Northside moratorium

In 2004, the Northside neighborhood won Neighborhood Conservation District status. But developers soon learned how to work around the rules. By calling a bedroom a “den” or a “game room,” they could fool the town Inspections Department into allowing a six- to eight-bedroom house to be built in a neighborhood where town ordinance limits house size to five bedrooms. In short order, developers bought up properties, tore down the existing houses or applied for building permits to construct additions that doubled the size of the homes and turned them into lucrative student rentals.

Some of the owner-occupied property owners in Northside organized and asked the town for a moratorium on all new construction until a solution could be found to enforce the ordinance.

Last night, town staff presented a balanced view of the problem, complete with photos that argued in favor of a moratorium. Houses along the edge of campus have become sought-after housing because students can live there more affordably in apartment complexes that charge by the person, not the room. Students who rent a house and ignore the town ordinance of no more than four unrelated people per house can double or triple the number of tenants and divide the rent so it is much less expensive. At a panel discussion on campus over graduation weekend, a student talked openly about living in a house off-campus with seven roommates. Town research showed that some of the houses in Northside hold eight to 12 students per house.

Town staff recommended against a moratorium, promising to be more diligent about enforcing the existing ordinance but also admitted that the enforcement process is so slow as to be useless.

Town council agreed with residents and approved the commencement of a moratorium process. Development of all property that did not have an application for a building permit submitted by yesterday would be put on hold until further notice. The matter comes back for a public hearing on June 20, and the council could act by June 27.

Perhaps because some council members were still smarting from pushback over the relocation of the homeless shelter, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt lifted his ban on applause and allowed the audience to clap and cheer for each council member who spoke out in favor of the moratorium.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. George C

     /  May 24, 2011

    “Students who rent a house and ignore the town ordinance of no more than four unrelated people per house can double or triple the number of tenants and divide the rent so it is much less expensive.”

    Perhaps if the owners of the properties were held responsible for ordinance violations and if an aggressive system of rapidly escalating owner fines was implemented then the landlords themselves would take care to insure that their properties weren’t being used as de facto rooming houses.

  2. Fred Black

     /  May 24, 2011

    Here’s an example of just one case that shows how hard it is to manage this ordinace:

  3. Fred Black

     /  May 24, 2011

    Here’s an example of just one case that shows how hard it is to manage this ordinance:

  4. Nancy Oates

     /  May 24, 2011

    Thanks for the link, Fred. Chapel Hill Watch wrote about this case last year. Finally, it was resolved, and the extraneous tenants moved out, but as the documents show, it took months. The town is working on a similar issue regarding a house on Davie Circle. Persistence on the part of neighbors can bring these situations to the attention of the town.

  5. Nancy, Fred, George, this isn’t just a story about Northside’s NCD but how Chapel Hill has crafted these policies since day one. When the Northside NCD was being formulated some of the participants asked how and with what resources the conditions of the overlay would be enforced. Those questions have been echoed since most recently in the creation of the Glenn Lennox NCD. These overlays only are as good as the willingness and ability to enforce their provisions. Even with adequate attention, NCD’s are only a tool in what should be a full toolbox of options for managing growth within our Town. Part of the upset in the Northside community stems from previous Council’s overselling the NCD as a mechanism for managing their neighborhoods development.

    I applaud the Council’s recognition, even if it’s a bit tardy, of the problems that stem from the initial faulty construction of the overlay and hope to see them not only remedy the Northside NCD deficiencies but also cast a more critical eye towards the Glenn Lennox draft to make sure that expectations are managed and understood by all.

  6. Terri Buckner

     /  May 25, 2011

    When the item on serving alcohol at the old library/museum building was pulled from the consent agenda, Matt C was making a point that the Council shouldn’t arbitrarily enact policies without having done the necessary background work. Whether one agrees with him on the specific issue of bypassing the normal process for serving alcohol at a town facility or not, his basic point was spot on. Adopting policies without a plan and mechanism for enforcement or without revisiting the effectiveness of the policy on a semi-regular basis before applying it to other instances is not effective management. While I agreed with Mark K that the neighbors need to be involved in managing the day-to-day NCD policy, the town also needs to be involved too. Hopefully the moratorium will give the neighbors and the town time to come up with a plan that achieves the intent of the NCD–protecting the long-term residents from being pushed out by developers and students, while also protecting against the loss of a vital area in the town’s history.

  7. Linda Convissor

     /  May 25, 2011

    On Monday, I drove around Northside to look at the examples of student housing that the staff cited in the staff report. I noted a house for sale with a real estate flier box in front. The price was $197,000 and it noted that the likely scenario was either to tear it down or do a major renovation. From the outside it appeared that the house was in terrible condition. It did not appear to have good bones worth renovating. Not all the houses that come on the market in Northside are in tear-down condition, but some/many are. What to do with those?

    This is an honest question – posed because I think the situation in Northside and in other older neighborhoods near campus – is so complex and I would like to hear your thoughts.

  8. Duncan O'Malley

     /  May 27, 2011

    Linda –

    You bring up an excellent point. Many rental units in town, whether free-standing houses or apartment buildings, are deemed “affordable” only because they’re so dilapidated and run-down that the owners can only charge a fraction of what they would is the unit were in good condition.

    What makes most sense is for the town to encourage and work with developers to create an adequate pool of rental housing for students. Until that happens, we’re going to see more and more houses in EVERY NEIGHBORHOOD taken over and re-fitted for student rentals.

  9. Nancy Oates

     /  May 28, 2011

    Linda — Preservation North Carolina has an interesting model; they’ve partnered with the City of Durham to revitalize some blighted neighborhoods, buying up historic homes and arming them with protective covenants such as the buyer must live in the home, and helping homeowners access historic renovation tax credits. The city helps with financing. Then PNC sells them as affordable, owner-occupied houses. Northside isn’t blighted, and given its location in downtown and close to campus, it won’t be. Property values will continue to rise there, regardless of whether developers buy up houses to raze and replace with student housing. It’s going to become a more expensive neighborhood, just as the mill houses in Carrboro have. But at least they could be preserved instead of knocked down.