Who we want to be

Everybody lives somewhere, Lisa Sturtevant of the National Housing Conference in Washington, D.C., Nancy Oatesreminded the audience at Chapel Hill’s Affordable Housing Seminar on April 9. The seminar was the final in a series of four excellent sessions in which nationally recognized experts shared their insights into challenges and solutions to creating and preserving housing for a wide spectrum of income levels.

Aside from the fact that housing touches everyone in a community, Sturtevant listed several reasons why we should care about the dwindling supply of affordable housing in Chapel Hill. Income hasn’t kept pace with rising housing prices, and strict lending practices are pricing the middle class out of home ownership, which excludes them from the most important method of accumulating wealth.

The more people pay for housing, the less they have to spend on dining out, going to the movies or buying nonessentials. That means less spending to support local businesses, which limits economic development.

A town without housing for people who work there has difficulty attracting new businesses. A healthy town needs housing for people of all income levels.

Plan for the community you want to be, Sturtevant urged. She advised giving incentives for building or preserving both low- and middle-income housing. Preserve existing affordable units, she said. Building new affordable units is counterproductive if it wipes out existing affordable housing.

Some of those incentives include tax abatements and density bonuses. Studies show that inclusionary zoning does not dampen production or raise rents or home prices, she said. (Still, Dwight Bassett, in wrapping up the series, espoused that he believes it does.) Form-based code can work if its streamlined development costs are linked to affordable housing. Arlington, Va., a town that shares many similarities with Chapel Hill, has achieved national recognition for its affordable housing accomplishments. Developers can choose to build using the form-based code and reap its benefits, or they can forgo form-based code if they don’t want to abide by its strictures.

The form-based code in Columbia Pike, Md., has an expectation that 20-35 percent of new units built be affordable to people making 40-80 percent of the Area Median Income.

The town flew in Wyman Winston of the Community Development Finance Authority in Madison, Wis., in for a couple of days to tour proposed developments and speak at the seminar. His points converged with those of Sturtevant’s, that towns should view affordable housing as infrastructure. First responders, for instance, need to be able to live in the town where they work. He warned that proposed tax code changes could eviscerate all federal housing help. However, a National Housing Trust Fund, available to disburse next year, gives states a percentage of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans to be used for affordable housing. But Gov. McCrory has yet to appoint a representative to apply for the funds.

Town Council has the chance to emend the form-based code in Ephesus-Fordham. But rather than increase affordable housing options, the staff’s proposed changes give even more perks to developers without any community benefit in return. Planning staff have not taken to heart the good advice of national experts. Will council?
— Nancy Oates

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1 Comment

  1. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  April 13, 2015

    For Ephesus-Fordham, I think it’s concerning that the town of Chapel Hill is failing to have the Light-Rail Transit project serve the town. Rather than have fixed transit run along 15-501, with its many apartment complexes and commercial districts (and hundreds more apartments going up right now), the line extends an extra 2 miles through Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) land serving as reserves for Jordan Lake (at $100 million per mile~ estimated), when the ACE has forbidden construction on its lands.

    What is apparent is that there is no plan, and town leadership is not lobbying to have any fixed-rail (or other) transit in the areas they are planning to redevelop to be far more dense. That means unrelieved traffic. And then? Still no plan.

    By the way, I noticed that the Planning Department, which had changed its name to Development Services, has been renamed Planning and Sustainability. I liked the candor of “Development Services” even though builders have difficulty accessing those services.