Let’s find creative solutions to the challenge of affordable housing
This fall, Chapel Hill voters will have the opportunity to elect new leaders who will bring new energy and new ideas to bear on the challenges facing our town. Two of the most vexing challenges we will have to address are worsening traffic congestion and the increasingly high cost of housing. These two problems are related. If more of the people who work in Chapel Hill could afford to live here, we’d have fewer cars on the highways at peak commuting times.
Our affordable housing shortage has multiple causes. For example, in recent decades, private for-profit homebuilders have shown little interest in building homes in Chapel Hill for middle- and lower-income households. At the same time, many of the town’s older, moderately priced homes have been bought by investors and converted to student rentals, effectively reducing the amount of family-friendly housing available to town staff, public school teachers, and other modestly paid workers.
The town government, to its credit, has responded with several initiatives. In 2000, for example, the town began asking developers of projects that involved a rezoning to make 15 percent of new units affordable. In 2010, this policy was expanded (and enacted into law) so that now all residential development applications proposing five or more units must provide 15 percent of the units (10 percent in the downtown area) at prices affordable to low- and moderate-income households.
This policy has produced several hundred new units of affordable housing, but has several shortcomings. First, it inclines elected officials to approve residential projects that are overly dense or too large in order to maximize the amount of new affordable housing provided. Second, because the town does not specify how large the affordable units must be, they often end up being too small for families. Finally, the policy applies only to for-sale units; state law prohibits the town from regulating the price of rental housing.
In response, Chapel Hill recently embarked on a new approach whereby the town collaborates with a non-profit developer to build affordable rental apartments on town-owned land using federal tax credits and loans to help finance the construction. The first of these collaborations, an 80-unit apartment building on Legion Road, will begin construction in the next year or two.
This is a step in the right direction but still falls far short of what is needed. Indeed, the 80 units that will be built on Legion Road. will not even replace the ~200 units of moderately priced housing that will be lost when The Park Apartments on Ephesus Road is redeveloped.
What else might we do? In several other expensive N.C. housing markets, local governments are collaborating with civic-minded financing partners to build permanently affordable housing for modestly paid public employees.
For example, the Asheville city school district and Buncombe County government have teamed up with the State Employees Credit Union (SECU) Foundation to build a new affordable apartment complex for local schoolteachers. Buncombe County is donating the land, the SECU foundation is providing a no-interest loan, and a local charitable organization will manage the property. The rental proceeds will first go to pay off the loan and will then provide a continuing source of revenue the charity will use to support the school system. Our new mayor and council members, whoever they turn out to be, should explore carrying out a similar project here in Chapel Hill.
Finally, whether homes in Chapel Hill are affordable depends not only on housing prices but also on how much people earn. Elected officials, therefore, should also explore raising the local minimum wage.
David Schwartz is a candidate for Chapel Hill Town Council. Candidates may have one guest column every other month, as space permits, between now and Election Day.