Panelists: Community buy-in required to fight socioeconomic inequality


PITTSBORO — The call was near unanimous at the first “One Chatham” community forum: solving the problem of socioeconomic inequality in Chatham County requires community effort.

Five panelists discussed financial and social gaps in Chatham County and solving those issues during the event held at the Chatham Community Library in Pittsboro on May 15. It was sponsored by the News + Record and the Our Chatham project from UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism’s Reese News Lab.

Socioeconomic inequality has been defined by one author as the gap between the income and wealth of “the super rich” and “the rest of us,” but the panelists expanded on that definition. Paul Cuadros, an investigative journalist, professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and author, said it can best be seen in housing.

“Today, it remains a huge issue for a community like Siler City,” Cuadros said. “This is something the town has grappled with, the county has grappled with, but it doesn’t seem like it’s been dealt with in a strategic way. … If you want to see where that inequality is, all you have to do is visit some of these neighborhoods. It starts with the mobile home parks.”

The 2018 Chatham County Community Assessment measured rates of home ownership and rental on either side of N.C. Highway 87/U.S. Highway 15-501. On the western side, 22.4 percent of the residents rented homes and 39.5 percent owned homes. In the east, 52.4 percent owned their homes and just 7.9 percent rented.

Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, a policy analyst with the Chatham County Manager’s Office, said socioeconomic inequality comes about as a “failure of some larger systemic issues,” and that those issues need to be flexible to fit every group.

“Historically, there have been a lot of populations that have been dis-invested in,” she said. “These groups need very different policy solutions. There are potential solutions that might work in Pittsboro that might not work in other parts of the county.”

The main thrust of solution discussion was people getting involved to various levels, whether that be in job creation, policy changes or simply getting to know your neighbor better.

Alyssa Byrd, president of the Chatham Economic Development Corporation, spoke about how economic development incentives can help attract good companies with good jobs.

“Are they redeveloping a property? Are they going in a strategic place? Are they paying for at least 50 percent of the healthcare? One of the great things about systems is they can adapt and change as the community changes,” she said. “We can adopt best practices and make sure that we’re serving our community.”

Tami Schwerin, executive director of Pittsboro-based nonprofit Abundance NC, pointed to the problem of food insecurity and how everyone can play a part.

“We have enough food in this county for everybody,” she said. “It’s not like we don’t have food. What’s the creative solution that no one has to go hungry? We don’t need to have starving people in Chatham County.”

Susan Levy, chair of the Chatham County Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and former head of Orange County Habitat for Humanity, talked about the need for public and private investment in affordable housing. Getting good housing affordable for even the lowest-income people, she said, can have a positive impact on healthcare and education.

“It really does require everybody, not just government,” Levy said. “It all really has to come pretty much locally. There has to be some taxpayer dollars from somewhere to support affordable housing, especially if you want to reach people at the lowest level who have the greatest need. I think we can all take responsibility. We have to be willing to make some small sacrifices to achieve it.”

About 70 residents attended the event and asked questions of the panelists. News + Record Publisher and Editor Bill Horner III, who moderated the event, said this was the first in what he and Our Chatham organizers Eric Ferkenhoff — a lecturer at UNC and veteran journalist — and 2019 UNC graduate Alexis Allston, Our Chatham’s project manager, hoped would become quarterly events.

A summer “One Chatham” event, to be held in Siler City, is in the planning stages, Horner said.

Reach Zachary Horner at or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.