffic, transit, bike/walk connectivity, and public green spaces/parks. Without knowing the “big picture”, we were “flying blind”.
For both traffic and storm water planning for major projects, the standards should be whether they help us meet our long-term goals, especially given the new climate condition. The University Place is a flood-prone site. Its current condition has significant amount of impervious surface and the retrofitting development should be a major opportunity to bring the site to current standard. Unfortunately, we only requested the new development of being not worse than current condition. It’s a missed opportunity for a redevelopment. Aura sits on an impactful site, both on traffic and storm water. Given it’s on a prime location of NSBRT, we should insist on lower parking ratio and safe bike/walk connectivity to library, school and grocery stores. The site sits on an upper land comparing to surrounding communities. When the current layer of absorbent forest debris is stripped away and replaced with expansive area of impervious surface on the site, the storm water impact will be significant. This creates a dangerous situation on the site for a future major/extended storm event. Given multiple nearby parcels will be on development agenda in the near future, the cumulative effect will be even more concerning and the town haven’t done a comprehensive planning to address that.
For major developments like UP and Aura, we should also make demands for community benefits, including public play grounds, parks, green spaces and programming to make sure that it’s a win-win situation for the community.
8. The town recently partnered with UNC on Downtown Together, to revitalize downtown and create a hub of innovation. What would you like to see come out of that partnership and what specific changes would you like to see downtown?
The UNC collaboration so far hasn’t had major budget commitment or capital investment. I’m hoping it will deliver more than just a marketing campaign. For downtown to be vibrant and resilient, we need to make investment to fix sidewalks, improve streetscape, attract a diverse economy and programing, including family-friendly activities and destinations. UNC has a lot to offer for a wide range of civil and community spaces, arts and culture programming to draw people to downtown.
9. The town recently adopted a resolution to follow recommendations from the Re-Imagining Public Safety Task Force, with the mission of increasing public safety, eliminating inequalities, and enabling all in the community to thrive. In actionable terms, how do you see these recommendations being implemented to improve policing? How should the town address panhandling?
It has designated goals and measurable to tract our progress in the multiple areas. It has a regular monitoring mechanism, and a road map to hire social workers and mental health professionals to provide the professional services instead of having untrained police officers to handle the situation. We have the Orange County in partnership to provide the outreach and support to people on the street. Some of them need mental health and other social services to address their needs. There are reports of young women being harassed at different time of the day by panhandling on street and buses. When it becomes a safety threat it needs to be properly addressed by the police, but we don’t want to criminalize poverty.
10. How should the Greene Tract be developed? Does town government have a responsibility to protect public forests, parks, and other green spaces near low income communities as it currently protects public land near wealthy ones?
Yes. Researches have shown that the low-income communities usually have less environmental protection, lower tree canopy, higher street temperature, and are more vulnerable to the shocks of climate change. Given the history of environment injustice of the RENA community, we should do more to protect the public forest and parks near the Greene Tract. I don’t see the site as one for major economic development, which will put the RENA community at risk of gentrification. However, it will be beneficial for the community to have its school, grocery stores, pharmacies nearby to make it a vibrant and sustaining community.
11. The town recently adopted a Climate Action Plan. Do you think the plan goes far enough in addressing issues related to climate change? What are some short and long term actionable items you see coming out of the plan?
This is a comprehensive plan. What I want to see us do is to take impactful actions. For short term, especially given the recovery funding, I’m hoping that we are retrofitting our public housing and town facilities. For long term investments, I want to see us make decisive move away from the car-centric community and toward building the network of green transportation. Building and transportation are the two most impactful areas to reduce GHG emission under our direct control. Many of town’s buildings are aging and have known for years for the need to repair. It’s an excellent opportunity to address both maintenance needs and advance our climate goals. As we add more density to Chapel Hill, transforming the town to become less car-dependent with more green and healthy connectivity is the key step that delivers multiple benefits. The Town’s CAP won’t be meaningful without UNC’s participation. We need to pressure UNC to phase out its coal plant in town at its earliest time before 2040.
12. How do you feel Orange County, municipal, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school board officials have handled the COVID-19 pandemic? If you don’t think the pandemic was handled well, what should have been done differently?
We are very fortunate to have a community that’s highly educated and informed. People have done an excellent job in following the health guideline, wearing masks, and taking vaccine shots as soon as they become available. The area we need to improve is our staff’s vaccination rate. It remains at a lower level than our community rate, and imposes risk to both our staff and community when they are being called to carry out duties face to face.
13. In what ways can the town foster a more inclusive environment and better engage with historically marginalized groups?
I’m glad to see our town’s efforts to reach out to the Northside community in various community building efforts. The Hargrave community center has become the bridge and hub for the community, promoting the community on their behalf. I’d like to see our town reach out to them more on regular land use and policy decisions. The town also has a significant presence of a diverse Asian American community, many are refugees, that remains largely invisible. I’m hoping the town will reach into these communities and bring them out into the town’s civic dialogue.
14. In your view, how can the town improve public transit, especially in terms of serving lower-income residents? How can the town recruit and retain more bus drivers? How can bike lanes be made safer and more efficient?
I believe it starts with good data. We need to map out the transit low income users where they travel to and from, weekly/weekend usage and travel hours and patterns. We can then design the service that will address their needs. I still believe the student population has a huge potential to recruit bus drivers. I heard that only 2 responded in a previous recruiting effort. Given the student schedule, we probably need to be more flexible to accommodate their classes. Some students don’t have transportation to go to work. Challenging but can be done. To improve bus efficiency, I have been thinking about bus priority signaling. I think we can run pilot studies to test them out. The issue with bike lanes has always been safety and connectivity. Most people feel unsafe riding in the unprotected bike lanes. We need to make investment to build and connect more bike lanes. It is the most efficient, low carbon and health way of transportation. According to UNC mobility survey, the campus biking adopting rate has been hovering around 3% year after year and is attributed to the lack of bike lane investment. This is one area that will have huge multi-cure impact for climate, housing, health and transportation.
15. If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.
I think another important topic in the community is the increasing polarization and uncivil behavior in our public dialog. It is in a sense a reflection of the time that we are in, but it’s a very important discussion how to regain the public trust in our government.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.