By Dan Levine
Most locals recognize that Chapel Hill faces an affordable housing crisis. (Plenty of data support this assertion, and the Town produces an informative quarterly report at https://bit.ly/3MgaNCq). The wave of rising rents combined with limited supply of affordable units, interrupted wages from the pandemic, and other factors have resulted in a perfect storm threatening our community.
While many in Chapel Hill support an “all hands on deck” effort to create affordable housing, some have chosen a different tack that advances misleading arguments seemingly designed to alarm community members and pressure elected officials into blocking affordable housing. The recent op-ed, “Keeping Faith with the Voters,” twists its facts and draws conclusions that on the surface raise new technical concerns yet ultimately advances an all-too-familiar approach for excluding low-income members of our community, many of whom are people of color.
As some community members seek to halt affordable housing in the name of creating a town that is “livable” (for whom?), the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition (OCAHC) works to build a more equitable housing system. Thankfully, as the housing crisis intensifies, many of Chapel Hill’s elected leaders and staff — with support from community advocates — have pushed for significant actions to foster affordable housing.
Local elected officials can spur affordable housing development in at least three ways: 1) by demonstrating political courage/leadership on the issue; 2) through budgeting that dedicates significant funds toward affordable housing; and 3) by utilizing surplus land. When combined, these three actions result in affordable housing that makes a real difference in low-income residents’ lives.
Utilizing public land for affordable housing is crucial. A few of the most significant affordable housing communities in Chapel Hill history are in predevelopment — Homestead Gardens, Jay Street and Trinity Court — and none would be possible without Town land. Each development site is in a neighborhood with access to transit, jobs, services and parks/greenways. We are grateful that most elected officials — and their constituents — have stayed the course by supporting these housing developments.
The recent op-ed asserts that decisions are being made by Town Council that break the public’s trust, and pits affordable housing against parks. OCAHC views the situation differently: effective leaders recognize changing circumstances, correct past mistakes, invite dialogue, and address emerging issues. For example, it is true the Jay Street property was once designated for open space, but that was at a time when the prevailing thinking was that low-density housing — what we currently call sprawl — was environmentally sound. We now understand the need for smart land use to fight climate change, support transit, protect rural areas and make room for affordable housing.
OCAHC members’ trust in local government is not threatened by policies evolving over time. Our trust will be damaged by decisions and rhetoric that exclude people who work in our community yet cannot afford to live here. Our trust will suffer from decisions made from a place of fear in place of courage. Our trust will be violated if families who have lived here for generations cannot stay because we refuse to do what we can to help. Local elected officials have the often-difficult task of balancing diverse community perspectives when making decisions, but not all decisions are complicated. We can have affordable housing and parks; we do not need to choose just one.
Housing and parks go together like PB and J (or barbecue and slaw), and advocates for these two issues should work together to improve livability for all. The progress on affordable housing being made by the Town and its partners is inspiring, but we need to do more for those who work in our schools, medical facilities, grocery stores, and other essential services. There are few Town-owned parcels that would be well-suited to affordable housing, yet such properties are great opportunities to provide such housing alongside parks and other amenities. One example is the long-underutilized former American Legion Post.
The 36.2-acre vacant Legion parcel was purchased by the Town for $7.9M in 2016. At the time, elected leaders noted the property’s potential to provide recreational amenities and open space (particularly near the rear of the parcel where there are woods, streams and connections to an existing park and school), while creating opportunities for housing and commercial development elsewhere on the lot. OCAHC members agree that the vacant parcel should be developed with the mutually compatible, mutually supporting uses of affordable housing and open space/recreation. The parcel can also accommodate other places for people to live and work, while growing the tax base.
Chapel Hill is a wonderful place to live. We hope you will join us in advocating for the creation of affordable housing AND recreation spaces so that more people who make our community wonderful have the chance to live here.
Learn about the OCAHC’s work at http://www.orangehousing.org/ or by following us on social media.
Dan Levine co-chairs the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition, a voluntary association of housing advocates and practitioners. Dan was born and raised in Orange County and has lived for the last 14 years in the Colony Woods neighborhood next to the Town-owned former American Legion Post property.