Chapel Hill News

Chapel Hill council analyzes Ephesus-Fordham affordable housing plan

Town Council members have several questions about a plan to bring more affordable apartments and for-sale housing to the town’s Ephesus-Fordham district.

The plan involves roughly 20 acres along the southern side of South Elliott Road, from East Franklin Street to Fordham Boulevard. The council postponed changes to the area in May when it approved form-based code zoning for the rest of the district.

The code tells developers how buildings in the district can be used and should appear. It also guides the town manager and the town’s Community Design Commission in approving or rejecting proposed plans.

The council is considering whether to rezone the land that was set aside to allow two-story buildings with a height density bonus. The bonus would let developers build five stories, or a 60-foot building, if they offer at least 10 percent of the project’s housing at affordable prices.

The proposal would keep rental housing affordable for at least 15 years for families making 80 percent or less of the area median income. A single person who earns up to $36,800 a year could qualify, as could a family of four earning up to $52,550 a year.

For-sale housing would remain affordable for a minimum of 99 years.

At Monday night’s Town Council meeting, member Jim Ward said he can’t support a plan that keeps rental housing affordable for only 15 years, because it won’t help relieve the tax burden on town residents to pay for town services.

“Affordable rentals for 15 years is a drag on our school systems and the costs that we all pay. It’s a drag on other town services,” he said. “At best, it’s a break-even situation. At worst, it’s going to cost us more to serve these people than it is in terms of the generated revenues.”

The town also should ask for housing that’s affordable to residents earning less money, he said.

The percentage of affordable housing required also raised questions. Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt asked why the town couldn’t require 15 percent. Council member Sally Greene said she suggested 10 percent after talking with local builders but is interested in hearing which is the better option.

Developers are required, under the town’s inclusionary zoning rules, to price 15 percent of a development’s for-sale homes at affordable rates. The required percentage drops to 10 percent for projects in more urban areas, such as downtown Chapel Hill.

Local governments are prohibited by state law, however, from requiring affordable rental housing.

Former state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, who was among roughly a dozen people at Monday’s hearing, said the most serious problem for residents right now is finding affordable apartments.

“I applaud you studying this issue and coming back to this issue,” she said, “and I encourage you strongly to make sure that you have within your final plan for this sufficient incentives ... to bring a great deal more rental for low-income and especially Section 8 housing.”

Robert Dowling, executive director of the nonprofit Community Home Trust, said 80 percent of AMI sounds like a good target for buyers, but 60 percent is better for renters. The town is on the right track but needs to decide how to work with the private sector, he said.

“Voluntary inclusionary housing programs, which is what this is, are rarely successful. They are rarely successful, because communities don’t provide sufficient incentives,” Dowling said. “I would like to know what developers think and what’s sufficient for them.”

The public hearing was continued to Nov. 24.