Chapel Hill's new Affordable Housing Technical Advisory Group

The Chapel Hill Town Council, in June 2010, adopted a goal of creating one-page strategies for Public Art, Communications, Sustainability, and Affordable Housing like the one-pager created for Economic Development. The Affordable Housing Technical Advisory Group was recently formed to aid town staff in developing a one-pager for Affordable Housing. The Technical Advisory is made up of representatives from The Community Home Trust, Habitat for Humanity, IFC, EmPOWERment, Inc., CASA, Justice United, East West Partners, Radway Design Associates, Orange County Housing, Human Rights, and Community Development, the Chapel Hill Public Housing Program, and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.

We have met twice to discuss our charge (on January 28th and February  1st). We discussed what a successful strategy would look like including types of units and who the housing should be for. We talked about the elephant in the room, UNC, and what an enormous impact the student population has on neighborhoods and the availability of affordable housing. We do not have a UNC representative on the Technical Advisory Group and I did not hear why that is, although I know that the town consultant, Development Concepts, Inc. was unable to get information from the University when conducting it's Residential Market Study of Chapel Hill.

The Technical Advisory Group's role is to advise town staff on the focus groups they will conduct to develop a strategy.

What do you think:

1. What groups in our community should be engaged in a focus group?

2. What do you see are the Town's needs for affordable housing?

3. What types of units are needed?

4. Do we need workforce housing?

5. What is UNC's responsibility in terms of affordable housing? 

6. What are some innovative solutions to provide an adequate amount of affordable housing here in our community? 



Answers to your questions:1. Schoolteachers, firefighters, police officers, staff without advanced degrees at UNC, restaurant employees, the guys who work in any of the barber shops.  Couples with 0-2 young children where one is a grad student and the other works. People who applied to OCHLT but didn't get into the program because they made just a little too much money. 2-3. Chapel Hill needs more units, but it doesn't need more large homes.   It's hard to find a place with 3 bedrooms and 1500-1800 ft that is affordable to anyone but the rich. Rowhouses and 3 or 4 story buildings can add capacity without overwhelming the context of any part of town. 4. Yes.  There's all sorts of talk about "community character" but I worry more about keeping our favorite characters in the community.  Part of being a late 20-something or 30-something here is wondering which of your friends will move to Durham next because there's simply no way to get a foothold on homeownership in Chapel Hill even if you hold a decent job near or above the median income. UNC attracts a lot of great smart, community-minded people who want to get invested in our area.  They form attachments to friends, volunteer in community institutions, and start families.  Then they get priced out.  5. Obviously if UNC could accommodate more students on campus, that might help some, but the lack of consensus on where and how to grow is a far bigger elephant in the room. 6. Here's a do-no-harm idea.  Stop creating Never Change, err, "Neighborhood
Conservation" Districts.  The NCD process basically makes every
housing unit in town under the NCD banner tougher to adapt for changing demographics that are coming in terms of smaller household sizes. Not only
does this preclude homeownership opportunities but also rental
opportunities.  In-law apartments, above-garage apartments, house
conversion to duplexes and other truly modest changes in neighborhood
density become harder to do, and so development pressure gets even
hotter in the remaining neighborhoods not under a NCD designation,
bidding up the land values even faster in non-NCD neighborhoods.Why
is the downward pressure on rentals a problem? The entry to affording a
single-family home in Chapel Hill is now so high in most neighborhoods
that the only way to pay the mortgage for folks of modest or even
upper-middle-income levels is to put a granny flat above the garage or
in the backyard. In terms of things to do, look at Vancouver's "Invisible Density" and "Gentle Density" programs.This would be a good start.  

I just wanted to say thank you for this, Patrick. Very insightful.

To Patrick's comment I would say it's a bit too far to say there's "no way" for first-time buyers to get a foothold in CH but it is very difficult and it entails deep compromise. During my house search in 2003 I scouted two prospects in Northside but quickly ruled them out in favor of options in the Durham market. The Northsiders were both 900sf, had no storage and had bad kitchens, and were at the upper end of my price range, so they were poor value in comparison with almost everything else the buyer's agent I was working with was able to turn up. I wasn't interested in townhomes (was coming out of an apartment situation and had "no attached walls" as make-or-break stipulation) or a major rehab. That didn't leave very much.

It's too far to say there's no way for a first-time buyer to get a foothold in CH/C, but it's not too far to say there's no way more than a small percentage of potential first-time buyers to get a foothold in CH/C.  There just isn't enough.  Go online sometime and check out the total of what is for sale around here and what it's going for.

Well put, Patrick.I most recently lived just outside Boston, a city rich in three-family houses, triple-deckers where the ground floor apartment is rented out to provide income to help pay the mortgage, townhomes, duplexes, apartment buildings and everything in between. (Along with single-family houses.) It's a rich tapestry and a neat place to live with lots of options, even for students. However, the point has been made there that under Boston's current zoning laws, none of those homes could be built. They don't have enough parking, they're bunched up against one another, they have insufficient setbacks. Zoning laws are generally oriented towards suburban ways of living, and in an expensive area like Boston they severely limit the availability of affordable housing.

One of the major reasons that homes are not affordable is because they are actually not affordable. The Chamber of Commerce could take the lead on a local living wage campaign so that people would be better able to afford a home. Smaller homes should be allowed - much smaller homes. 

Another reason that homes are not affordable is that they turn over frequently and each time another 6% realtor fee is added, the sales goes up even higher. A living wage that makes $350,000 homes (the average sales price in OC) affordable would have to be well over $70,000 a year. 

that we can't talk about affordable housing in isolation. Like you suggest Mark, we need to look at wages too. Justice United has been working with Carrboro and Chapel Hill on raising wages for town employees and working with the Chamber to get private businesses to raise their pay would be important, but a tougher nut to crack.There is also the issue of transportation - would bus routes that extend farther help take the pressure off neighborhoods such as Northside? 

My goodness, where do we start on this one.  Let's see, first of all supply has been drastically lower than demand for a long time, which drives prices way up.  And then when home prices are up for a long a place starts to have a higher percentage of people that can live in expensive places, who of course have an interest in keeping it that way rather than changing  Also, CH/C tries to attract all kinds of people.  Let's have retired folks.  Let's have independently wealthy folks.  Let's have all the artsy people in Carrboro.  Oh, and while we're at it, let's not cut down treet to build a lot of housing.  So where does that leave the people on which the area runs, such as police, fire and the large staff that runs UNC?  It leaves them in Pittsboro and Hillsborough and Durham and Morrisville and Cary.  And by and large that's where they'll stay because CH/C can't/won't ever change to accomodate more than a small percentage of them. Consider the library discussion.  What has been the response to the proposal to put it in University Mall?  There's been a lot of "No, we can't move it, the current library is in a beautiful setting, etc."  Think about that.  The point of a library is to provide the service of books, info, etc to the people but people here don't only want that substantive aspect but they also want the stylistic aspect of it being in a park setting with trees for acres all around.  What do you think the reaction would be to a proposal to cut down those trees and put affordable housing on that land?  It wouldn't get any consideration. People like the idea of affordable housing because it makes them think they're helping the world or something but they don't actually want that entails in their immediate vicinity, which is fewer trees, more people, more cars, more shopping places nearby, etc.And one other aspect of affordable housing of course is property taxes.  They're very high here and that's not going to change.  Nobody likes paying tax but someone with a million dollar home sweats a 15 K property tax bill much less than someone with an affordable 200 K home sweats a 3 K property tax bill.  And people that can't afford a home at all and rent end up paying for it too since whoever they're renting from has to pay the property tax and therefore they pass on some of the cost to the renter.  And two golf courses within a couple miles of a university to which thousands of people commute 5 or 10 or 20 miles to each workday?  Talk about anti-affordable housing. Well, whatever.  I predict that some minor, symbolic efforts will be made to accomodate more regular income people but that there won't be any substantive changes.

I was at the CH Library the other day and had a strong realization that it was a jewel and a real benefit to the community in part because of its setting and the beauty of the building, the surrounding woods, and its separateness from everything else. I think pitting affordable housing against beauty, trees, and good design creates false choices.    

It's not a matter of pitting affordable housing against beauty, trees, etc, rather it's a matter of acknowledging that there is a finite amount of space and the more used for "not housing" the less there is to be used for "housing."  And the less there is of something that is in demand the more it will cost.  And the more something costs the less affordable it is.The woods around the library aren't the main point.  They're just one thing.  Overall affordability is a function of that and a thousand other decisions about whether and what to build.

well the housing study pointed out another problem which is that the cost of the land upon which to build a home in  Orange County  is more than twice as high as neighboring counties.  It's pretty hard to pay 100K for a lot to build your home on and keep the home affordable, no matter what size it is.  

1. What groups in our community should be engaged in a focus group?Everyone. We cannot continue to discuss affordable housing as if it is a silo, something for low-income  residents. I earn more than the median income, but cannot afford to live inside town limits.   2. What do you see are the Town's needs for affordable housing? Every town should have affordable housing, but if the underlying assumption of the question is how do we provide housing for the low-income residents then we need to find a different term than "affordable." There are way too many people working at the university (our major, local employer) who make above the median income but cannot afford to live here. We've been sloppy with language which causes problems IMHO. 3. What types of units are needed?Diversity in all things. 4. Do we need workforce housing?What is workforce housing? Please define the term and differentiate it from affordable  housing. 5. What is UNC's responsibility in terms of affordable housing? UNC efforts to develop in Carrboro have been met with ridiculous imperatives from the town that continue to increase the cost of the development so that last time I saw the plans, they have to build a few mega-mansions in order to make the intended development affordable (I think they are using the town's median income definition). 6. What are some innovative solutions to provide an adequate amount of affordable housing here in our community? We have to stop looking at housing as if it resides in a vacuum. As the populations of both towns become more affluent, there are more and more pressures for services that have to be paid for through property taxes, in the absence of a more robust business community. While the towns and the county are working toward a more dynamic economic development approach, it's going to take time. Until our commercial sector is beefed up, that leaves the costs of living here dependent on property taxes.  Who can afford those taxes? The wealthy. What do the wealthy want? Big, high cost housing. What do people who live in high cost housing want? More services. What do you get with the demand for more services? Higher property taxes. That's a classic positive feedback loop. Talking about affordable housing as an isolated topic is just a waste of time.

with members of Justice United who represented at least 10 churches, IFC, Empowerment, and the UNC student population. We are holding another with UNC students who work with Chapel Hill's homeless population tomorrow evening.Thanks Patrick for these suggestions of groups to interview:"Schoolteachers, firefighters, police officers, staff without advanced degrees at UNC, restaurant employees, the guys who work in any of the barber shops.  Couples with 0-2 young children where one is a grad student and the other works. People who applied to OCHLT but didn't get into the program because they made just a little too much money."Anyone have other ideas of groups to be engaged and if so, how to engage them?We are working to engage both Latino/as and the Burmese/Karen.  


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