A rendering of the Aura. Courtesy of Town of Chapel Hill. 

I.  Sign of the Times

On a quiet Sunday morning in the typically congenial Chapel Hill, a handful of brazen political signs turned heads. They’d appeared mysteriously overnight near the wooded intersection of Estes Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard—the planned location for the controversial Aura development the Town Council approved in June. 

“Stegman voted for AURA,” the sign read in white ink over blue, followed by bold red lettering: “& Betrayed You.” 

Who, exactly, in the affluent, near uniformly liberal hamlet orbiting UNC-Chapel Hill was “betrayed” by the sprawling mixed-use project—which replaces a former tree farm with 361 apartments and 58 townhomes, including about 50 affordable units—was left up to interpretation. The sign’s author, too, was unknown, but fingers began pointing immediately toward a group of staunch neighborhood protectionists who fought the project tooth and nail. 

The Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town—known commonly as CHALT—was the most obvious culprit, though the group denies any involvement with the signs. The grassroots citizens advocacy group had fervently opposed the project since day one due to concerns over traffic impact and environmental sustainability. 

CHALT’s members identify themselves as progressives—environmental stewards protecting the town’s greatest assets from the threat of tacky “luxury” apartments. But supporters of the project say they are progressives, too, and believe staving off development will only further drive up home values, pricing out existing and racially diverse residents.

In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in Chapel Hill who doesn’t see themself as progressive. Although elections are nonpartisan, almost everyone on the ballot is a Democrat. On most social and political issues, the town’s opposing political factions align, but not when it comes to how the town should manage future growth.

On one side, you have the pro-growth crowd like council member Karen Stegman, the sign’s unwitting target, who is up for reelection this year. Stegman believes promoting dense development with access to public transit is the progressive way out of the town’s burgeoning affordability crisis, which in turn will help promote more diversity. 

“Simple supply and demand is making housing that much more expensive, which is a really urgent problem,” Stegman tells me. “We need more dense development, and that’s a change for Chapel Hill that not everyone likes, but it’s what we need to do.”

Then there’s CHALT, whose members believe growth must be carefully managed and controlled to protect the things that make Chapel Hill a great place to live—its green spaces and neighborhood character. For one reason or another, they’ve opposed nearly every major development that’s come down the pike in recent years. 

“The detractors say we’re NIMBYs,” the group’s founder, 81-year-old Julie McClintock, says during a phone interview. “The right direction is a sustainable one. What it means is: are we going to want to live here in 20 years? Have we taken down all the trees? Do we have enough parks? If we just add more people then we’re not maintaining what people love about the town.”

Currently, the board finds itself split on the most controversial development issues, with Mayor Pam Hemminger sometimes acting as the swing vote. Hemminger describes herself as a middle-of-the-road politician who hopes to cut the difference between neighborhood concerns and the town’s housing shortage. CHALT endorsed Hemminger in the previous two elections. Now, CHALT is backing Hongbin Gu, the town’s first Asian American to serve on the council. Gu is more skeptical of the town’s growth and is known for pushing back against developers. 

In addition to the mayor’s race, four council seats are up for grabs, thanks to a nearly two-year vacancy left by former council member Rachel Schaevitz. Eight candidates are on the ballot. 

That means five of the board’s nine seats are wide open next month, making this election the biggest opportunity for a political power grab in recent history. The outcome will likely chart the town’s growth for decades to come.  

Will the CHALT-backed candidates sweep the board, as they have in other elections, and prioritize preserving the past? Or will a growth-friendly slate seize control and greenlight a future of dense, urban walkability? 

Voters will answer that question, and in doing so, choose which version of progressivism will guide Chapel Hill’s future. Over the next two years, the council plans to rewrite the town’s Land Use Management Ordinance, a blueprint for the future that determines if regulations restrict growth or loosen existing codes to invite denser development. 

“The next council will help to really decide how our community grows and what it will look like 25 years from now,” says Tai Huynh, the council’s youngest member. “What does progressivism mean? Is it caring what the buildings in our town look like, or is it caring for the people in those buildings and providing a safe, nurturing place to live and grow and prosper?”

II.  Heavy Hand

McClintock’s hand in local politics spans five decades.  

Originally from Philadelphia, McClintock arrived in Chapel Hill in 1970, having moved from South Carolina where her husband served as a military psychiatrist during the Vietnam War. She was instantly enamored with the town’s quaint culture, shaped by UNC-Chapel Hill, and recalls listening with awe as folks like broadcaster Jim Hefner philosophized about the town, its storied history, and exciting future. 

McClintock served on the town council intermittently between 1985 and 2001. In 2014, she rallied with a group of residents, dissatisfied by what they perceived as a failure by elected officials to take neighborhood concerns seriously. The result was CHALT. 

“We advocate. We take positions, and they are well-researched,” McClintock says. “We call out elected officials when they don’t follow plans.”

CHALT’s goal, according to jargon on its website, is to aid local leadership in managing the town’s growth and creating a sustainable future, including by promoting green infrastructure and a mix of housing choices.

That all sounds good on paper. In practice, CHALT has fought vigorously against nearly every major development proposal, most recently Aura. When asked what kind of development CHALT supports, McClintock struggled to name a single project (two hours later, she called me back with one example: Glen Lennox, a mixed-use complex approved by the town in 2014).

 CHALT’s brand of environmentally-minded neighborhood protectionism resonated with voters critical of then-Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and the council. In its first year, the group endorsed Hemminger for mayor, and she claimed victory with a 10-point lead over Kleinschmidt. Two of CHALT’s other picks—Jess Anderson and Nancy Oates—also won election to the council.

Through dogged grassroots organizing, CHALT’s momentum and influence continued to grow. While its members did form a political action committee—Chapel Hill Leadership PAC—in 2017, the funds went toward mailers, signage, and operating expenses, rather than directly to candidates. 

The PAC’s latest report provided to the N.C. State Board of Elections showed the group had less than $1,000 on hand throughout 2021 and has raised less than $300 this election cycle. In August, the PAC was fined $500 by the state for failing to submit its financial report on time. 

CHALT’s power source isn’t money, but manpower in the form of a stalwart cohort of volunteers dedicated to community outreach and speaking out at council meetings. On certain development issues, CHALT’s was the loudest voice in the room. 

All four candidates supported by CHALT—Gu, Stegman, Shaevitz, and Allen Buansi—won seats on the council in 2017. The 2018 closure of the McClatchy-owned hyperlocal newspaper The Chapel Hill News further solidified CHALT’s power. That year, members of the group formed The Local Reporter, an online news publication that’s come under harsh criticism by some for perceived bias against development and questionable fundraising practices, including a failed Kickstarter campaign that offered donors “access” to a reporter for $1,000.

A recent analysis from The News & Observer found that several stories on The Local Reporter’s website about local developments were authored by members of CHALT, the editor or board members, or that quoted CHALT members, didn’t identify those writers or their affiliations.

In the absence of much other local news coverage, CHALT’s voice was now louder than ever. Its website boasts that 80 percent of the candidates CHALT has backed since 2015 have won elections. 

Voters split the difference in 2019, backing UNC-Chapel Hill student Tai Huynh and development enthusiast Michael Parker in addition to CHALT-supported candidates Anderson and Amy Ryan.

That should have given CHALT a majority on the council, but its chosen candidates didn’t always fall in line. Stegman was a vocal supporter of the kinds of development CHALT opposed (this shouldn’t have been a surprise as Stegman has always run on a pro-growth platform), and Hemminger was drawn toward finding a middle ground on controversial issues. She doesn’t lean into the bully pulpit; she prefers to speak last and build consensus when possible. 

Quite simply: the votes didn’t always shake out as CHALT wanted. Hemminger, Gu, and Buansi voted against Aura, while CHALT candidates Anderson and Ryan joined Stegman, Parker, and Huynh in support of the project. 

CHALT withdrew its previous support of Stegman and Hemminger this year. Hemminger, who it had supported in the two previous elections, “has not shown the bold leadership we had hoped to see,” CHALT wrote in its endorsements, while Stegman was panned as “​​the council member least likely to ask for meaningful concessions from developers.”

“CHALT wants to know they are going to have a direct connection to a candidate, and if a candidate seems to have other opinions or seems to be one to work with multiple groups, that’s not what they are looking for,” Hemminger says. “They are looking for someone to represent their interests.”

When asked if the group will continue to support Ryan and Anderson in upcoming elections after the Aura vote, McClintock couldn’t say. 

“CHALT doesn’t order people around,” McClintock says. “We endorse people we hope will embrace the kinds of things we think are important.”

That has been increasingly difficult, especially this year with several relatively inexperienced candidates vying for office. So CHALT was more selective in picking candidates to support, McClintock says. 

“That’s why we did so few [endorsements],” she says. “We just wanted to feel really solid about the folks we recommended.”

Out of the 10 candidates running this election, they only endorsed three—Gu for mayor, and Adam Searing and Vimala Rajendran for council. 

A full slate of five would give CHALT the best chance of having a majority on the council. But they couldn’t find five candidates to support this election. To gain control of the council, they’d need to win all three seats, including the mayor’s. 

III.  Gentrification is Here

At the turn of the 20th century, approximately half of Chapel Hill’s population was Black, old census rolls reveal. In the 1960s, that number had dropped to 36 percent. By 2020, the African American population made up just under 11 percent of the town.

The first drop, according to research done by UNC Ph.D. John “Yonni” Chapman, was likely the result of “emigration in response to the white supremacy campaigns.” A hostile environment fostered by Jim Crow politics and the rise of racist terrorist groups like the Klu Klux Klan drove long-standing Black populations to flee to safer regions. 

The second drop, journalist Mike Ogle explained in a recent article, occurred between 1960 and 1980, which “happened to coincide with major civil rights gains and desegregation that transformed society and began to threaten white hegemony.” Once the federal government abolished segregation in 1964, the town began what Ogle describes as a “crawl” toward integration. While rising housing costs and gentrification was a major driver, it wasn’t the only one. 

As schools integrated, the racial achievement gap swelled. A 2016 study at Stanford University found Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools had the second-highest test score disparity between Black and white students among the several hundred public schools included in the study. 

In the 1950s, UNC-Chapel Hill was forced to start admitting Black students and was “determined to drag knuckles toward enrolling any significant number,” Ogle writes. The university did let in more Black students, but the overall student population also tripled in size effectively diluting the percentage of minority students in the student body. Black enrollment at the school has never topped 11 percent and now hovers around 8 percent. 

“I find it interesting that the Black population and UNC student enrollment percentages have remained so low for decades while Chapel Hill espouses inclusivity,” Ogle told me recently. “Unfortunately, it suggests to me that the low level is perhaps where the town at large is comfortable with it being.” 

That sentiment rings true for Jaci Field, chair of UNC’s Carolina Black Caucus. 

“Gentrification is here,” Field wrote in a recent tweet. “Black people don’t feel welcome and are being priced out of living in town. Quit feeling good about the diversity ‘work’ you are doing & pay attention to what’s really happening. 

“Reading that one book & listening to a podcast is not enough.”

Field has worked at the university for more than two decades after earning her undergraduate degree from UNC in 1993. Over the years, she’s seen a lot of well-meaning lip service paid to the problem of diversity, but little progress. Still, affluent white liberals in town are quick to pat themselves on the back.

“They think things are going along pretty well and they feel pretty good,” Field says. “Unfortunately, it’s because they’ve created this insular community that they are just pricing diversity out. Where they feel like they’ve done a great job, I don’t think the minority communities feel that way at all.”

Diversity can’t exist without affordability, Field says, and a lack of affordable housing options for lower-income residents has been further exaggerated by increased demand.

Right now, the typical house in Chapel Hill costs about $487,000, according to Zillow, a nearly $100,000 spike since 2016. That’s $100,000 more than the typical Raleigh home, and $150,000 more than one in Durham. Increased demand is also driving up rental costs: renters now pay an average of $1,600 a month for an apartment, according to RENTCafe, an increase of 12 percent since 2020. 

Even workers earning twice the minimum wage—the often touted livable wage of $15 an hour—still can’t afford to rent in Chapel Hill, let alone buy. A recent study commissioned by the town revealed about 90 percent of local jobs are filled by commuters, meaning folks that work in town can’t afford to live there.

It’s a problem poised only to worsen without significant investment in new housing, the study helmed by Business Street consultant Rod Stevens revealed. To keep up with the expected growth, Chapel Hill would need to add 485 units a year, a 35 percent increase over its current housing production, Stevens explained at a September council meeting. 

Since 2010, the town has added about 357 new units a year, but the rate is extremely volatile, Stevens points out. While nearly 800 units were added in 2019, barely any were produced in 2012 or 2015. 

Failing to increase the housing supply threatens to further drive up costs, potentially to “Palo Alto” levels, Stevens said. He thinks more long-term planning is needed to allow denser projects to gain approval without going through lengthy rezoning processes.

“​​The worst scenario here is you continue to split the baby,” Stevens told the council. “What you’re doing right now is you’re planning project by project and hoping each project comes along and makes up for the errors of the past.”

Combating Chapel Hill’s lack of diversity and affordability will require thinking about housing in nontraditional ways, Field says. 

“We don’t want Chapel Hill to lose its charm, but the reality is if we don’t develop it in new and different ways, the trend will continue toward a homogeneous society and area,” Field says. “The town has to figure out who they actually want to be. They either want to stay with this small southern educational charm or they want to continue to be progressive and they want to continue to grow the population of the area.”

“In some ways,” she adds, “they are not going to be able to be both.”

IV. Misfire

Twenty-four hours after the signs accusing Stegman of betrayal appeared, it was clear the move had backfired. 

Hemminger called the attack “a new low” for Chapel Hill politics, and other leaders were quick to condemn it. CHALT denied having anything to do with the signs or any knowledge of who did, but the damage was already done.

“Whether or not it was directly a CHALT person who put it there, it’s a result of the permission that CHALT has given to a lot of people in the community to just play dirty politics,” says former Orange County commissioner Mark Marcoplos. “That’s their game. CHALT’s main approach is they spread disinformation; they inspire people to anger while they simultaneously give lip service to general liberal positions.”

McClintock believes the backlash against her organization is undeserved. 

“First of all, there’s a First Amendment right to express yourself,” McClintock says when asked about the signs. “There are lots of kooks out there, and we are not responsible, our organization is not responsible, for everyone, clearly. CHALT has a reputation for doing things respectfully.” 

CHALT’s critics would disagree: they say the group has sown divisiveness in local politics, spreading fear and mistrust in local leaders. And those tactics are alienating some residents, Marcoplos says. While low student voter turnout could give CHALT an edge, Marcoplos is cautiously optimistic anti-growth candidates won’t snag a majority on council this election. 

“The tide is turning, potentially,” Marcoplos says. “Their act is getting a little tired.” 

In the days after the signs appeared, Stegman says she received many messages of support from residents disavowing the maneuver. If anything, the backlash may actually boost Stegman’s campaign. 

“Every election gets a little uglier here,” she says. “Honestly, I think people are really tired of this toxicity.”

This election will be a litmus test for Chapel Hill voters, and their choices will define which progressive ideology shapes the town’s future. Will residents rally to preserve neighborhood character or embrace new characters in their neighborhoods? 

“One of the things that make Chapel Hill great is that we’re welcoming and inclusive,” Hemminger says. “To be welcoming and inclusive, you can’t be a NIMBY.”

This story has been updated to clarify that a News & Observer analysis of stories on The Local Reporter’s website found that several stories authored by members of CHALT, the editor or board members, or that quoted CHALT members, didn’t identify those writers or their affiliations with CHALT. The INDY erroneously stated that about a quarter of the stories on The Local Reporter’s website were authored by CHALT members in the original version of this story. 

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