Bonus points for developers who include “affordable” housing in their projects got the Durham Planning Commission’s stamp of approval Tuesday, with the understanding there will be more to come.
“We’re hoping this is a first step to get to the point a developer says it makes sense,” senior planner Aaron Cain told the commissioners.
A hearing by the Planning Commission, a citizens panel that advises the City Council and Board of County Commissioners on land-use issues, was itself a first step in formal approval for giving developers a break on parking requirements and zoning limits in exchange for mixing low-income dwellings in among otherwise market-rate apartments (nando.com/1d2):
▪ For affordable units, developers would not have to provide the parking places that are required for units selling or renting at market rate;
▪ For each affordable house or apartment included in residential projects, developers could build three more than the site’s zoning allows to rent at the going market rate.
The “parking bonus” could amount to significant savings on construction costs, Cain said, especially for high-density developments that include parking decks.
The three-for-one “density bonus” enhances a one-for-one bonus that has been on Durham’s books for 12 years but never used.
Both incentives are aimed at providing affordable housing near stops on the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail Project line, where the city and county governments want dense development to provide riders, but don’t want rising property values to force low-income residents, who most rely on public transit, to live farther from the trains.
The city’s and county’s set goal is that at least 15 percent of all housing within a half-mile of each station will be affordable to three-person households with incomes at 60 percent of the area median: currently, Cain said, with rent of about $811 a month.
Commissioner Fredrick Davis noted that nothing in the proposed bonus rules defines how large an “affordable” unit would have to be. A developer could use the bonus to build extra three-bedroom apartments, while providing only one-bedroom units at the affordable rate.
“I just want us all to be transparent,” Davis said.
“That could be the case,” Cain said, “but considering that in 12 years nobody's ever used the density bonus yet, I’d take some one bedrooms.”
The hearing was open for public comment, but neither developers nor advocates for low-cost housing took the opportunity to speak up. Commissioner Tom Miller asked whether anyone active in Durham’s development community has said the proposed bonuses are “a good thing” and would include affordable housing if they win approval.
“Nobody’s willing to say that yet,” Cain said, but other cities’ experience shows that it takes a “toolbox” full of different incentives, which can be used in combinations to suit particular projects, to make affordability an attractive – i.e., profitable – deal for builders.
“There’s an awful lot of money to be made up. I don’t think we have reached the answer of how to do this yet,” said Commissioner Charlie Gibbs.
“If we had the answer,” Cain said, “we’d be doing it already.”
The Durham Planning Commission voted 11-1 to recommend that the City Council and Durham County commissioners adopt the parking and density bonuses into the city-county development regulations. Each elected body will hold its own public hearing prior to voting on approval, probably in August after the council and commissioners’ summer breaks.