Published: Aug 28, 2012 09:40 PM
Modified: Sep 18, 2012 11:44 AM
In the first part of the last century a farm blanketed much of what is now the Northside neighborhood of Chapel Hill. Then the town grew and that land was plowed under so a residential development could sprout in its place.
Think what would have happened if the town had acted to preserve that land. A family farm, now something of an endangered species, would have been saved and today’s locavore movement would be feasting on food grown right downtown.
Instead, the area changed. Families were planted where crops had been cultivated.
In the first part of this century, Northside is transforming once again. This time university growth is driving the change. Decades of adding more students than dorm rooms have turned properties near campus into opportunities. Rather than living in homes, owners can earn income by renting them out.
So what was once a farm, and then a quiet family neighborhood, is becoming a bustling student enclave. One tract of land. Two metamorphoses. Both driven by population growth: the first of permanent residents, the second of quadrennial visitors.
But this time the town wants to preserve Northside by halting that change. It has enacted a series of punitive zoning restrictions on building size and configuration to dissuade conversion to student rentals.
So far, its efforts have been in vain. Elderly and fixed-income residents, some unable to maintain their homes or afford the high Chapel Hill tax rate, continue to willingly sell to landlords who willingly buy them for students who, needing a place to live, willingly rent them.
Recently the university decided to get involved, perhaps because it was UNC’s devolution from residential college to commuter school that created the rental pressures on the neighborhood in the first place. It is paying an outside consultant $210,000 to recommend new regulations and programs to “stabilize” and “sustain” Northside.
If they are successful at all, the regulations will simply push the rental conversion problem to another neighborhood. More likely, these restrictions will also fail, and risk further devaluing properties in Northside. That will hurt residents who need to sell and help investors who want to buy.
Why has it been so hard for the town to stop this change? Ultimately, because it doesn’t have the power to repel market forces. The pressures of supply and demand are relentless and indomitable. Tweaking zoning laws is like putting a finger in a dike straining to hold back a flood, in this case a flood of students.
But there is a solution. Rather than trying to shackle the market, the town should be harnessing it. The most effective way to combat demand for student housing in Northside is to provide better housing at better pricing elsewhere to compete against it.
Unfortunately, the Town Council has squandered repeated opportunities to do just that. At least four times over the past few years, specialist student housing developers have proposed compact, high- density student villages along transit corridors that, combined, would have pulled over 2,000 students out of existing neighborhoods.
These companies would have built state of the art housing, with amenities like pools, gyms and tennis courts, at competitive prices. They professionally manage scores of similar, successful projects across the country.
But in each case, the council has either said no way, or dramatically cut the number of units, hurting the project’s economy of scale and making it less competitive to cheaper housing in areas like Northside.
To stop neighborhoods from being subsumed by rentals, the town should welcome new student housing. In fact, it should ask for higher density. But it’s not in the council’s DNA to embrace development. Our elected officials prefer to regulate.
It’s time to stop being reactive. That hasn’t worked and won’t work. The town needs a proactive strategy – a student containment policy that lures our collegiate citizens out of neighborhoods into a series of first-class, affordable, compact communities.
The private sector is eager to build great student housing centers. If we maximize these new developments, existing landlords in at-risk neighborhoods like Northside will have to start renting their single-family homes to single families again and the market will be an agent of preservation rather than change.