We’re starting a series of interviews with Council Members in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Today we’re speaking with Carrboro Town Council member (and Mayor Pro Tem) Susan Romaine who is the founder of Orange County Living Wage and PORCH Chapel Hill-Carrboro. Romaine, who was elected in 2019, serves as Council’s liaison to the Economic Sustainability Commission, Northern Transition Area Advisory Committee, Truth Plaque Task Force, Intergovernmental Parks Work Group, and Orange County Local Government Affordable Housing Coalition. Susan writes an excellent newsletter which we recommend subscribing to if you are interested in Carrboro civic life.
She spoke with Triangle Blog Blog’s Ryan Byars, Melody Kramer, and Martin Johnson about a wide range of issues affecting the town on a recent Zoom call in late January. Answers have been slightly edited for clarity and length.
TBB: We’ll start off with an easy one. How do you come up for air and maintain everything? Given the volume of emails you receive from your constituents on a regular basis, how do you juggle everything?
Romaine: That’s a great question. My days are very full. I’m the founder of two nonprofits, PORCH and Orange County Living Wage, and I’m still actively involved with both. So together, that’s a full-time job. And then I get the honor of a lifetime, really, serving on Town Council.
Managing email is a nice problem to have. I love the fact that we live in a community that is very engaged. I read and respond to every single email from community members – even if just to thank them for writing and to let them know that they’ve been heard. I also appreciate the fact that people turn to Council members to help them navigate a process that can seem a little overwhelming at times – whether that’s getting a building permit, emergency housing assistance, traffic calming, or new smoke alarms.
It’s very satisfying to be helping community members do that.
TBB: You had a Council retreat last weekend. Can you talk a bit about that?
Romaine: Yes, it was a very productive retreat. We developed a strategic plan setting priorities over the next 12 to 18 months, based on the long list of recommendations in our Carrboro Connects Comprehensive Plan. We’ll focus on implementation of our racial equity initiatives and Community Climate Action Plan, zoning reform, and bicycle/pedestrian improvements. We also looked at ways to become a higher performing organization. For example, as a council, how do we put these priorities into action in a timely way? I’m hoping that we’ll see the needle really move this year in terms of putting the vision of our comprehensive plan into action.
TBB: One thing we’ve noticed is that people run for council on one issue, something they’re interested in. And there’s so much to learn on Council that you often see people change their mind about something or change their approach. We’re curious to hear from you – you’ve been in office now for a few years. Could you say more about how you take in all of this information and think things through?
Romaine: We all tend to get into silos, myself included. The people I talk to and spend the most time with tend to be people with similar views to mine.
And so one of the things I really try to do in a very intentional way is to be open to listening to people who have views different than mine. And it has changed me in a lot of ways.
Serving on council, I think one of my most important takeaways is that if there were an easy solution, it would have been done. We are grappling with issues because it is hard to find a win-win. Everyone is looking at a particular issue through their own lens, which creates many different and sometimes competing perspectives. I think the important thing for me is to really force myself to get out of a silo, and to hear different points of view. The more we can appreciate different perspectives that people bring to the table, the more opportunity there is to find a happy compromise. That to me is the ultimate end game.
TBB: Can you share an example?
Romaine: An example of that would be Missing Middle housing. There are so many reasons I feel like we really need to look for ways to build denser, more compact neighborhoods in Carrboro, especially near transit corridors. For affordability, for diversity, for equity, for climate. One way of increasing density is to reform our zoning regulations to allow for Missing Middle housing in neighborhoods currently zoned for single family only homes. This includes duplexes, triplexes, town homes, and cottages – housing that falls smack in between single-family homes on one end and high-rise apartments on the other.
But I also understand it’s not that easy. Will developers come in and snatch up homes and turn them into student-stuffers or high-rise apartments? Will more Missing Middle housing lead to gentrification in these neighborhoods, forcing long-time residents to relocate? Would neighborhood conservation districts and HOAs be exempt from zoning reform that allows more Missing Middle housing? I want to understand some of these complexities a little better.
TBB: We’re worried about studying something to death as a stall tactic.
Romaine: I agree. You know there’s always reasons not to do something – the list can be forever long. For over half of our community members, many of whom are Black and Brown, not doing something comes at a high price. They are cost burdened, paying more than 30% of their income toward housing. They can’t make ends meet. They are being forced to leave Carrboro, including some families who have lived here for generations. So, when we think about all of the potential downsides of change, I think we need to spend just as much time thinking about all of the downsides if we don’t change.
TBB: A follow up to that: since starting the blog, we’ve learned a lot more about what local governments are allowed to do vs. what the states allows us to do. (For example, we can’t have rent control.) So we’re curious how you manage that tension with what you can do at the local level vs. maybe what you’d like to do, but can’t because of other regulations or laws at the state level.
Romaine: I think the best thing we can possibly do is get involved in the electoral process and rally behind and work on behalf of those elected officials who will change some of the policies at the State level to make it easier for us to do our work at the local level.
But between now and then, there are important changes that we can make. You mentioned we cannot implement rent control. But we can provide more variety in our housing stock at different price points. We can use $1 million in ARPA funds to build permanently affordable housing for lower-income community members. We can use $500,000 in ARPA funds to weatherize lower-income homes, to save on utility costs. We can build more housing near transit, saving on transportation costs. So even though we do have some tight regulations at the state level that limit the town in many ways, there are some things that we can still be doing at the local level that make a difference in affordability.
One more example of that: I’m director of a nonprofit pushing for a minimum wage that is a living wage. The state minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which is really a poverty wage, and it’s been that same wage at the state level since 2009 – without even an adjustment for inflation. We can do things here at the local level to work around that. The Town of Carrboro is certified as a living wage employer. Every employee that works for the Town is paid a living wage, which is now well over double the minimum wage. So, even though we can’t fix everything, the Town can provide that type of leadership in the community, and we can at least take care of our own staff in a fair and decent way.
TBB: Thank you. We really appreciate that. Switching gears a bit, what do you wish people knew about serving on council?
Romaine: I took my seat on Council in December of 2019 and just three months later, we were in lockdown from a once-in-a-century pandemic. I had very little experience in local government. I had never even served on an advisory board. And so the responsibility of it all was very daunting.
Thankfully, we had strong leadership from our County Chair and three Mayors. We had strong leadership from Orange County Public Health Department and the emergency management team. It was really inspiring to see elected officials and the town and county staffs rise up and help the community through a real crisis.
Now, we lost some community members to COVID, and some were very sick. I don’t want to minimize that in any way. Lots of people lost jobs. Businesses shuttered. Mental health suffered, especially among students. But I would also say that throughout the pandemic, our community rallied. A lot of community members turned to local government for guidance, and I thought we made prudent decisions around masking, distancing, and vaccinations. Emergency grants helped to shore up small businesses and nonprofits. Parks were kept open. Food distribution sites were added. At a time when I think some people were feeling cynical about government, I had the opposite experience. I was really inspired by all the people working on the front lines and behind the scenes – by how much they cared, how hard they worked, how much they lifted us up. I feel the same today.
TBB: Thank you. We want to talk about some of your priorities for the coming year. You recently put out a newsletter where you listed some of them, and we’d like to go through them. (Your newsletter is great – people can subscribe here.)
The first is downtown, both with appearance and with parking. One of the challenges we see in downtown is that there’s so much empty land that’s downtown — that we use for parking. We’d love to hear your thoughts on what you’d want to see in downtown Carrboro over the next 10 years. How do we work with the businesses we have, and where can we improve?
Romaine: At our retreat, Council members were asked to write a postcard outlining our vision for Carrboro over the next 10 years. It was a great opportunity to think about broad strokes. What do we see our downtown looking like in 2033?
I see Fitch Lumber’s property becoming a mixed-used development. I see commercial on the lower level with 2, 3, 4, levels above it with residential space. I think it’s ideally situated for that kind of development in our downtown — walkable to many amenities. So that would be super exciting.
Our new downtown library/civic building will be a community hub and engine for new economic development. Hundreds of thousands of people will visit the library over the course of a year. After patrons check out a book or use a computer, they will also be buying a sandwich or getting the car repaired. This will be a real shot-in-the-arm to our local economy. My vision for downtown includes a bustling commercial corridor in between the library/civic building, and the Art Center’s new home on Robeson Street.
I also see appearance improvements helping to make our downtown even more of a destination point. Planters and tree canopy, awnings, edging along our sidewalks, colorful murals, and benches. I’ll be pushing for more funding for a downtown face lift in our next budget.
And you mention parking. A lot of the cities and towns around us are reducing or eliminating minimum downtown parking requirements. I’m a fan of that as well. Getting rid of the requirements could reduce parking costs, unleash new development, create more jobs, shorten commutes and reduce gas emissions. The new development at 201 N. Greensboro, the old CVS site, is a great example of this.
Quick background: This is a new mixed-use project, with retail or a restaurant on the lower level. Office space will be on the second and third levels. It’s going to be a really attractive building. Our land use ordinance mandated 60-some parking spaces for this development. That requirement is based on an outdated formula, which has not been adjusted for the fact that more and more people are visiting downtown on foot, bicycle, or transit. Cars will always be needed, but we are transitioning toward more active forms of transportation.
With this in mind, the developer thought he could make the project viable with just 40-some parking spaces. So did his lenders. Council agreed. The money saved on parking could then be put into tree canopy, covered bicycle parking, outdoor seating – all the kinds of amenities that we really want to see in our downtown. It was a win-win for Carrboro.
TBB: Let’s talk about housing for a minute. We’re thrilled that Council has invested money in affordable housing — and we need to support that. But we’re also really excited that our neighborhoods can become denser, which would allow more people to walk around. We’re seeing lots of tiny mill homes being replaced by giant single family homes with large lots near downtown, and near the elementary school.
Romaine: My husband and I live in Winmore, where there is a lot of variety in the housing, for renters and homeowners. Young, working couples and empty nesters are living in duplexes. A grad student lives a few doors down in a town home. Families with school-aged kids are living in single family homes. The Landings at Winmore has 58 permanently affordable garden-style apartments and town homes with the help of Community Home Trust.
Thanks to the variety in housing options, our neighbors are of all ages, races, ethnicities, incomes, and family sizes. We love Winmore for that reason.
Sidewalks and the nearby Bolin Creek greenway make this part of town very walkable and bikeable, especially for students attending Chapel Hill High, Smith Middle, and Seawell Elementary. During a typical walk along Phase 1B of the greenway, I pass dozens of students on their way home from school. If there were more housing here, more students and their parents could benefit from this Safe Route to Schools. So would our environment.
Adding more compact housing close to downtown would also increase walkability – to grocery stores, restaurants and coffee shops as well as Cat’s Cradle, the ArtsCenter, and the Farmers Market. I’d love to see part of our downtown closed off to cars one day, to make walking and bicycling even safer. Otherwise, at least a Slow Zone.
TBB: So we also want to talk about bike and pedestrian improvements. Carrboro has had a number of approved plans – bike plans, parking studies, etc. but it doesn’t always have a great track record with implementing some of the recommendations that are in those plans. A lot of stuff just isn’t happening. And we understand there are technical reasons – but we’re just curious how to think about action.
Romaine: Let’s go back to the strategic plan that Council just approved. It spells out our priorities over the next 12-18 months, and informs our staffing and budget decisions to get us there. It also builds in more accountability.
That accountability applies to our town manager and his staff during annual performance evaluations. It also applies to Council during our performance evaluations at election time. Some of us may be running for a seat on Council in November. I would hope that the strategic plan is a part of the voters’ decision-making. Are we making steady progress? Are we where we wanted to be with the implementation of bike plans and parking studies? Or could new members bring about needed change in a timelier way?
I take the whole process behind the development of the Carrboro Connects Comprehensive Plan very seriously. Hundreds of community members came together and crafted this document that is setting forth growth and development in Carrboro over the next two decades. It represents hours and hours of work over many, many months. I respect that hard work. I respect the community-driven vision of Carrboro that was reflected in the plan. Now it’s up to Council to turn this vision into action. I’m hoping we can make some big strides in 2023.
The other thing I would say is that we badly need a transportation planner. For much of 2022, this position was vacant. When our new transportation planner is onboarded – soon, I hope – I think we are better positioned to move the needle in implementing much-needed bicycling and pedestrian improvements.
TBB: Let’s talk about Bolin Creek Phases 3 and 4. Our understanding is that at the Feb. 14 meeting, staff intend to present the council with some strategies for public engagement, to talk about how to make a decision as well or not to move forward with the greenway. How does the comprehensive plan inform that discussion? And we say that because a lot of the public engagement around greenways has been people standing up at council meetings to talk about how they don’t want this in their backyard, whereas town-wide surveys and the comprehensive plan seem to show that, in fact, most people in Carrboro in fact like greenways and very much wish we had a greenway. How do you see that going? (And we should say we don’t want to preempt staff here, because that’s their job to bring this to you.)
Romaine: On February 14, Council will be holding a work session to discuss the public input process for the Bolin Creek greenway. I think that process needs to be as inclusive as possible. Rather than hearing from a small number of very outspoken community members, I hope we can engage a broad spectrum of the community – just as we did for the comprehensive plan.
Inviting community members to share public comment at Town Hall is one type of engagement. But not everybody can attend a meeting on a Tuesday evening. They may be working the night shift. Or taking care of kids. Perhaps they don’t have transportation or there is a language barrier. We need to offer other ways for these folks to weigh in on the Bolin Creek greenway.
Some already have in our 2021 community survey, which has some helpful information about expanding our network of greenways. Our comprehensive plan includes more helpful feedback from community members.
We could add to the Town’s website a way for people to give input – and share some demographic information, to be sure we are hearing from a broad spectrum of the community.
The town’s Communications and Engagement team is also developing better ways to reach neighborhoods and apartment complexes historically left out of the public input process, through Information Centers, or kiosks; and through Carrboro in Motion, which uses neighbor-to-neighbor engagement to encourage healthier lifestyles.
Whatever the public input process that Council agrees to, I hope there is an end point. That is, a vote – in 2023. It’s time for Carrboro to bring closure to a decades-long conversation around the Bolin Creek greenway; and help Raleigh, Durham, Hillsborough, and Chapel Hill plan around this “missing link” in their growing network of greenways.
TBB: Thank you so much for talking with us. We are so appreciative that you took the time to do this.
Romaine: I really appreciate you asking me to be a part of this, and I really appreciate your engagement in the community.