Racial Equity and Affordable Housing


By Julia Masters

The Chapel Hill Housing Advisory Board will now look to promote racial equity when it evaluates and determines funding for affordable housing projects.

The board has added a racial equity lens to its scoring rubric, and at its October meeting used the new rubric to prioritize awarding funding to organizations that will address and promote racial equity in their developments.

“We see this as a small step forward, but meaningful at the same time, so this is just one of many things that we are doing right now, and I think the purpose of it, the idea of it, is to try and bring racial equity into everything that we do,” said Sarah Viñas, assistant director of Chapel Hill’s Office of Housing and Community.

“Anytime we are evaluating how to use town resources or what program to implement we are keeping racial equity in mind and evaluating things on this basis, so that’s what this helps us achieve — putting racial equity at the forefront.”

The scoring rubric evaluates affordable housing applications based on a point system, with 215 possible total points. The racial equity section accounts for 10 points if “the organization demonstrates commitment to addressing racial equity issues.”

An organization can address and promote racial equity in a number of ways, such as having all staff members attend certain trainings, have a diverse staff and having people of color in positions of power within their organization, said Viñas.

Racial discrimination and inequity in affordable housing primarily shows up through the ability of racial minorities to secure financing — a major barrier as loans are necessary to purchase affordable homes, said Kimberly Sanchez, executive director of Community Home Trust.

“Historically, Black and other people of color have been systematically been excluded from homeownership opportunities, from their ability to secure financing to purchase a home. There have been a variety of barriers that have prevented people of color from housing and building wealth,” said Viñas.

Affordable housing in Chapel Hill is defined as housing that does not cost more than 30 percent of a household’s income. Subsidized affordable housing requires that the household income of applicants falls below 80 percent of the area median income. There are 1,155 total affordable housing units in Chapel Hill, with 362 ownership-based and 793 rental units.

For the 2020 fiscal year, Chapel Hill’s median household income was $84,800 and the median home value was $386,600 — a value that has been increasing in recent years, decreasing home affordability.

“It’s really challenging to develop in Chapel Hill. We have a lot of constraints that make it more difficult to build affordable housing here, namely that we don’t have a lot of land and the land that we do have is really expensive,” said Viñas. “It’s challenging, but we are making steady progress towards adding more units every year.”

Viñas added that while the Town Council has always been supportive of affordable housing efforts, valuable resources have been allocated to it in recent years, allowing improvements to be made. Most notably, the town approved a $10 million affordable housing bond in November 2018, with eligible uses including acquisition, home repairs and new construction.

In 2020, the council allocated $6.1 million in funding, developing 15 new homes and preserving 194.

Due to COVID-19’s negative impact on the economy, the town had to shift attention to emergency housing needs, giving financial support to 150 households, according to Viñas.

Affordable housing is an integral ingredient in building strong, diverse communities and is necessary for building robust economies, said Sanchez. It is also an expression of our society’s duty to protect one another, she said.

“Affordable housing is just creating strong places for people to live and feel safe and be a part of the community they work in, that they live in and want to be a part of,” said Sanchez. “If we don’t support that as a local government, as a business that works in the community, as the healthcare system and the school system, if we don’t support that together than we put a drought inside of innovation, creativity and inclusion.”

Viñas added that such a commitment is particularly important now.

“I think we’ve seen, given the national events and what’s happened recently, but also since our nation’s founding, that we really have so much work to do as a nation to work towards racial equity,” she said. “Things have kind of come to a head in the last few months and I think the town sees this as one of the key areas that we need to focus on.”

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