When Cary overhauled its development policies earlier this year, Habitat for Humanity of Wake County saw a chance to build affordable homes in the fast-growing western part of the county.
Habitat paid almost $400,000 for a 2.6-acre lot on Trimble Avenue off of West Chatham Street near downtown Cary, and asked the town to rezone the site.
But the request hasn’t received the enthusiasm Habitat hoped for. Residents who live in the nearby Scottish Hills neighborhood have pushed back against the plan, saying it doesn’t fit in with the neighborhood. Red signs that say “No Trimble Rezoning” dot many front lawns.
The town’s planning board sided with neighbors last month when it voted 5-3 to not recommend approval of the project. The Cary Town Council, which has the final say, is set to vote on the plan later this spring.
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“I’d say it’s the most organized opposition I’ve ever seen to something like this,” said John Donachie, a Cary planner who works on affordable housing.
The controversy highlights the challenges faced by affordable housing efforts in Cary, where land is pricey and scarce and homes are increasingly beyond reach for many families. The average home price in Cary is $340,000.
When organizations like Habitat find land for homes, neighbors sometimes make it clear they’d prefer such projects go elsewhere.
Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, a nonprofit founded in 1985, has built 54 homes in Cary since 1996, but just three since 2010. Sponsors and volunteers build Habitat houses, and homeowners buy the property with an affordable mortgage.
Much of Wake’s affordable housing is in eastern Wake County, where land is cheaper and “the opposition isn’t as sophisticated,” said Kevin Campbell, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Wake County.
One percent of Cary’s housing stock is affordable housing, which ranks the town last in Wake County.
About 10 percent of all housing units in Knightdale, Zebulon and Wendell are publicly assisted, either through the federal Section 8 program or through tax incentives for developers.
In Cary, about 1 percent of the housing supply is publicly assisted.
“Habitat is asking us to support their mission, but we’re asking them to value and respect the vision we have for our neighborhood,” Scottish Hills resident Scott Peters said at the April 17 planning board meeting. “If they value us as a community enough to add Habitat recipients to our neighborhood, where’s the detail we need to know if this will fit in our neighborhood?”
Scottish Hills is an older neighborhood, where homes cost about $250,000.
Campbell said he’s wary of neighbors’ arguments.
“When you say something’s not compatible, you’re saying, ‘We don’t want anything different than what’s here already,’ and it’s not a large step to saying, ‘We don’t want any different people,’ ” Campbell said. “That’s something political leaders need to look out for – that zoning doesn’t become an exclusionary tool.”
Affordable housing can be a tricky subject in places as affluent as Cary, where the poverty rate – just 2.7 percent, roughly a quarter of the North Carolina rate – can be seen as a sign of the town’s success or indicative of the housing barriers that face lower-income families who can’t afford to live there.
When it comes to lowering those barriers, Cary’s direct involvement is limited. North Carolina doesn’t allow municipalities to require developers to meet affordable housing unit quotas – a practice known as “inclusionary zoning.”
The town tends to focus on maintaining its existing stock of affordable housing through repairs and modifications. Grant money also helps Cary’s ballooning population of senior citizens stay in their homes once they transition to a fixed income.
Habitat is essentially Cary’s only partner in building new affordable homes, although local nonprofits such as Dorcas Ministries and the White Oak Foundation work to place low-income families in homes, often in other parts of the county.
A federal tax credit meant to spur private investment in low-income housing has facilitated the construction of several apartment complexes around town, and some Cary residents receive Section 8 vouchers through Wake County’s Housing Authority.
Cary can grease the skids for affordable housing development by permitting denser zoning in more places. The Cary Community Plan, approved in January, prioritizes greater density than before near downtown areas and employment centers, while also calling for more diversity in housing options, particularly in older “heritage” neighborhoods such as Scottish Hills.
That’s what gave Habitat hope when it applied to rezone the Trimble Avenue property. But the policy also asks that new development “maintain neighborhood character.”
Habitat’s original proposal called for 23 attached homes, but the group lowered the number to 15, and then nine, after hearing concerns from neighbors. The nine homes would be detached single-family dwellings.
But some still said the narrow lots aren’t compatible with the neighborhood, although town staff recommended approval for the project.
“The bar kept moving,” Campbell said. “We had people, neighbors, council members say if we took the attached housing out, they’d support it. And then we got to the planning board, they said they don’t like the housing facing the street. To me, it suggests that there’s an underlying issue people aren’t talking about.”
Donachie said development plans can be interpreted differently.
“With Trimble,” he said, “the staff interpretation broadly supported housing diversity and density.”
44 – percentage of increase in average rent for a two-bedroom unit in Cary since 2000
Neighbors have argued that Habitat’s intentions and Cary’s desire to bolster its affordable housing stock shouldn’t tip the balance of the rezoning case. The town would dedicate about $275,000 in federal block grants to the project if the rezoning succeeds.
Town officials say their favorable recommendation had nothing to do with Habitat.
“You have to take the who’s who out of the picture with rezoning cases,” Chief Development Officer Russ Overton said. “If you approve a grocery store site thinking it’ll be a Wegmans, it could just as easily be a Food Lion.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated the Town Council’s definitive vote on the Trimble Avenue rezoning would take place May 25. That meeting’s agenda has not yet been set. Check townofcary.org for more information about council agendas.
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan