By David Adams
Last year, consultant Rod Stevens forecast that Chapel Hill would need housing for 445 individual households and for 45 students per year. The type or cost of this housing was not specified. If housing type were market rate apartments, Chapel Hill already has nearly a four-year supply and growing (1842 available as of Jan. 18, 2023, on www.apartments.com) with 4500 residential units awaiting construction.
To increase the diversity of housing in Chapel Hill, specifically the “missing middle” of townhomes and multiplexes, the Town Council has proposed changing the zoning of single-family neighborhoods to allow more density in the form of duplexes, triplexes, quadriplexes and cottage courts. The new zoning would also add regulations to address tree canopy, stormwater control and parking which do not currently exist.
Since housing diversity is the goal and not affordability, this proposal is yet another gift to developers. A key caveat to this plan is that it would not apply to newer (and generally wealthier) neighborhoods with homeowners associations (HOAs) or to neighborhoods with neighborhood conservation districts (NCDs) or other covenants. Some council members have already suggested overriding NCDs. So far, the HOA/NCD status of only 50 of the 250 town neighborhoods has been publicly identified, so the distribution of impact is unknown.
The impacts of rezoning are significant and many. Aside from the inequity of targeting neighborhoods without HOA or NCD protection, what upgrades in water, sewer, garbage collection, utilities and roads will be required and who will pay for them? What are the tax implications? Will rising property values drive out existing moderate income residents? What about affordability? Will it be owner-occupied housing or corporate-owned rentals?
Several cities that made similar changes have had mixed results at best, including Durham, Raleigh and elsewhere. These are only some of the concerns that need to be addressed before moving forward. Supporters of rezoning argue that change will occur slowly over many years so impacts will be minimized. But if this is the case, then the impact on housing will also be minimal. Which begs the question: why is this a good idea?
The elephant in the room and what makes Chapel Hill unique is the University of North Carolina. UNC is responsible for the majority of the workforce and all the student housing needs in Chapel Hill, yet it has recently repurposed former dormitory space while directing students to new luxury apartments.
UNC owns 40% of the land in Chapel Hill and pays no city taxes. Of this land, Carolina North alone represents a 20-year potential housing supply, based on the consultant Keesmaat Group’s capacity analysis. Indeed, the former Horace Williams airport tract is ideally suited for housing as no grading or tree removal is needed and it borders the future MLK bus rapid transit route to campus.
So who owns the missing middle housing problem? Older neighborhoods without HOAs/NCDs or every neighborhood? And what about the University’s obligations?
As happened in Raleigh, this zoning change will surely be a top issue in the next municipal election where four seats will be contested. Accordingly, a Council vote on this highly controversial proposal should not be rushed.
Let good governance prevail.
David Adams is an adjunct associate professor of medicine at Duke University and 38-year resident of Chapel Hill.
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I think this means that building lots must be subdivided so that ownership of the townhouses that replace single-family houses is clear. That means new deeds, surveys, driveways and imposing town parking rules (no more than four cars in the front yard, as in Northside) to the affected neighborhoods. I assume the occupancy rule of no more than 4 unrelated persons per townhouse will apply.
Tree canopy protection is moot, since per the ordinance it is enforced by the town’s arborist, and there hasn’t been one on staff for what, ten years? More?