Name as it appears on the ballot: Vimala Rajendran 

Age: 62

Party affiliation: Democrat


Occupation & employer: Owner, Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe

Years lived in Chapel Hill: Since 1985, I have been a resident of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County for different periods of time. Of those 36 years, probably a little over 10 years within Chapel Hill city limits.

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? 

After serving this community for many years as a “resident alien,” and longing to participate in the decision-making process on behalf of those who do not have a voice, I finally became a US citizen in September of 2019. This now allows me to do more than “advocate.”  I can have a seat, a voice and a vote on the town council. 

As a small business owner in downtown Chapel Hill for 11 years, I have been awarded Business Excellence Award by the Chamber of Commerce, and won multiple awards each year in the Indy Best of, and in Chapel Hill Magazine’s Best of Awards.  My business has been serving food to the frontline healthcare workers, the Northside shut-in community members, and refugee families during the pandemic, while always feeding anyone who walked up who couldn’t afford a meal.  I believe healthy food and safe, affordable housing are human rights. 

I have also served on the Commission for Women in Orange County, an appointed advisory committee that is a part of the Human Rights Commission, supported by the Department of Human Rights & Relations of Orange County Government. I co-founded The Peoples Channel, Chapel Hill’s Community Access Television Station in 1995 and was on the Executive Board for 23 years since its inception.  

I want to help the Town Council make wise decisions on matters of affordable housing, sustainable growth and development, prioritizing racial equity and focusing on the climate change/crisis.

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?

The Town Council needs to collaborate with Carrboro and Orange Co. to incentivize the development of housing for the lower and middle class workers who want to buy property in our area. This is CRITICAL to support sustainability (so people who work here don’t have to commute in), social justice (everyone deserves the opportunity to live here, regardless of income) and will keep our town from becoming an affluent retirement community.  

We need multi-family units that are green, environmentally sustainable and connected to public transportation. With enough people in critical areas, we can afford to expand public transportation. Multi-family units also are less costly for our town to serve, so tax dollars will go further in providing the amenities and services our residents need. 

We also need to develop more community spaces, including the Legion Park expansion on the American Legion Property purchased in 2016 that was supposed to be developed by now. In partnership with CHCCS we need to develop much-needed athletic fields, plus other community spaces that will support healthy lifestyles. 

3) What are three of the most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you propose to address them? Please be specific.

Social Justice, which must be addressed by judging all policies and decisions through the lens of equity and racial justice. I would also work to facilitate larger and more frequent participation of people in the community who are left out of our decision-making because they don’t have the social capital to make their voices heard.

Climate change and sustainability must also provide a lens for judging all Council decisions. We have to incentivise the best and require at least the basic green development, including stormwater management, carbon-neutral options where available, and multimodal transportation. We have to act as if our survival depends on it, because it does.  

Affordable Housing, which must be addressed through partnerships with the County and Carrboro as well as non-profits and developers. I would work on increasing density, developing the Greene Tract, and investing in  better public transportation and safe bike and pedestrian paths so the residents do not have to own and maintain private vehicles, thus increasing the affordability of the housing option. 

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 have been a community organizer for decades and worked on causes such as youth welfare (Volunteers for youth), Media literacy (The Peoples Channel), Domestic Violence prevention (Women’s Center and Rape Crisis Center), Food Justice issues. I have firsthand knowledge that small businesses form the basis of the US economy.  As a business owner, I have demonstrated good leadership and stewardship.  

The significant endorsements I have received so far include Sierra Club (NC Chapter) and CHALT

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?

I have addressed this issue in part in my answer to question #2. As we revise the Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO), we will have the opportunity to include areas for multi-family housing by-right development. This will have to include apartment buildings, duplexes and townhomes, and other creative alternatives we can come up with. We can’t wait until developers come to us with one project at a time and then spend two years arguing about it. We need to decide what we need and where and create the necessary policies so it will be built. 

We need to recruit talented partners, including architects, non-profits, local investors  with expertise in sustainable development. To get the 300 affordable units we have so far with our bond money, we have spent about $17,500 on EACH. That could go a long way in building modest two and three bedroom multi-family units, especially if we were to use some of our town property (for example, Legion Rd.) or redevelop existing public housing that is old, inadequate, and unsustainable. We must develop the Greene Tract in a way that meets our commitment to affordability and sustainability, and make good our promise to the Rogers Road neighborhood.

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? 

There are many issues packed into this question. Homelessness is extremely complex and we have a very effective Partnership to End Homelessness that needs more resources. Of course we need some of the changes to happen at the state level, so our homeless folks can get the healthcare, mental health and recovery services they need. We also need training programs (Durham Tech can do more in this area, and Town Council can push for this to happen. 

I propose a moratorium on property tax increases until a house is sold. In other words, home owners should expect to continue paying the same property tax even though the appraised value of their home increases. When the house is sold, then the new tax value should be assigned. This will allow people who are aging and on fixed incomes to stay in their homes without fear of being forced out by rising taxes. 

Mobile Home parks present an opportunity for redevelopment where current residents can become co-owners if we develop the property using the Community Home Trust model or follow the example of other communities. We need to be proactive and seek ways to purchase these properties or leverage the power and resources of our Town to bring about positive change.  I am not in support of displacing a community of people as it happened in the case of 1200 MLK where mobile homes are being replaced with storage units. 

I want to make it clear that I don’t support families staying in mobile homes that build no equity (in fact, they become a liability as owners age), in rental spaces that will soon become unaffordable despite being poorly maintained. “Affordable” should not be equivalent to poor quality and substandard.

One of the greatest shames of Chapel Hill is that children who grew up in our Public Housing are now residents of the same units. We failed to educate them and support them to become independent, successful residents. We cannot let this continue to happen. We must invest in our Public Housing families and help those who are able to become self-sufficient. Community Development needs to be a priority. With so many nonprofits based in Chapel Hill doing this kind of work around the world, we need to bring this expertise home!

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?

All large developments need to meet Green standards, improve our flooding issues and provide resources or space for the development of shared green and community spaces. As the experts we hired (and who presented a comprehensive report just this month) have told us, we need to increase our housing stock unless we want to become the “next Palo Alto.” I support development that reduces our carbon footprint, supports multimodal transportation (read bike storage and bikeways, bus stops, etc.) and helps Chapel Hill become more affordable and inclusive.

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?

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?

First of all, the plan to increase mental health services, and community watch, and social work help for people in crisis is a good way to improve “policing” and Chapel Hill Town and the Police Department reduced the number of police officers to be hired to make the above happen. The crisis unit at the CHPD has historically been a good department that had counsellors and non-uniformed/unarmed  officers that fulfilled this need.  

The town has been providing housing in hotels for the homeless during the pandemic, and CEF (Community Empowerment Fund) has been working with the homeless for economic empowerment while the IFC has been helping with their food needs. At my own restaurant, Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, we offer a free meal to anyone who cannot afford one anytime we are open.   

Panhandling could seem like a nuisance to some, but a greater problem at this time is the harassment of women on Franklin St. by men, some on foot and some driving by. 

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?

Of course we have a responsibility to protect public forests, parks and green spaces for all our residents, including and especially in areas where we propose dense development. I believe the plan to use 22 acres for a preserve in addition to the recreational fields that would be part of the school site provides a fantastic green space for future residents. I support the plan that was agreed upon by Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Orange Co. and hope to work to make it a reality.

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?

The climate Action Plan is a good one, if adopted for our town.  Some short term actionable items would be to plant more canopy trees, increase green spaces in every future development, and as the LUMO (Land Use Management Ordinance) is rewritten, negotiating with developers should be within environmentally sound principles.  Changing town’s light bulbs to LED’s is being done now. Improving the public transportation and bike/pedestrian paths will help get people out of cars to reduce the carbon footprint in this town.

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?

Our fantastic numbers (this week positive tests in Orange Co. are 2.9%, while the state is over 8%) shows that our health department and our leaders are doing the right things. I support the efficient and free testing, but believe we should have bilingual staff  to better serve our community. We need to continue to take the vaccines to the people through mobile units.  As a business owner, I brought mask-wearing into my restaurant kitchen well before the NC Governor’s office made it mandatory.  I see now that it is mandatory in all Orange County indoor spaces, but there is no enforcement of the ordinance.  People are not following the three W’s in public, which must be checked.

13) In what ways can the town foster a more inclusive environment and better engage with historically marginalized groups?

The town is a center of learning and education with the University of North Carolina being right here.  We have people from all over the world and the country living and working here.  We are a community that is inclusive and diverse.  That said, marginalized groups of people, like the refugees for example could be integrated more with translation services.  The newly appointed Diversity Officer, Ms. Shaneikia Weeks must be given more resources and staff-support to implement her ideas for inclusion and celebrating diversity. 

Historically marginalized people like those from the Northside Community must be listened to, and heard to have their concerns about gentrification, high property taxes and the resulting loss of their homes addressed.  Supporting area nonprofits that do this significant work would help the cause tremendously.  Marion C. Jackson Center, El Centro Hispano and Empowerment Inc  come  to mind. 

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?

Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s Transit system needs more funding to make the busses more frequent and run all seven days of the week. The budget for this must be prioritized from the top of the town budget.  This will not only help lower-income residents get them to work and other places, others will ride the bus too, whereby more people will leave their cars at home.  

The town can recruit and retain more bus drivers by paying higher wages, and benefits.  

Bike lanes can be made safer and more efficient by making them continuous and going throughout the town.  

15) If there are other issues you want to discuss, please do so here.

The issue  of developers who come from out of state and bully our community, with negotiations that are not transparent has led to the building of luxury apartments, and complexes that don’t house our marginalized citizens.  There is a shortage of affordable housing in our town.  Town Council and Town staff need to work together, for the interest of the people of Chapel Hill and begin a process of open and timely communication with the community.  Public hearings are held but the voice of the people  are ignored when proceeding with developments that don’t adhere to green building standards and the necessary environmentally-sound character.  Clear cutting of trees must stop to mitigate the climate crisis.

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