A partial solution for affordable housing here?

Nathan Boucher


By Nathan Boucher and Emma Dries

More than 11 million Americans pay half their salaries for rent, jeopardizing economic mobility and increasing the likelihood of intergenerational poverty. Affordable housing is a resource in increasing economic mobility and reducing childhood poverty, yet no county in the United States can provide 100 percent of its low-income population’s need for stable, affordable housing. Creative solutions are needed.

According to the 2019-2020 Town of Chapel Hill Community Survey, only 28 percent of respondents were satisfied by the availability of housing options by price. The Town of Chapel Hill awarded $6.31 million of funding for affordable housing between 2008 and 2018.  In November 2018, Chapel Hill voters overwhelmingly approved an Affordable Housing Bond Referendum, and $1.5 million of the bond funds will be used to preserve affordable housing.

[This past week, the Chapel Hill Town Council approval the use of the first $5 million of those funds. See TLR story headlined “Funding approved for affordable homes.”]

Large affordable housing developments are difficult to maintain, and distance between affordable housing complexes make it difficult for managers to adequately visit each site.  Preservation initiatives are important, but the demand for housing continues to rise in Orange County and Chapel Hill.

In parts of the United States like Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, garage conversions are helping to fight housing issues and limit the risk of homelessness. The state of California relaxed its distribution of state permits to build “ADUs”, or accessory dwelling units in 2017. 

ADUs are dwelling units that are on the same lot as a home, but smaller in size and used independently.  Examples include backyard cottages or converted garages. These structures can provide both additional access to affordable units as well as increased income for community residents. This housing creates more affordable options for residents without building additional homes.

A lack of affordable housing near transit services has been a consistent problem for Chapel Hill residents. If residents have access to affordable housing in ADUs along the Chapel Hill Transit Fixed Route Service, the cost of transportation to jobs, stores and other services could decrease while increasing access to same.

In 2015, The Chapel Hill Town Council approved rules that allowed homeowners to add an accessory apartment based on the size of the detached structure.  No more than four unrelated individuals are permitted to live on the property, and this ruling was meant to give homeowners more options in earning income and increase affordable housing.  While this vote expanded homeowner’s greater access in creating an ADU, access to minor zoning permits are an additional barrier to construction. 

ADUs are not the sole solution to affordable housing in Chapel Hill, but a potential option in expanding accessibility for individuals and families in our community.  While the median household income was $67,426 in 2017, 20.3 percent of individuals live at or below the poverty line with the median property value at $397,700. 

As housing costs continue to escalate, household incomes appear unable to keep up. Similar challenges exist across the Triangle.

Expanding public understanding of ADUs, and creating policy to encourage its adoption, could increase residents’ satisfaction with housing options and provide additional income to owners.  Creative affordable housing solutions bolster community-wide stability and can help community members recover from the economic damage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nathan Boucher, DrPH, is a resident of Chapel Hill, a federal research scientist with the Veterans Administration and faculty at both Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy and the School of Medicine. Emma Dries studies public policy at Duke University. Views are their own.

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2 Comments on "A partial solution for affordable housing here?"

  1. Bob Stoothoff | June 29, 2020 at 11:26 am | Reply

    ADU’s are a reasonable help in contributing to the issue of affordable housing if those units are offered to the target population. Another piece to this puzzle would be the careful consideration of the rules in Chapel Hill for Short Term Rentals. Allowing investor owned but not occupied ST rentals on a large scale takes potential rental units out of the market and has other impacts to neighborhoods. Glad the Council is looking at both of these issues.

  2. Linda K Brown | June 29, 2020 at 2:03 pm | Reply

    Another option is the creation of 3 story town homes where one story is an apartment that can be rented out by home owners to help with mortgage payments–or used as an in-law apartment. Many of the large, old homes in cites have been converted into 2 or 3 sizable apartments. Some cities even have duplex, triplex, and quad homes. Placing such homes in a land trust would not only make home-ownership a possibility but could also preserve such homes as affordable units. While not everyone wants to be a homeowner, and some rental units will be necessary, home-ownership reduces the wealth gap and invests money in the community instead of just making wealthy investors richer

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