Housing affordability in our community and nationwide is a complex problem that is intricately linked with numerous other local policy issues. This is why planning for affordable housing requires consideration of the context and other policy issues that directly or indirectly influence affordability.
Take the Ephesus-Fordham small area plan, for example. Critics of this renewal effort point to a lack of affordable housing requirements as a flaw of the plan. Yet, under North Carolina law, the Chapel Hill Town Council is extremely limited in how it can implement affordable-housing requirements.
Unlike cities in other states, Chapel Hill’s only option is to offer a density bonus in exchange for affordable units. Evidence from across the country indicates that the kind of density bonus Chapel Hill could offer would simply be too small to incentivize developers to use it. (This has been the case in Durham, where no developer has taken advantage of its density incentive in the 12 years since its enactment).
Zoning restrictions also have a direct impact on housing affordability in our community. Neighborhood conservation districts (NCDs) clearly exemplify this.
By adding restrictions in neighborhoods that limit housing modifications or additions, restrict new development, and ban duplexes and accessory dwelling units, NCDs put more pressure on the remaining developable locations in town, driving up prices in those neighborhoods and further reducing the affordability of our community.
The decision to downzone Chapel Hill in the mid-1990s, a conscious choice by the Town Council to slow growth, is another example of the impact of zoning on affordability. This downzoning has had a significant chilling effect on development by (1) mandating low-density development, (2) setting a low bar to trigger the special-use permit process, (3) offering no by-right development, and (4) requiring the Town Council to have input on most development projects rather than relying on town staff. Chapel Hill is now less affordable because insufficient housing has been built to respond to the fact that our community is a desirable place to live.
And then there’s our complicated, expensive, and lengthy development review process that, by design, creates contentious battles between developers and local neighborhood associations. Because the process is so lengthy, unpredictable, and expensive, developers are only going to go through that process if their project has high profit potential.
In other words, no developer is going to fight for seven years to build housing for people of modest means, because they would be unable to recoup the costs of the development process. If we want affordable housing to be built, we need a simple, predictable process that clearly communicates what we as a community want to see built.
Solving affordable housing isn’t as simple as mandating more subsidized units and attempting to extract more affordable units from developers. There are real limits, in law and in practice, on how this can be done. And there are numerous other factors, like zoning restrictions and our development review process, that make affordable housing even more challenging to build and provide.
If we want to make affordable housing work in our community, we have to take a broad look at all of these factors and make some tough decisions about how to reconcile these competing interests.
Travis Crayton and Molly De Marco live in Chapel Hill and are editors of the blog OragePolitics.org