By Linda Brown
Chapel Hill Town government’s rush to place housing on public green spaces points to the complete failure of the Town’s affordable housing policies — especially its failure to seek other options.
We hear calls for the Town to sell public recreational land but local affordable housing advocates have mostly been silent about the elimination of existing affordable units (e.g., the Park Apartments) and their replacement with market rate apartments that have few, if any, affordable units.
The council and affordable housing advocates could pursue the worthy goal of making housing more affordable by placing “tiny” homes and accessory dwelling units on large lots where space permits, by using housing funds to purchase inexpensive 1-to-8-acre sites where 12-18 for-sale permanently affordable mixed income townhome units per acre could be constructed and by advocating for permanent housing affordability. In addition, elected officials should insist on a much larger percentage of affordable units in new apartment developments — they should not take a developer’s claim that they “can’t make the numbers work” at face value. If developer Clay Grubb can make the numbers work, others can too. It is the council’s responsibility to prioritize the needs of its citizens — not those of developers.
Furthermore, supporters of affordable housing should consider how creating housing in Legion Park will impact people living in the area, who are already adversely impacted by the increased traffic, air, light and noise pollution generated by the development of 2000+ new high-priced apartments in Blue Hill, as well as how the loss of tree cover thus far in the Blue Hill district has created a heat island that will be intensified by the loss of Legion Park’s vegetation. The provision of adequate greenery and recreational spaces should not be limited to the town’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
Consultant Rod Stevens noted in his recent housing report for the Town that most people living in Chapel Hill’s new apartment developments will commute out of Chapel Hill to work and will later buy homes in in other places where housing is more affordable. This commuting pattern, in addition to contributing to traffic congestion, adversely impacts the local environment.
The Stevens report says that, to chart a different course, the Town needs to plan holistically rather than on a project-by-project basis. Therefore, the council should encourage the development of permanently affordable mixed-income housing communities that include for-sale units (condos and townhouses), rather than allowing home ownership to be limited to a wealthy few.
The council’s strategies to date have had a negative impact on the town’s economy. The high rents in new buildings force out small businesses and result in capital fight. This necessitates higher property taxes, which makes housing even less affordable and increases homelessness.
Most importantly, elected officials must insist that the town’s largest employer — UNC — build workforce housing to substantially reduce the number of commuters and construct more student housing. This would make more rental homes available to families of modest income and make land now used for student housing available for the development of permanently affordable mixed-income for-sale housing.
Linda Brown lives in Chapel Hill.