By Nancy E. Oates
Resolutions, task forces and community conversations go only so far. At some point, elected officials must take action to right some wrongs. Given the opportunity at its June 24 meeting to make improvements to an affordable housing development that segregated market-rate housing from subsidized units and relegated the affordable units to a problematic site, The Chapel Hill Town Council whiffed.
Habitat for Humanity’s Weavers Grove proposal for a mixed-income development of 140 market-rate and 99 subsidized units would double the number of Habitat homes in Orange County. But in order to squish so much density in the 32 acres recently annexed behind East Chapel Hill High School, the development incorporated many engineering compromises that leave it very little wiggle room to correct flooding from stormwater runoff and unhealthy noise levels in the segment abutting I-40.
Quite likely there will be a higher percentage of people of color buying the affordable units than the market-rate homes, which makes the siting of the units a social justice issue. The council opened the public hearing for the project after midnight at its June 10 meeting. Earlier in the evening, community members came out in force to object to people of color being treated as “less than” whites.
The council listened to their comments for nearly three hours. But the message didn’t soak in
Rather than insist that housing for the disparate income levels be interspersed, the council approved a development that shunted the subsidized housing to land that was permanently soggy and abutted the soon-to-be widened I-40. While the N.C. Department of Transportation will install sound-mitigating panels to protect only already-built neighborhoods, the Habitat community will have the only homes along I-40 without such protection.
The misstep last week was not the first failure of good intentions in the aim to open the town to people of modest means. In 2010, the council approved an inclusionary zoning ordinance that required developers requesting a rezoning to dedicate a certain percentage of newly built homes as affordable, based on a formula. At the time, Chapel Hill had about 800 subsidized units, including town-owned public housing.
A decade later, the number of subsidized units had increased by about 25 percent, despite the permanent closure of a 40-unit public housing complex. But gentrification all but wiped out that gain when the modestly priced 200-unit Park Apartments was demolished, to be replaced by 800 market-rate apartments in the Blue Hill form-based code zone. The council in 2014 decided not to include an affordable housing requirement when it created the expedited approval zone that enables projects to be built faster and cheaper.
During the past decade, councils routinely renegotiated lower IZO requirements for new developments. Only one new neighborhood (Courtyards at Homestead, where I live) met the full requirement, and that developer has now sued to be reimbursed for its contribution.
The capricious application of the IZO left some developers feeling disgruntled. In 2018, the owner of Charterwood sued to be reimbursed, and a few years before that, the owner of Chapel Hill North Apartments forced the town to reduce that project’s contribution.
Several other projects have been approved but not built or have renegotiated their affordable housing contribution — Timber Hollow Apartments expansion, Residences at Grove Park (now Union) redevelopment and new construction projects of Obey Creek and 2217 Homestead Road. The council approved some money for a CASA development on Merritt Mill, but CASA has not yet received the grant funding it needs for construction.
In 2015, council allowed the developers of Carraway Village to postpone its affordable housing contribution for 10 years.
Last year, a developer wanting to redevelop the Breadmen’s property made an exceptionally generous offer of affordable housing, but three of the four council members on the negotiating team declined to bring the offer before the full council for a vote. The developer withdrew.
In the initial plans for redeveloping the Lakeview mobile home park, the council in June would not commit to an affordable housing component.
In light of all these missed opportunities, the council at its final meeting of the 2020 fiscal year may have felt a certain panic to approve additional affordable housing, even if that neighborhood has the potential to become a waterlogged Camelot Village North.
Council member Hongbin Gu, a medical researcher by profession, spoke bluntly about the well-established health risks posed by living so close to the highway. She said she did not want to sacrifice the health of the residents in order to squeeze in a few more units, and she urged Habitat to make some changes to protect the health of the residents.
“Scale is important, but the long-term health of the residents is as well,” Gu said. “I don’t want the residents in this community to become another statistic. It’s heart-breaking.”
Nancy E. Oates is a former member of The Chapel Hill Town Council.