Does Chapel Hill want to be in the business of perpetuating exclusionary land use policies?
Tonight the Town Council will vote on this critical question.
The Town of Chapel Hill’s Planning Director, Britany Waddell, posed the question above to the Town Council and the public at the April 10th Council work session in her introductory remarks on the Housing Choices for a Complete Community proposal. I encourage you to watch the video of that meeting as well as the May public hearing on this topic (starts at minute 50:40) to learn more about what the proposed policy would do and the many reasons for it.
Single-family zoning, homeowners associations, and restrictive covenants have been used historically as tools to perpetuate segregation and maintain white-only neighborhoods both in Chapel Hill and nationwide. This is both well-documented (google “race and zoning” for countless sources on this) and well-studied. This is a form of institutional or systemic racism. Naming this truth and identifying the benefits that these systemic structures have created for white homeowners (myself included, as someone who has benefitted from the accumulation of wealth through homeownership) within those neighborhoods is important. It does not mean you are a racist if you live in one but understanding this history provides a compelling reason to work to dismantle its legacy.
We have been told that some neighborhoods in Chapel Hill are actively working to put new covenants in place that would exclude their neighborhood from the proposed Housing Choices text amendments that would allow duplexes to be added over time. If true, those residents are making a deeply disappointing choice to continue exclusionary practices.
Along with addressing the problematic history of residential zoning as a tool for creating and maintaining segregation referenced by Ms. Waddell, there are also pressing housing needs we need to address as a Town.
There is a housing crisis in this country. Nationwide, the demand for housing far outweighs the supply. This has largely been brought about by overly restrictive land use policies. This is well-documented and the research is clear. And it absolutely applies to Chapel Hill. For example, from 2010 to 2021, the town only added a net of one percent of its dwelling units, or about 200 units.
There is simply no doubt that Chapel Hill needs to add more housing units. What we need to focus on is what types of housing we add and where. In recent years, the Town has largely added housing in the form of larger rental apartment buildings (and yes, they are occupied). The Council has been advocating for different types of housing that include ownership opportunities, and has recently approved several townhome developments, an exciting step toward our goal of increased variety of housing options.
Allowing more diverse housing types in existing neighborhoods - the “missing middle” - is another approach to increasing housing options in town. Opening up currently single-family only neighborhoods to duplexes, which the current draft proposal would allow, will incrementally provide more housing choices. The draft policy also ensures the new housing will fit into the existing neighborhood through limits on setbacks, height, impervious surface and massing.
We are doing this because we need more housing. The beneficiaries of more housing are people - families, workers, graduate students, seniors. Do developers make a profit when they build more housing? They usually do, as anyone who has a business and hopes to make a profit does. Chapel Hill’s thousands of homes exist because people took risks, developed land and built houses and then tried to sell them for a profit. Are developers the reason for this policy, as some have asserted? Categorically no.
Many have been asking, how do we know if this will have the intended impact? A timely Urban Institute journal article was just released on this very topic: Land-Use Reforms and Housing Costs: Does Allowing for Increased Density Lead to Greater Affordability? I encourage you to read it, but the upshot is that it does positively impact overall affordability. And that more restrictions - which we currently have quite a high level of, compared to other municipalities - decreases it. But to be clear, approving these amendments is not the solution to this problem; it is, however, a part of the solution to the problem.
Another excellent - and highly relevant - piece was just printed in New York Magazine - New ‘Luxury’ Apartments Are Good, Actually - that analyzes the impact of new development on housing cost: “You cannot achieve housing justice in high-demand cities by banning new market-rate units. But you also can’t do so through private development alone.” I couldn’t agree more and the Town’s significant investments in implementing our robust affordable housing strategy are a critical piece of the Town’s overall housing strategy for a truly Complete Community. Our strategy is “all of the above — market-rate and affordable housing” not just market-rate. The Housing Choice policy is one of several tools in our overarching housing strategy to realize our vision of being a town that is truly for everyone.
Renters make up approximately half of Chapel Hill’s residents. They contribute to property taxes, participate in civic life, own businesses, hold jobs, have children in the schools and their needs and perspectives are equally important to that of homeowners. And to be clear, the rents that they pay enable the owners of these units to pay real estate taxes, which represent a considerable portion of the Town’s revenues. The rhetoric in the public arena around renters has been unfortunate and harmful. In fact, staff just presented the results of a community connections survey indicating that people of color and renters do not feel their voices are welcome in this town’s public discourse.
I am excited about this proposed policy to expand housing choices in our community. My focus has been on getting it right. As many community members have pointed out, customizing it to Chapel Hill’s specific market is critical to achieving the outcomes we want and that is why the draft policy has changed over the last year, as staff has incorporated public and Council member input. My aim is to move past the hyperbole, implement this policy thoughtfully, and welcome more folks to our town.