Chapel Hill housing report sparks debate

tgrubb@newsobserver.comOctober 17, 2013 

  • The plan

    Affordable rental housing has become a hot commodity in Chapel Hill. According to a 2010 housing study, the town predicted a need for 1,257 new rental units by 2014. But since 2009, the Town Council has approved only 539 units.

    Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt formed a committee in May to study the town’s options. The Mayor’s Committee on Affordable Rental Housing met over the summer and came up with a list of ideas.

    Some of the short-, mid- and long-term suggestions include:

    • Low-income housing tax credit projects on town-owned land

    • Identifying additional public or private sites for affordable housing

    • Offering affordable rental housing incentives to developers

    • Create an affordable rental housing database

    • Dedicate a penny in property taxes and/or seek a voter-approved bond for housing projects

    • Have a senior staff member to shepherd the projects

    • High-level talks with UNC and UNC Health Care

    • Simplify and shorten review process for affordable rental housing projects

    • Review town progress toward goals every year

    • Work with others to buy and rehabilitate older apartment complexes

— A committee’s report sparked a debate Wednesday about what kind of town Chapel Hill could become if it doesn’t develop more affordable housing.

The Mayor’s Committee on Affordable Rental Housing, co-chaired by council members Sally Greene and Donna Bell, presented recommendations that included a bond referendum, working with nonprofits to develop affordable housing on town land, and developer incentives, among other measures.

“This is a critical topic, a critical thing for us to be working on to preserve and increase the diversity of our community,” Greene said.

The town manager and town attorney will report back about the proposals at a future meeting.

Robert Dowling, executive director of the nonprofit housing agency Community Home Trust, said the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition supports the report’s recommendations. The town’s involvement could make a substantial impact, he said.

Glen Lennox resident Molly McConnell said many families live in affordable but substandard housing. Even in affordable housing, they spend nearly 75 percent of their income on housing and utilities, she said, or new owners and developers come in and the rent rises.

“When you don’t have decent housing for your public servants, your workforce, your teachers, the people emptying your grandmother’s bedpan, providing your daycare, you do not have a diverse community, you do not have a welcoming community, you do not have a just community,” she said.

Council member Matt Czajkowski said developers are replacing affordable housing with more expensive housing.

“As a town, we either have to say that where there is already affordable housing ... we have to say no unless we can show for sure to people that we can replace that much affordable housing. That is an awful lot of affordable housing to have to replace,” he said.

Bell said developers need to know exactly what the town wants in affordable housing and fewer obstacles to building it. The town’s choice is between investing in diversity or in a bedroom community, she said.

“If the citizens decide that they want to create a bedroom community, they should let us know so that we can start making policies, and so I can pack up my family and move someplace else,” she said.

Czajkowski said it is “sheer and utter nonsense” that residents want or expect the town to become a bedroom community.

“Everyone in this town wants to find a solution for affordable housing but ... we can’t embrace solutions which are going to have a huge impact on the town and not necessarily result in any more affordable housing,” he said.

There are no guarantees, but the town shouldn’t give up on ideas it hasn’t tried, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said.

“Every bit about what makes this town a great place to live is a work in progress, and none of us ... should forget that,” he said. “It requires every single one of us getting up everyday and making it work, and that means coming up with new ways of thinking about this.”

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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