Chapel Hill officials to hear affordable housing plans

tgrubb@newsobserver.comOctober 15, 2013 

  • What’s next?

    The Mayor’s Committee on Affordable Rental Housing will present its plan to the Town Council at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The plan offers the town options for building or working with its partners to build more affordable apartments and other rentals.

    The meeting will be held in the Southern Human Services Center at 2501 Homestead Road.

  • Housing by the numbers

    The town of Chapel Hill defines two common types of affordable housing as:

    • Workforce housing, typically provided by the private market, for people earning 80 percent to 120 percent of the area’s median income, or up to $81,224 a year.

    • Subsidized rental housing for people earning up to 60 percent to 80 percent of AMI, or up to $54,150 a year. These units are usually provided by town or nonprofit agencies.

    Chapel Hill’s working poor – those who make 30 percent of the area’s median income – have access to two other housing programs. (The town’s working poor are defined as a family of four making up to $20,300 a year or an individual making up to $14,250.)

    • Public housing: The town operates 336 apartments in 13 complexes. Roughly 300 more people – about 80 percent of whom meet the 30 percent AMI standard – are on a waiting list and can expect to stay there for about a year.

    • Section 8 vouchers: Roughly 1,800 Orange County residents are on a waiting list for the the county’s U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 8 program. The waiting list for that program has been closed for more than two years, with the average wait between four and five years. About 85 percent of those on the waiting list make less than 30 percent of AMI.

    Orange County has also determined that an additional 42 affordable units could be needed this year to meet housing needs among people with disabilities and the homeless.

    The town’s 2010 residential market study estimated an additional 1,257 new rental units would be needed by 2014. Since 2009, the Town Council has approved 539 rental units, all for families earning more than 80 percent of AMI.

— A town committee wraps up six months of work Wednesday on a plan to provide residents with more affordable housing.

The Mayor’s Committee on Affordable Rental Housing is expected to tell the Town Council that a shorter approval process, making affordable rental housing projects a priority, and working with regional partners will help provide more low-cost apartments. The committee is suggesting the town assign a senior staff member and establish an affordable housing board to shepherd future projects.

Money for those projects could come from an additional penny on the tax rate, voter-approved bonds, or state and federal grants and tax credits.

The committee – composed of affordable housing providers, nonprofit and for-profit experts, and affordable housing advocates – was formed this year to answer to the town’s growing call for lower-cost housing. It was led by council members Sally Greene and Donna Bell.

“We are in a marketing battle to make people believe that there are affordable housing needs in Chapel Hill,” Bell said. “Through this conversation ... lots of us have come around to a new idea, which is development across the board is one of the ways to deal with affordability.”

The town already offers incentives to developers that build affordable housing, such as waiving fees and reducing setback requirements. Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, Empowerment Inc. and CASA receive local subsidies and provide some affordable housing. But the need is growing, officials said.

In June, the General Services Corp. management company announced it would no longer accept Section 8 vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, effectively kicking out 90 local households from its properties. Several dozen more affordable rental homes were condemned after a June 30 storm pushed flash floods through Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

The town lacks legal authority under state law to make property owners accept Section 8 vouchers or charge a lower rate for rental housing.

The committee is suggesting the town work instead with regional governments, UNC, the UNC Health Care system, and nonprofit and for-profit developers.

The first steps are already happening: The council is considering working with the nonprofit Downtown Housing Improvement Corp. to build affordable and senior housing on town-owned land off Legion Road.

The committee’s other short-term suggestions include:

• Creating a central database of affordable housing

• Identifying a second public or private site for affordable housing

• Offering affordable housing incentives to developers

Longer-term plans could include developing the government-owned Greene Tract near Eubanks Road and buying older apartment complexes to renovate and reuse. The committee also recommends encouraging more landlords to accept Section 8 vouchers and asking the state for legal authority to ban income source discrimination by landlords.

Affordable rental housing was identified as a goal in the town’s 2011 Affordable Housing Strategy and the 2020 Comprehensive Plan for future growth. The town expects to release an updated housing study by 2015.

Developers on the committee and those who spoke to its members this summer said the town makes it too expensive for them to provide affordable housing and still make a profit.

Scott Radway, a committee member and professional planner, said the town’s concept reviews started as “back of the envelope” plans but have since grown to include specific details and a cost that’s well more than the town’s $360 concept plan filing fee, he said. A developer can easily spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars without any guarantee of approval, he said.

The town’s process is broken, said developer Ron Strom, who wants to redevelop the Timber Hollow Apartments on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The zoning map should reflect the town’s 2020 Plan, and the council should stop micromanaging projects, he said.

Every additional request means a developer will spend more money and time, and two years after the concept review, many details are still being worked out, he said. In Cary, the town gives developers a checklist. If they disagree with the requirements, they can petition the board, he said.

Greg Warren, DHIC president and a committee member, agreed a developer’s criteria list could take less oversight and cut the review time.

The town’s housing costs also grow because town limits on the square footage allowed per acre are outdated. The current standards were set in the 1980s and 1990s when people thought differently about parking and green space, he said. It’s inadvertently increasing the land costs, he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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