Report: Chatham is N.C.’s 5th most expensive county

Posted 4/5/19

Chatham County is the fifth most expensive North Carolina county in which to live, according to a report by the N.C. Budget and Tax Center released last week.

According to the report, a family of …

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Report: Chatham is N.C.’s 5th most expensive county

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Chatham County is the fifth most expensive North Carolina county in which to live, according to a report by the N.C. Budget and Tax Center released last week.

According to the report, a family of four in Chatham must earn $58,717 to afford housing, food, child and healthcare, transportation and taxes. Durham, Orange, Wake, and Mecklenburg counties are the most expensive, with Durham County topping the list at $63,508. Alleghany County is North Carolina’s least expensive county in which to live, the report says, at $44,124.

The economics of Chatham County are more complicated than just the cost of living numbers reflected in the report. The report shows the county as a sum of all its parts, but Chatham economic observers have said for years when citing other economic reports that those parts have their own economics.

Much of the disparity can be viewed regionally and based on whether a resident works inside or outside of the county, for example. The median household income in Chatham is about $59,000, but according to a report from the Chatham Economic Development Corporation, the average weekly wage earned in Chatham is only $767 per week, well below the state average.

“We know we have room for improvement,” Chatham EDC President Alyssa Byrd told the News + Record. “Take median household income as an example. We have one of the highest in the state. But our average wages are around $36,700. The average for North Carolina is $49,800.”

About 13 percent of Chatham residents live below the poverty line, but nearly 21 percent of its children living below the poverty line. A majority of those living in poverty can be found in the western portion of the county with Siler City residents making up a bulk of those numbers. Those who live in the poorer areas of the county have to pay the same prices as the wealthier people who live here for staples such as food, transportation and healthcare. In addition, as housing prices and tax values climb in the county, so do the rental rates which place a burden on those on the lower side of the economic scale, according to the Chatham County Affordable Rental Housing Report.

The economic crunch for families trying to cope with a low-wage labor market results in several unfavorable conditions for struggling families, according to the N.C. Budget and Tax Center report. This includes a growing number of worker having more than one full-time job, workers choosing to live further away from workplaces to find affordable living which increases transportation costs, and families postponing major expenses such as car repairs or simply going without.

The N.C. Dept. of Commerce labels Chatham County as a Tier Three county, or among the grouping of the state’s least economically depressed counties. Though not related to how expensive an county is in which to live, the tier system — with three levels — is based on factors related to growth and wealth.

Byrd said the state’s Dept. of Commerce uses four factors in a formula to determine a tier status: unemployment, median household income, percentage growth in population and adjusted property tax base per capita.

“We live in a prosperous region and have a lot of advantages because of it,” she said. “Our working residents have easy access to jobs in urban areas. We continue to grow because the Research Triangle is an attractive destination for people in all phases of life, from new college graduates to retirees.”

But Byrd noted the Tier Three status does not necessarily reflect the economic reality in most areas of Chatham County.

“The averages put a blanket status on Chatham County without recognizing disparities,” Byrd said. “There are several other counties in North Carolina who are in the same boat as Chatham County: they’re neighbors to thriving urban cores which has helped build wealth, but there are areas of economic distress.”

The economic tier system determines what funding a county can receive in several different programs. These programs include the Job Development Investment Grant and the One North Carolina Fund which are related to job development. The system also helps determine qualification for available funding for infrastructure projects related to growth such as the Utility Account, the Economic Infrastructure Program, and the Community Development Block Grant.

While the tier system may be limiting to the funding a town or county can receive, Byrd notes that the designation may be helpful for economic growth in other ways.

“Ultimately, I don’t want our tier designation to hurt our chances, as a rural county, at recruiting new employers,” Byrd said. “Site selection consultants who have worked in North Carolina know the tier system and what it potentially means for their clients.

“I think it will be OK to remain a Tier Three county,” she said. “The system doesn’t need an entire overhaul, but it’s a system with consequences and we should constantly be evaluating effectiveness. We need a path for communities in need to be recognized as such, with discretion to participate fully in programs and funding targeted at Tier One and Tier Two counties.”

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