by Renuka Soll
Housing is expensive in Chapel Hill; the median home price in our town is currently well over $600,000. This puts a tremendous strain on young families, town employees, teachers, nurses, students, and many others who work in Chapel Hill and who want to live here.
Chapel Hill recognizes this challenge. This year, the Town allocated $9 million to support affordable housing projects. Additionally, the Council passed a new affordable housing plan a few weeks ago that has some good ideas that will hopefully be funded.
These actions are laudable. However, many of the town’s other development decisions have been less so. For example, Chapel Hill has seen a rapid increase in the development of bland high-rise, luxury apartments, such as those in the Blue Hill area, the area near Trader Joe’s. Some of these new fancy apartments have displaced existing affordable housing units.
Moreover, we have thousands of additional new units in the process of being developed. Many of these are more multifamily units at market rate units. They are not affordable housing that meet the town’s needs.
Another questionable development decision is the town’s recent decision to allow the building of duplexes in neighborhoods previously zoned for single family homes. Proponents of this change hope it will make housing more affordable. However, evidence and experience from other communities show the opposite often happens; namely, moderately priced housing for families become replaced by luxury apartments/townhomes. This decision encourages the development of exactly the type of housing Chapel Hill doesn’t need at the expense of preserving the type that we do.
The town’s recent decisions, and what is in our development pipeline, is our town’s current housing policy. This is a policy to promote extreme urban density that is disconnected from the needs of our town.
We need a different approach, one that adheres to a long-term vision of a town that has historically been one of the most desirable places to live. My future vision for Chapel Hill is of a modern college town, a town that grows thoughtfully to meet our needs and at the same time preserves the vibrancy and local character of what makes us special. Our housing approach needs to be evidence-based and must focus on the needs of our community. By evidence, I mean using proven approaches to grow and provide the right stock of housing that our students and employees want to live in, which is not more expensive apartments.
Part of an evidence-based approach is better using the supply we have. We need to find ways to conserve our stock of older moderately-priced family homes, not tear them down and replace them with luxury high-rises or fancy duplexes. We should also figure out how to encourage the redevelopment of some of our existing public housing units. We have 336 distributed over 13 properties.
We should consider tweaking or eliminating the Form Based Code (FBC) and require developers to provide affordable housing in the Ephesus-Fordham (Blue Hill) area. We should consider increasing affordable housing allotment in downtown from 10% to 15% of new residential units being built, like the amount in other parts of Chapel Hill.
We also need to find better solutions for our UNC students and employees, who make up about 50,000 people. This means working together with UNC and with our sister towns who are home to other UNC campuses, like Asheville, Boone, and Wilmington, to work towards solutions at the state level. Students occupy about 4,000 housing units in Chapel Hill, which is about 30% of the Town’s rental housing. Additionally, 600 incoming students were put on a housing waitlist by UNC, and UNC plans to expand its enrollment. This is putting even more housing pressure on Chapel Hill. By working together with UNC, we can help take care of both the students’ need, as well as the Town’s affordable housing needs.
Additional ideas include partnering with non-profits and using modular construction where prefabricated modules are used to build homes. This will make the housing units more affordable.
We need more affordable housing, and we have choices in how to provide it. Let’s choose approaches that work and choices that help us grow into a modern college town.
-Renuka Soll (firstname.lastname@example.org)