Chapel Hill Town Council Opens Public Hearing on Increasing Housing Density


By Adam Powell

At Wednesday night’s Town of Chapel Hill Council meeting, the elected body took up one of its hottest political potatoes in recent years—a series of Land Use Management Ordinance (LUMO) text amendments that would allow the construction of up to four units on lots previously zoned for one single-family dwelling.

The council listened to a draft presentation compiled by town planning staff, and then spent over two hours listening to more than 30 passionate speakers in a public hearing. Local residents provided points both for and against the measure, with many addressing their perceptions of how the process was taking place. After adding their own comments, the council members then approved a motion to continue the public hearing at their February 22 meeting.

According to the draft presentation, the proposed text amendments are designed to “clean up” the Town’s LUMO language, diversify housing types and increase housing production, while also “strategically and sensitively increasing density.” The density increase amendments would not impact neighborhoods that are currently governed by homeowners associations (HOAs), by legally binding restrictive covenants in private contracts, or by Town designation as neighborhood conservation districts (NCDs).

“We’re looking for ways to clean up the LUMO to simplify and clarify how we review housing types that have already been allowed, but are not always clear to us in how we should administer them,” said Chapel Hill Planning Manager Corey Liles.

That summary represents part one of the text amendments’ purpose: cleaning up language that specifies setback and height exceptions for lots, updates standards for duplexes and accessory apartments, while also providing a specific definition for townhouses, along with development and subdivision standards.

“And so that in and of itself can encourage housing production. But more consequentially, we’re thinking about other housing types that can be supported in various neighborhoods throughout Chapel Hill to create more housing diversity,” Liles said.

That is the second part the text amendments focus on: the concept of “opportunities to increase missing middle housing” by adding missing middle housing types (such as small multifamily structures) and development standards in most zoning districts that are not covered by HOAs, restrictive covenants or NCDs. Triplexes and fourplexes would be approved administratively.

“We wanted to provide some definitions, development standards, and a clear subdivision standard for it,” explained Senior Planner Anya Grahn. “We also noticed that some of our regulations regarding duplexes and accessory apartments were hidden in the definitions. And so we thought it was necessary to move that over to the actual bulk of the land use management ordinance, or LUMO.”

The staff presentation indicated that approximately 500 housing units annually—a 35% increase in local housing production—would be required in the coming years to address Chapel Hill’s long-term housing needs. The proposal suggested approximately 440 housing units are needed per year for individual households, along with approximately 45 units per year for student housing for UNC.

However, when staff was asked what the numerical results for increased housing supply were in cities they named—Durham, Raleigh and Minneapolis—that had enacted similar legislation, the response was “single digits.”

Public viewpoints touch on numerous issues

In addition to more new construction, proponents of increasing the missing middle housing in Chapel Hill suggested the necessity of creating varied housing products at differing price points, which could, theoretically, increase affordability.

Supporters of the LUMO changes also expressed that the options will increase housing opportunities for local renters, while also creating openings for existing communities to enact strict building and aesthetic standards that are meant to ensure any new construction will fit the character of their neighborhoods.

“It’s never the richest people that are kept out of a community because we don’t build more housing,” said local resident Andrew Kane in support of the text amendments. “It’s the poorest.  The rich ones just take slightly smaller, less desirable housing. So I congratulate this town council for pursuing this policy, because the economics on this is very clear: increasing supply reduces prices.”

Opponents of the proposed text amendments suggested that similar initiatives have failed in other parts of the country and that the only beneficiaries of increased multi-unit residential construction in Chapel Hill are the developers of such properties, along with those few investors wealthy enough to purchase and rent the multi-unit structure to students or other local residents.

“What’s going to happen with these changes … is that investors are going to come in and buy up properties, and put these monster triplexes or quadplexes in our neighborhood for students,” said Dr. Ron DiFelice, co-founder and managing partner of Energy Intelligence Partners. He is a resident of Chapel Hill’s Laurel Hill community.

“It’s not going to fix the affordable housing issue that you want to fix. It’s only going to benefit well-off families that have students attending [UNC] Chapel Hill, to the detriment of our historic neighborhoods. And yes—it’s [Laurel Hill] a historical neighborhood. These are not well- thought-out changes,” diFelice added.

Other speakers who came out against the measure also mentioned some of the potential unintended consequences of such actions, such as reduced parking, increased danger for pedestrians and cyclists, and the increased presence of absentee landlords, often recounting what was already happening in their neighborhoods.

Similarly, some proponents spoke of their personal experiences in trying to own or buy a place to live in Chapel Hill, with varying degrees of success or failure.

Outreach, affordability and next steps

Many speakers felt that the Town had not sufficiently reached out to neighborhoods to discuss the issues, nor had a clear count of how many neighborhoods would be impacted vs. those that would not be. A couple of the council members said it would be helpful to see impact on a map.

Although the LUMO changes are not intended to affect Chapel Hill’s 13 NCDs, the Planning Commission, in their supportive position taken on the proposal, did ask why the NCDs were exempted. According to the staff presentation, two existing NCDs—Northside and Pine Knolls—currently allow duplexes and triplexes as affordable housing, but the overwhelming majority of NCDs prohibit duplexes or any other type of multifamily housing. The Town is proposing additional community engagement with residents in the NCDs before taking any action that may materially affect those overlay districts.

Affordability of the new housing types was a point of discussion for the council members, as well as for those who commented during the public hearing. “Affordability” is not the same as “affordable housing,” which typically applies to 80% or less of area median income (AMI), but it was discussed as to whether the new units would wind up priced for rental or ownership at a cost the missing middle could afford.

Councilmember Adam Searing expressed his doubts that the units in question would be affordable to buyers in that income group.

“I pulled one of the real estate listings from one of these newly-built million-dollar duplexes. And here’s how it’s been advertised: ‘The rare investment opportunity to own this newly-built, two-unit building right near UNC campus. A great addition to your investment property portfolio. Rent it out for $5,000 a month for the next two years. So that’s the kind of thing that’s going up right now,” Searing said. He also expressed he was glad to see the process slow down.

In his remarks, Councilmember Tai Huynh addressed both the process some called “rushed” and the affordability issue.

“This started over 15 months ago from a petition on which I signed onto,” Huynh said. “So we’ve been waiting quite some time for this to move forward … And at the core of what we’re trying to do is not housing affordability. This is about housing justice.”

Councilmember Paris MillerFoushee talked about her own experience in the NCD of Northside.

“A lot has been said tonight about the Northside community,” Miller-Foushee said. “I live in the Northside community … Historically black communities like Northside, Pine Knolls, and Tin Top weren’t zoned. But it is deemed a conservation district now. And yes, investors were able to come in and purchase homes at will, because it was a black community without the luxury of being deemed historic, [or] have [restrictive] covenants or HOAs … the narrative that the housing proposals that I’m supporting with this zoning expansion, that I’m somehow able to avoid in my single family home and inflict on other communities is a false narrative. And I don’t appreciate it … We are a community that welcomes neighbors.”

Other city officials stressed that the text amendment alone will not by itself address Chapel Hill’s housing shortage, and therefore, affordability. Multiple other measures would be needed over time, including possibly providing bonuses to developers for creating more affordable housing, figuring out a way to expedite the review process for housing designs submitted to the Town, as well as considering ways to formulate transit-oriented development, as seen in many larger municipal areas throughout the country.

“It’s not an affordable housing tool. It is a ‘more housing’ tool,” Mayor Pro Tem Karen Stegman said. “There is a housing shortage in Chapel Hill and across this country. There’s ample evidence that restricting supply contributes to that crisis. And I think this is going to be a gradual and low impact change when we get it right. This is not radical or extreme. It is happening in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, Baltimore, Seattle. The Sierra Club supports this; the EPA supports this.”

Additional council comments indicated a majority of the government body appeared ready to support the measure when it comes before them again later this year. Although staff indicated that they may not be ready with answers to all the numerous requests for data by Feb. 22, the council voted unanimously to continue the public hearing at that time to remain compliant with legal requirements, according to Mayor Pam Hemminger.

The Town will continue collecting public comments via its website, emails and letters. The video of the entire meeting is available here.

Adam Powell is a reporter on local news and sports, and an education communications professional. A 2001 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Powell has served as managing editor of multiple local publications, including the Mebane Enterprise, News of Orange County and The public information officer for Rockingham County Schools in Eden, N.C., Powell is the author of four books and lives in Mebane with his wife and two children.

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9 Comments on "Chapel Hill Town Council Opens Public Hearing on Increasing Housing Density"

  1. Tony Blake (Orange County) | January 26, 2023 at 6:41 pm | Reply

    Looking in from the outside, I am amazed how little definition there is around this subject. I see no definition around terms like “missing middle”. Such superlatives like “housing justice” are so subjective and potentially inflammatory that actually detract from rations discussion. “Gradual and low impact” seems inappropriate as a response to “crisis”. Further the impact seems to be less than well defined. How many multi-family dwellings is this “housing tool” projected to produce? How many “missing middle” residents is this to house? Is it aimed at families? How will state regulations affect these new multifamily dwellings? In my experience these are often owned by absentee landlords, how is that expected to affect the success of this proposal? All in all for a crisis, “single digits” seems to me to be a drop in the bucket.

  2. How much longer will developers’ apologists get to say that ” increasing supply reduces prices”? Chapel Hill has added thousand of residential units over the last seven years while average rents have increased around 50%.

  3. Just about every house in Chapel Hill was built by a developer. Why do folks around here think they’re the devil incarnate?

  4. Just about every house in Chapel Hill was built by a developer. Why do folks around here think they’re the devil incarnate?

  5. Just about every house in Chapel Hill was built by a developer. Why do folks around here think they’re the devil incarnate?

  6. This is my fourth attempt to post the comment:

    “Just about every house in Chapel Hill was built by a developer. Why do folks around here think they’re the devil incarnate?”

    Is my comment inappropriate or is it just that you don’t check your comment section? Either way, it doesn’t say much for this site.

    • Mr. R., per my email to you, we do our best to approve comments right away, but sometimes schedules aren’t conducive to doing so. Thank you for your patience.–Ed.

  7. Thanks for responding, Terry. I shall be more patient in the future. 🙂

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