Act now

Town Council won’t meet again until Wednesday, Feb. 27, which gives council members two more days to do something about workforce housing.

Approval for rezoning and a special use permit for The Bicycle Apartments comes up for a vote toward the end of a packed agenda. Council members will likely be tired and perhaps a bit testy after the public forum on the budget and a handful of petitions, including one from the planning board that, among other issues, pushes council to take action on creating workforce housing.

If ever council members will do more than just wring their hands over the workforce housing issue, Wednesday’s meeting would be the right time. Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt will have come fresh from a panel on affordable housing in the Triangle; surely he will have brought back some ideas. After all, Durham and Raleigh both have enacted plans for affordable and workforce housing that have proved successful. Sally Greene, in lobbying for an appointment to fill the council seat vacant since before Thanksgiving, said she had some solutions for creating affordable rentals, but thus far she has kept them to herself. Wednesday’s meeting would be a great time to unveil them.

Council has the bully pulpit and the authority to support affordable housing. So far, council’s decisions have set us on a course to push the people who keep our town running out to Durham, Mebane and Pittsboro. It’s as though we’ve said, “We’ll shelter the homeless; in exchange, you find places for our worker bees to live.”

Here are some things council can do Wednesday night to take action to preserve workforce housing:

 Turn down the rezoning and SUP for Bicycle Apartments unless the developers contractually agree to ensure that leases for half the units would exclude students and would be priced for workforce housing. Neighborhood opposition would evaporate if the number of students was halved and the party animals would find the place less appealing.
 Create a workforce housing board, and set a moratorium on all rezoning and SUP applications for apartment developments and redevelopments for six months until the new board comes up with some ideas to preserve workforce rentals.
 Adopt a resolution to speed through applications for construction of workforce housing. The Central West developers would be so happy they’d carry council members around the room on their shoulders.

Keener minds than mine can come up with even better ideas. Where would you begin?
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Terri Buckner

     /  February 25, 2013

    Efforts to create “affordable” housing haven’t been very successful. I know others will disagree with that statement, but to me, building small units in mostly unaffordable developments is just a bandaid on a broken leg. So what makes you think a focus on workforce housing will be any more successful?

  2. Janet Smith

     /  February 25, 2013

    Thanks Nancy. You said it perfectly. My biggest frustration with the 2020 Comprehensive Plan is that it didn’t do enough. The Town has yet to take control of development by assessing needs and opportunities, then inviting developers to build accordingly. Bicycle Apartments is an excellent example of a failure of the Town to plan. This is a perfect location for workforce housing that provide every bit the benefit that students bring to downtown, and create the diverse community we profess to want.

  3. George C

     /  February 25, 2013

    As long as land and/or redevelopment opportunities continue to be so expensive in CH it will be very difficult to create affordable housing and affordable work-force housing without government subsidies. Asking developers to subsidize affordable housing/work-force housing merely pushes the costs onto the remaining buyers which then raises the overall affordability of the entire community which then raises even more the costs of land and/or redevelopment opportunities, etc., etc. etc.

    We need to strengthen our non-residential tax base, we need to try to recruit new businesses, and, if we’re truly serious about affordable housing then a program needs to be presented to the community that clearly embraces what we, as Chapel Hillians, believe are our obligations for providing affordable housing opportunities to the entire community and how, as Chapel Hillians, we are all going to share in the economic pain that will be needed to do so. Laying this financial responsibility off on one segment of the community (developers) has thus far worked poorly at best, and will not work at all moving forward.

  4. Bonnie Hauser

     /  February 25, 2013

    We’ve had this discussion. Workforce is not just about housing -its about lifestyle. So its great to have a generous library and lots of parks – but the workforce appreciates big box shopping and can’t afford to eat at Acme. Not to mention housing and taxes.

    Isn’t workforce a broader strategy – not just housing? A brief moratorium would be great – if the task force is invited to take a holistic view on how/when Chapel Hill can offer a meaningful lifestyle choice over Mebane or Pittsboro.

  5. Many

     /  February 25, 2013

    “Workforce Housing” is another term like “Transit Oriented Development”. Ill defined, It is supposed to denote housing for those who are gainfully employed yet cannot afford to live close to work. It started in Telluride and Aspen (according to Wikipedia) and all I can say to that is, how appropriate.

    Exactly how is a discriminatory housing policy like “Workforce Housing” supposed to work in light of NC GS 41A-1?

    How is the further distortion of the housing market supply & demand going to make things better in the long term? There is most certainly evidence that market manipulations such as rent control serve to diminish the supply of housing units and lead to decreases in critical property maintenance.

  6. Diogenes

     /  February 25, 2013

    The issue here is that CH 2020 paid a great deal of lip service to affordable and workforce housing and “density” was supposed to somehow help provide it. A mere six months after CH 2020 was approved it has become abundantly clear that if anything the “dense” proposals the Council is receiving are actually reducing affordable and workforce housing and the very authors of CH 2020 who made the claim now refute it and tell us that it has to be done with government subsidies. That, of course, doesn’t dilute their passion for density of apparently any sort. Maybe those obstinate folks who insisted on some evidence of the grand assertions supporting the density arguments had a point. And let’s not confuse increasing the commercial tax base with high end student housing. A meaningful increase in the commercial tax base requires retail. A lot of it. We need national mall developers working on Ephesus/40 and Obey Creek if we’re going to make any kind of difference.

  7. Terri Buckner

     /  February 25, 2013

    Diogenes–you need to shine the light back on yourself. It’s way too late the depend on retail to revive the local economy. Retail comes with out-of-community owners, lots of demand for parking, and low wages. Maybe you haven’t seen the data on how locally based businesses keep money in the community. Please explain exactly how a Target or other national mall businesses are going to have any impact on lowering the cost of living?

  8. Diogenes

     /  February 25, 2013

    Or — our good friends in the ETJ could volunteer to pay full Town of Chapel Hill taxes and we could use the surplus to subsidize affordable and workforce housing!

  9. Terri Buckner

     /  February 25, 2013

    Annexation of neighborhoods along Homestead didn’t do anything to make Carrboro residential more affordable. Why should it do anything different for Chapel Hill?

  10. Del Snow

     /  February 25, 2013

    Well said, Nancy.
    The budget problems have become the Holy Grail in altering the value system that our Town purports to endorse. We cannot have a community, in the truest sense of the word, by not allowing those who really contribute our foundational needs – health care, educations, and safety – to live in Chapel Hill. Adding to the burden of those at the median income level is the cost of gasoline for commuting and now, parking.

    I would heartily endorse a moratorium – if it were a viable option. The last time the Town enacted a moratorium in 2007 for Northwest Chapel Hill, it was sued. Fortunately, the moratorium period ended before the case came up.

    Developers keep on coming to Chapel Hill, despite its allegedly burdensome review process, because they make money, and so they should – that is what for-profit businesses do. However, this is supposed to be our “community” and we have the final say it how it grows. What many people want is for developers to accede to our standards, our values, and our requests. Rezoning applications are the venue for getting what we all should want in housing options. Yes, developers will make somewhat less money, but I will bet that it won’t stop the applications. Remember, before the IZO was enacted developers of for-sale housing came in with their 15% affordability already on the table and they continued to do so after passage of the ordinance. The switch to luxury rentals has nothing to do with that practice; the move to rental housing has to do with the availability of mortgage money.

    That is not to say that they entire burden for workforce housing should fall on developers. Chapel Hill has managed to put itself in the hole with the expense of the new Library to the extent that it won’t be able to be used as designed. A transit tax was adopted that will primarily fund light rail for a small part of Town. Residents contribute to keeping buses fare free. It is time to step up and add a penny (or fraction) to the property tax rate for the necessity of affordable housing. We need to work with Carrboro, Orange County, Chatham, and Hillsborough because hardship does not recognize borderlines. Adding some retail can help, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that stores are the panacea.

    Chapel Hill 2020 was about creating a vision. If we leave out people who are vital to our Town, we are blind.

  11. DOM

     /  February 25, 2013

    Del Snow –

    Some insightful comments. I recommend you run for town council in the November election along with Amy Ryan.

  12. Diogenes

     /  February 25, 2013

    Et tu DOM ?

  13. Mark Marcoplos

     /  February 26, 2013

    Mobile homes are great bang-for-the-buck “work-force housing”.

  14. DOM

     /  February 26, 2013

    Mr. Marcoplos

    “Mobil homes” an excellent suggestion!

    As Ms. Snow points out, it is time we as a community step up to the plate and increase our property tax rate for the necessity of providing affordable housing.

    The assembly of low-cost modular housing units on the few available lots left in town seems an excellent way to achieve this goal. FEMA employed this technique in New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina and it has proven to be a huge success.

  15. JWJ

     /  February 26, 2013

    Why don’t we increase the property taxes in Chapel Hill, especially with progressive rates?

    ( The more expensive the home, the higher the property tax rate. Every $100K in assessed value (say over $250K) would get another 0.25 increase in rates

    At a current rate of 1.5404 in Chapel Hill, we are far below the states highest rate of 1.79 (Robeson County).

  16. DOM

     /  February 26, 2013

    If we all contribute enough in property taxes we may well be eligible for the affordable housing – a perfect solution to my current economic woes!

  17. Many

     /  February 26, 2013

    Ah-hahahahahahahaha! I agree completely JWJ, Progressive tax rates to go with the progressive politics!

    I think you should run for Mayor, or maybe for FEMA director. Your doin’ a hell of a job!

  18. Nancy

     /  February 26, 2013

    Mark & DOM — The people who own the mobile home parks on MLK are my new heroes. Surely they could get rich by selling the land, but they preserve it as low-income housing. At least for now.

    So why does someone like Ron Strom, who purports to be a local guy with the community at heart, have to make such a huge return on his investment in Timber Hollow? Those apartments make a decent return for the owner because they have a nearly 0% vacancy rate. Strom formed an investment company to buy the complex, so he gets an additional 1-2% management fee on his investors’ buy-in (he bought Timber Hollow for about $12 million), and if he gets another $18 million from investors to build the increased density, he collects a management fee on $30 million. Then he has to make the units glitzy so the project shows higher revenue and can attract a buyer so he can flip the project. Think if he weren’t a local guy with the community’s best interest at heart!

    See why I admire the trailer park owners?

  19. Del Snow

     /  February 26, 2013

    Sadly, the trailer parks are on planning radar for high density development and have been for a while. Where will these people go?

    Again, working with the County and surrounding municipalities by planning cooperatively could save significant funds. We should be avoiding redundancy in services and sharing the fiscal burdens.

  20. DOM

     /  February 28, 2013

    Pretty amazing – Regarding those citizens who spoke against Bicycle Apartments last night – I don’t don’t thing any one of them was under AARP-eligibility age.

    That’s the REAL schism this town is facing: older folks who are trying to keep the town all that it was, and younger people, who are trying to make Chapel Hill all it could be.

  21. George C

     /  February 28, 2013

    I think there is some truth to the characterization you’ve made but I also think that CH has its fair share of “older” folks who are willing to look toward the future and realize that they (we) have a responsibility to allow the next generation(s) to participate in and enjoy all that CH can be.

  22. The historic downtown neighborhoods are the jewel of Chapel Hill. That’s what many people think of when you say the name of our town. “Oh, it’s lovely and green.” The Council heard from the heart and soul of Chapel Hill last night. I can’t imagine more eloquent statements than that of Hodding Carter who is a famous liberal progressive with some white hairs. In the end the Council decided to ignore the neighbor’s concerns in approving a project that promises to deteriorate conditions for those living downtown. The residents love students which is why they are living there. They just don’t want 600 plus living in a Cabrini Green next door.

  23. Terri Buckner

     /  February 28, 2013

    Calling it a Cabrini Green is kind of inflammatory, don’t ya think Julie? I helped a friend’s daughter find housing in Austin last year (the university does not provide sufficient dorm space for all freshmen), and several of the available opportunities we found were like Bicycle. As a parent, I would have felt very secure with her living in any one of them. They were all in the heart of those Austin historical districts that surround campus.

    There has to be a balance between preservation and change. I really appreciated whoever it was (Mark Pons?) who noted that many of the historical homes are at greater risk by having them converted to student housing than by having appropriate student housing built among them.

  24. Diogenes

     /  February 28, 2013

    Once upon a time all the urban planners in the world had a brilliant idea. It was called projects. They were magical and would fix everything. Anyone who raised questions about whether they would really work was vilified. The urban planners and their ardent supporters won. They wrote lots of books and had lots of conferences. Then after a while when nobody could find anyone who would admit to advocating for projects they blew them up. We know what we have. They tell us what we will have because they look forward — and this time no one can argue that they’re right. To do so would be backward. That’s just a fact.

  25. DOM

     /  February 28, 2013

    Ms. McClintock –

    Regarding your statement: “the Council decided to ignore the neighbor’s concerns in approving a project that promises to deteriorate conditions for those living downtown.”

    This is a perfect illustration of what I said earlier, that many of the town’s older and wealthier homeowners continue to resist any kind of forward change. I believe the Council took a courageous step last night in approving the project, despite some powerful political backlash from the “old guard” that may result.

    We can only hope that more eager young members of our community continue to make their voices heard in moving Chapel Hill forward, just the way they did last night.

  26. Bonnie Hauser

     /  February 28, 2013

    whether you like the project or not is a matter of personal preference. That’s different than bypassing the facts in order to approve the project – – eg., why would shifting 600 people from campus or another part of town have any impact on economic development?

    Certainly off campus student housing is an important issue. Why has the town launched planning initiatives (2020, Central West, whatever)? Is the goal to distract citizens while they approve non-conforming projects?.

    I do have a basic question on the Bicycle Project – Is wood construction common for projects of this size and scale? Is it safe? Sadly- near Cabrini Green, wood decks collapsed under the weight of a large 20 something party. At fault was bad construction and inexperienced inspectors.

  27. Fred Black

     /  February 28, 2013

    Bonnie, what in the world does this plan have to do with Cabrini Green or a building with a deck near there? I think I heard the developer say that they took the balconies off.

    If I remember the student housing briefing correctly, we have a high percentage of students on campus, higher than most peer institutions. Housing near campus will bring students living in places on 54 closer. Also, some students living in houses in numbers that violate our ordinance might move too. Student not living near downtown now but who will in the future will impact downtown economics. Other projects that will open soon will also spur new businesses to open downtown.

  28. With all due respect, Bonnie doesn’t live in Chapel Hill. Perhaps, that should be considered when considering her comments. I am tired of hearing opinions from people outside of Chapel Hill about how we should develop. If you don’t pay taxes in Town, then why do you care?

  29. Bonnie Hauser

     /  March 1, 2013

    Steve – don’t forget that your tax base impacts county taxes too. We are all impacted by the success of your development. Lets not forget all the prime real estate in town that’s tax exempt from county’s taxes. I don’t get a vote for your council – but I pay for their decisions.

    You might consider taking a greater interest in what the county is doing because that impacts your taxes too. A close look will suggest that they are getting their fiscal house (including reserves) in order, and putting infrastructure in place for economic development through good planning and zoning. If an applicant came forward for Buckhorn, you’d see rapid approval embraced by the neighbors. There’s a wrinkle in a small part of the Eno EDD, but its being worked with the county and the community, not via developers. There’s other stuff but I wouldn’t want to waste too much time on the county matters- after all this is “chapel hill watch”

  30. George C

     /  March 1, 2013

    Although I have sometimes complained about County participation (or lack thereof) in certain CH services I agree with Bonnie that we at least need to hear what we each (town & county) have to say. That is why Rosemary Waldorf and I, as co-chairs of CH2020, refused to exclude non-CH citizens from participating even though several folks had strongly encouraged us to do so. That is also why we included ETJ representation on the southern area focus group for CH2020. We (Orange County) are becoming more and more immaterial to our neighbors on the east (Durham county), west (Alamance county), and perhaps soon on the south (Chatham county). We need to work together to insure success for both Chapel Hill AND Orange County or we both will become less and less affordable and/or livable.

  31. Mark Marcoplos

     /  March 1, 2013

    It’s worth noting that the County’s “good planning and zoning” included a vote to rezone part of the Eno Economic Development District over the protestations of a large number of residents there.

  32. Diogenes

     /  March 1, 2013

    Yesterday the Chamber tweeted that developer of Estes/MLK Student housing is a new member.

    Chamber has never not supported a project submitted by a member. After all, that’s what they’re paid to do. Sort of like a lobbyist!

  33. Bonnie Hauser

     /  March 1, 2013

    Yes Mark – and as you know the county made substantial adjustments to the original proposal. There’s still more work to be done.

    No one said it would be easy – or that everyone would get their way – but a process that engages citizens and planners rather than pitting citizens against developers seems a better way to go. And with upzoning, I suspect we need more independent experts to address structural, environmental and other safeguards that will be different in a denser world.

  34. Diogenes

     /  March 3, 2013

    “When did ‘neighbor’ become a dirty word”. From letters to the editor in Sunday’s Chapel Hill News.

    It’s time to stop this relentless demonization of long time residents and neighborhoods by those who otherwise will relentlessly tell you they want your business!