Chapel Hill: Opinion

Nancy Oates: Town should hold out for housing

A friend took umbrage when he heard that a woman who lived in a condo she bought from the Community Home Trust had taken a trip to Europe. He felt if she could save up for a far-off vacation, perhaps she doesn’t need taxpayers to chip in for her housing.

Putting aside the possibility that she toured on the cheap (my son and his wife went to Rome, staying in a tiny pension and subsisting on a slice of pizza twice a day for the entire week), it got me thinking about our notions of who lives in affordable housing. Those assumptions may factor into why Chapel Hill Town Council members are reluctant to push for affordable housing in any of the multimillion-dollar developments they’ve approved recently.

The Obey Creek project is a prime example. The developer has plans for as many as 800 residential units, 5 percent designated as affordable – a weak offer, given Chapel Hill’s inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires 15 percent of new owner-occupied units be affordable. The town can’t mandate affordability for rental units, so council accepted the 5 percent.

But that number shrinks by almost half when we calculate by square footage instead of number of units. Some of the affordable housing will be micro-units of 450 to 500 square feet, about the size of a room at the Siena. The developer will receive the same rent-per-square-foot on these units as on larger ones, so this is no concession on his part.

The developer will accept some federal Section 8 and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers, thus federal taxpayers will pay the developer the difference between what the tenant can afford and the fed’s fair market rent. The FMR for a 1-bedroom apartment in Orange County is $737 and a three-bedroom is $1,127. As this is less than what the developer likely will charge for non-subsidized units, it would be discounted rent.

Obey Creek is within walking distance of the town’s two biggest employers of modestly paid workers. Yet under the current Obey Creek proposal, only 20 to 30 of the 1,600 to more residents who will live there will benefit from a rent discount.

Council members who voiced support for this paltry proposal – like Maria Palmer, who said she and her husband could not afford to live in Southern Village – ignore that this project across the street does little to help those who really need it.

That goes back to our notion of “deserving poor.” Affordable housing should not be considered charity handed out to people too lazy to earn more money. It is recognition of people who have chosen careers that will not make them wealthy, people who do jobs most of us are grateful we don’t have to do.

We see this time and again when it comes to affordable housing. The council delays Legion Road housing by at least a year to let a nonprofit reapply for a grant rather than open up bidding to for-profit builders who could build the same development without any grants. The council removes all incentive for The Edge to provide affordable housing. The council denies Empowerment’s request for CDBG funds of $60,000 to purchase a home to add to its inventory of affordable rentals, even though the town could have drawn from its affordable housing fund. (Self-Help confirmed that last Friday it received the first $1 million of UNC’s offer of a $3 million interest-free loan for affordable housing in Northside. That may not be available for the property Empowerment had its eye on, but it should help in future purchases.)

If council members are serious about affordable housing, they’ll negotiate hard for a better offer from Obey Creek.

Nancy Oates writes the Chapel Hill Watch blog.