Council Talks Affordable Housing, Development 

GOVERNMENT

By James Kiefer

The Chapel Hill Town Council discussed two options for increasing affordable housing in its session Wednesday, along with approving a conditional zoning application for a mixed-use development along Erwin Road. 

Federal funds and a win for EmPOWERment

After hearing petitions and passing the consent agenda, Council turned its attention to a public forum on how funds from the Community Development Block Grant Program will be spent in the 2022-2023 fiscal year. 

Community development program manager Megan Culp said the Town received around $400,000 each year from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. She said funds are intended to assist in providing affordable housing opportunities, creating better living environments and expanding economic opportunities for households earning less than 80% of the area median income (80% AMI = ~$58,000). 

Culp added that last year was a period of increased aid due to the COVID-19 pandemic and that around $881,000 was deployed. The Town has a five-year plan for using Community Development Block Grants that stretches into 2024, which Culp mentioned was finalized months before the pandemic began. Some of those goals include home rehabilitation and preservation, homeownership assistance, infrastructure improvements that benefit low-to-medium income households, and other housing assistance needs. 

Culp said that options for next year include items such as homebuyer assistance and housing rehabilitation, but mentioned money can also be funneled into public facilities and 15% of funds can be spent on supporting public services. 

Delores Bailey, executive director of EmPOWERment Inc. — a nonprofit corporation with a focus on economic development and affordable housing opportunities — said that her organization now owns 60 affordable housing rentals throughout Orange County due, in part, to the grants. 

“I would like to thank the council for having the foresight to send the staff off to spend the Community Development Block Grant money the way it has done,” she said. “[and for] the care that they took to make sure that affordable housing is a principal and primary [goal] and that it does happen in Chapel Hill.”

EmPOWERment Inc. remained a focus of discussion as the council listened to details about authorizing a conveyance of Town-owned land to the nonprofit. The 0.35-acre vacant lot at 107 Johnson St. was initially purchased by Chapel Hill in 1992 to allow for greater recreation space in the Pine Knolls area, according to affordable housing manager Nate Broman-Fulks. 

EmPOWERment seeks to use the land for an affordable housing complex called the PEACH Apartments. It would join sites adjacent to the parcel the nonprofit already owns and create 10 apartments aimed at residents earning between 0-60% AMI. Bailey said the main target population for the project are residents earning 30% AMI and below. 

Broman-Fulks added the Town has already offered a subsidy of $501,000 for the project, and the council has already reviewed a concept plan for the apartment complex. He also said that a conditional zoning application was submitted last month. 

Town staff analysis found that the request is similar to other affordable housing land conveyance requests the town has received. EmPOWERment also proposed a deed restriction limiting residents to incomes below 80% AMI. 

The value of the parcel is around $135,000, Broman-Fulks said, and the value to the public would be met in approximately three years based on the reduced rent structure. He added the Town could take back the land if EmPOWERment is dissolved, the project no longer serves its public purpose or if it doesn’t move forward in a reasonable time period. 

Councilperson Hongbin Gu asked whether there were any current plans from the Town to provide a recreation space in that area. Broman-Fulks responded there had originally been a privately-owned senior center in that area, but it had since closed and he was not aware of any current plans from Town staff. 

Mayor Pam Hemminger said the Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation Department should remain a priority. 

“I’d like us to consider the fact that those monies were intended for Parks and Rec and we do have Parks and Rec needs,” she said. “And $135,000 would go quite a ways to fixing things that are on the fix list.” 

Councilperson Amy Ryan said that Council should also consider new land purchases with the added funds.

The resolution passed unanimously.

Zoning upgrades and stormwater

Also on the agenda was a legislative hearing for the development of a mixed-use village conditional zoning district at 101 to 111 Erwin Rd. The project would add 54 hotel rooms to a Residence Inn already at the property and allow for 52 townhomes, 

Since the project was last presented to the council in October, updates to the design include a 30-foot easement along Dobbins Drive, allowing for a total of 7 affordable housing units on the site and planning for a swale to help mitigate stormwater runoff within the immediate area. 

Councilmember Karen Stegman mentioned that there have been several emails from citizens asking who would be responsible for ongoing maintenance of stormwater mitigation facilities on the site; during the last presentation, it was acknowledged that the current property owners had lapsed in maintaining current stormwater infrastructure up to Town code. 

Designer Scott Radway of Radway Design said it will ultimately be up to the property owners. Town engineer Alisha Goldstein added the property owners will have to submit an annual inspection form to municipal staff through a third-party reviewer. 

During the public comment period, several residents said they felt their voices had been ignored by the council as it continued to approve developments they feel do not benefit Chapel Hill. Michael Hoppe remarked the proposal seems to violate the council’s stated values of preserving green space, promoting walkability and protecting existing neighborhoods. 

“We are talking about making money and not [about] making Chapel Hill a better place to live and creating a development that’s compatible with the neighborhoods nearby,” he said.

Councilperson Ryan rebuffed that sentiment, saying the council has heard citizens’ concerns and cited generous buffers between neighborhoods. She added the town needs to start building more densely on the property it has, especially along transit corridors, to keep up with population growth. 

Mayor pro tem Michael Parker also remarked that the complex happens to provide “missing middle” housing, of which the town is in short supply. 

The council members closed the public forum, revoked special use permits and approved the conditional rezoning all with unanimous votes.

Other business during the council meeting included:

  • Forwarding remarks about developments on Homestead Road and the Rosemary Columbia Hotel to applicants; 
  • Amending the budget to appropriate a gift of $150,000 from the Chapel Hill Public Library Foundation to the FY 2022 Library Gift Fund budget;
  • Approving minutes from April and May meetings.
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