Candidates and Affordable Housing: How hopefuls plan to keep doors open and affordable

An insightful piece by Katelyn Ferral, recently published on October 16, 2011, in the Chapel Hill News, examined the issue of local affordable housing and how prospective candidates plan to ensure housing can both meet the needs of those who live and work in our community and can be accessed by low-income residents. With Ferral noting the median cost of a home in Chapel Hill is around $390,000, and that most town employees cannot afford to live within the town limits, I was interested to see how candidate approaches could impact the equitable distribution of housing opportunity. Moreover, would their plans reasonably address these skyrocketing costs? Or, would some look to protect the status quo?

Before we examine what candidates propose for the years and months to come, we must give credit where credit is due: to the Chapel Hill Town Council and their affordable housing strategy passed in June. This strategy will work to improve access to housing for residents of all income levels and give developers incentives to include mixed-income units in new projects.

A plan of implementation is currently being worked out before it is released in January. But, this may not be enough considering the poor economic climate, tightening budgets, cuts in federal funds and developers's ability to circumvent the zoning requirement of 15 percent low-income units with a payment-in-lieu to organizations like Habitat for Humanity or the Community Home Trust.

In the mayoral race, only Mark Kleinschmidt and Tim Sookram contributed to Ferral’s piece. Kleinschmidt pointed to the work of the Council in recent years and said the town is working to find the best ways to enact the housing strategy through talking to stakeholders.

"I think everything is right about the way the town's approaching it," Kleinschmidt said.

However, Sookram said the zoning quota is not enough.

"Chapel Hill has an approach to affordable housing?” Sookram said. “The rule that says a small percentage of housing in new developments should be affordable? Why not 100 percent?"

With Town Council candidates, approaches began to vary.

 Jason Baker said the current approach is too focused on home ownership and that the town should look to the rental market to offset deficits in affordable units. 

"Fifty-three percent of the people who live in Chapel Hill right now are not home owners; they're renters," Baker said. He said the town must find a way to regulate rental markets just as they do housing development.

Even though I think this approach is a feasible solution in the short-term, I think it will take work with law makers to give the town such regulatory power. Moreover, as wealth is tied to home ownership, any plan must ensure low-income residents find ways to transition from renters to home owners in the long run.

Donna Bell pointed to a variety of tactics in solving the problem at hand. "This is definitely a space that requires innovative public / private partnerships as well as strong support from the University," Bell said.

She rightly notes the cost of housing is market driven and that the market may not include everyone who wants to partake because of the barriers in cost. 

Augustus Cho points to problems in the current approach. Cho said the development review process is too expensive, which later raises the price of housing for average buyers and renters.

"In the end the final cost gets passed on to the developers, which passes them on to the consumers," Cho said.

This may be true, but Cho’s proposed solutions of  providing more options like offering duplexes and giving the Community Home Trust flexibility with payment-in-lieu may just marginally decrease the costs for buyers in the current market and pass the buck onto organizations like the Home Trust to solve the problems that developments without low-income spaces cause.

Matt Czajkowski said the town has not defined "affordable" housing and has yet to determine what types of people live in such spaces.

Czajkowski said that families are not living in the condominiums currently offered by the town and said the town needs to think about the definition of who these low-income tenants are.

"We have to really ask ourselves, are we trying to create affordable housing for families, for the kind of mythical fireman who's got two kids and a dog?" he said.

While Czajkowski’s analogy is vague, it points to the notion that only certain kinds of tenants (i.e. families with children) should be able to benefit. I hope our definition encompasses a wide variety future tenants including families, single residents and people of color.

Laney Dale offered the most perplexing contribution. Dale, who said he supports what the town has already done to offer affordable housing, also said that bringing in “too much” low-income housing may change the type of community we live in. "There is a certain premium feel to Chapel Hill, for lack of a better term; it's a place you aspire to be," he said.

While Dale says it is not a class issue, his words leave me thinking otherwise. I feel uneasy pondering what he meant by both too much low-income housing and the “premium feel,” he says our community currently possesses.

Do low-income residents inherently inhibit or threaten this “feel?” Even more, what “change” did Dale envision such low-income residents moving into Chapel Hill would bring? Are we blaming the victims here? Is Dale suggesting that, because one is poor, they are unwelcome? Surely not. I think the charm of our community hinges on its wonderful diversity of residents and ensuring socioeconomic diversity would only add to our collective experience. 

Candidate Jon DeHart said it makes more sense to up-fit existing homes so that more families can live in the town and said condominiums in mixed-use projects are not the best approach. "A lot of families prefer a single-family residence to a condo," he said.

But, as candidate Lee Storrow points out in his contribution to the piece, housing is only one part of affordable living.

“Just because you have a house that has a mortgage does not mean you can get to work, does not mean you can get to daycare, does not mean...that you can pay your water bill,” Storrow said. 

Storrow said we cannot talk about housing in a “bubble,” and notes that it should be discussed in the same context as other costs, because they affect each other.

In addressing the issue of mixed-use development, I feel these designs give families and single occupants the opportunity to live in Chapel Hill while minimizing auxiliary costs like those associated with transportation. After all, it is not just an issue of what low-income residents would ultimately prefer, but one of ensuring they can simply afford to live and work in our community at a basic level.

Carl Schuler pointed to the relationship between the town and the Community Home Trust as a good thing.  He also said the town must work with the neighborhood associations in the areas where new affordable housing is being built.

My only concern here is whether such communities, seeking to protect the market-driven status quo, will welcome low-income residents into their neighborhoods because of the unfounded stigma associated with being poor in America today. 

Finally, Jim Ward said families are, in particular, feeling the squeeze. "The size of the units are less and less often serving families," Ward said.

Ward said there also needs to be more affordable rentals for families and spaces that accommodate families with two or more kids.

While most of the contributing candidates seem well intentioned, all of them must stop and put themselves in the shoes of a low-income resident trying to live and work in a community where their services are in high demand, but the median cost of a home is far beyond affordable. Although our community is charming, we have to be willing to move in a more equitable and just direction if we are to continue to be seen as a model of social justice for similar communities across the state.  



Candidate responses to the question about housing in last night's online candidate forum:


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