Reservations suggested

Imagine a diehard Carolina fan having to spend eternity in Durham, in the shadow of Nancy OatesThat Other School. And paying extra for it. Yet people who don’t understand that someday they — like all of us — will die, face such a fate.

Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery has only 59 casket-size plots left and 94 smaller spaces for ashes. Now that it seems all but certain Town Council will approve selling 8.5 acres of cemetery land to DHIC for $100 to build apartments that the Raleigh nonprofit will rent at affordable rates for 30 years, local funeral home operators are concerned.

“It really should concern all citizens who live within the city limits,” said Henry Jones, owner of Jones Funeral Home in Chapel Hill. “If people haven’t purchased their plot, they need to be concerned.”

Families want their loved ones to be buried nearby, yet once Chapel Hill Memorial’s plots have sold out, families will need to find secular burial space out of town. The town wants out of the cemetery business, though it will continue to have the responsibility of maintenance.

Debra Lane, the Parks & Rec Department administrator in charge of the town’s cemeteries, handles the site visits and sales. The town owns four cemeteries, including Barbee-Hargraves, Old Chapel Hill and Jay Street. Chapel Hill Memorial is the only one with any unsold plots.

“People assume those spaces will be there forever,” Lane said.

In a sort of reverse commute, people in Durham are coming to Chapel Hill to buy burial space because our cemeteries are less expensive, even with out-of-towners paying double the rates Chapel Hill residents are charged. In-town residents pay $750 for a full-sized plot, compared to $1,500 for out-of-towners. Chapel Hill may not have an affordable place to live, but it does have an affordable place to die.

The price differential between towns isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Durham plots include opening and closing fees (the cost of digging a grave and back-filling it), whereas in Chapel Hill those fees are charged by the funeral home. Fees vary by digger, but Lane estimates they will be at least $400 in Chapel Hill. While Durham cemeteries allow burials on weekends, Chapel Hill Memorial does not.

Some churches have cemeteries or columbaria for their members. Private cemeteries, like Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens on N.C. 86 just north of town, usually have much higher rates, Lane said. Neither she nor Jones knew of any ordinance that requires the town to provide cemetery land.

Some residents have objected to the town converting Chapel Hill’s only remaining cemetery land to homes for the living. Former council member Jim Merritt can see both sides of the issue. He serves on the town’s Cemeteries Advisory Board and the board of the Community Home Trust.

“We need affordable housing,” he said, “but we also need cemetery space.”

If you want to be buried in the Southern Part of Heaven, you might want to reserve your spot now. Just in case your plan to live forever doesn’t work out.
– Nancy Oates

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23 Comments

  1. many

     /  August 31, 2015

    I plan to live forever or die trying. My backup plan is much the same as my cynical hero Hunter S Thompson who died in a gunfight with his worst enemy…….

  2. The lack of secular burial space could be a boon to local religious congregations, who may see increased membership applications from residents seeking not a community of worship but a place for eternal repose.

  3. DOM

     /  September 4, 2015

    Nancy –

    What would you do about this problem if you were elected to Council?

  4. DOM

     /  September 4, 2015

    David –

    What would you do about this problem if you were elected to Council?

  5. Nancy

     /  September 4, 2015

    DOM — I would have negotiated harder to get a form-based code that included affordable housing and held out for concessions from the Obey Creek developer to include a reasonable amount of affordable housing. I would encourage micro-units, which enable the developer to get full market rent but allow a lower rent bill for the tenant because it is a smaller space. I would work with builders of workforce housing to smooth the path for them to build in Chapel Hill. Then perhaps we wouldn’t have to choose between space for the deceased and space for the modestly paid living.

  6. DOM

     /  September 4, 2015

    Wondering why some of my posts do not make it to your “comments” section. Hopefully, it isn’t intentional.

  7. Nancy

     /  September 4, 2015

    DOM — As you are an “approved” commenter, all your posts show up automatically. If you include two or more links in your comment, it won’t post until I, as site administrator, approve it. I just checked the “awaiting approval” queue, and there is nothing from you in it. Send me an email and let me know what didn’t get posted, and I’ll try to figure out why it didn’t come through. As you and all readers can attest, there is precious little I don’t allow through.

  8. David

     /  September 4, 2015

    DOM,

    Just to make sure I understand your question, are you asking whether I support giving away undeveloped town-owned land designated for cemetery expansion to be used instead for construction of affordable housing?

  9. DOM

     /  September 4, 2015

    Nancy –

    I wanted to ask you about ‘micro-units’; how and where they might fit in CH and if you know of other towns where they have been successful as a genuine (and plentiful) resource for rental housing.

    Also, I’m not sure what you mean by work-force housing as opposed to affordable housing and how would you ‘smooth the path’ for them.

  10. DOM

     /  September 4, 2015

    David –
    No, the question was not what you would have done in hindsight; it’s what you would do about it now if elected to Council. No sense talking about what might have been; let’s talk about what could be.

  11. DOM,

    If you are asking what I would do to increase the local availability of housing for moderate- and low-income households, take a look at my recent editorial in the Chapel Hill News (http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/chapel-hill-news/chn-opinion/article32905719.html). I also agree with all the things Nancy said she would do, such as amending the Ephesus-Fordham form-based code to provide developers with effective incentives for making, say, 20% of new housing units affordable to families earning less than the median area income.

    The relatively high cost of housing in Chapel Hill is largely attributable to the greater relative attractiveness of Chapel Hill as compared with neighboring communities. As the quality of life and of schools in these other communities continues to improve, I expect the cost of housing in Chapel Hill to become more similar to the cost in Durham, Raleigh, etc.

    If you are asking what I would do to provide additional secular burial space for Chapel Hill residents, we might explore acquiring land outside of the town limits, in the rural buffer for example. I know at least one local congregation has its cemetery out there, off Jones Ferry Rd.

  12. DOM

     /  September 6, 2015

    David –

    The greater relative attractiveness of Chapel Hill as compared with neighboring communities is mainly attributable to the large number of high-end single-family houses on relatively large lots. The major obstacle to making housing more affordable in this town is the mistaken perception of these relatively well-off home owners that higher density will adversely affect their already over-priced property values. Wouldn’t you agree?

  13. Terri

     /  September 6, 2015

    I think its a shame everyone keeps talking about affordable housing instead of how to create a greater supply of higher paying, non-University jobs.

  14. DOM

     /  September 6, 2015

    Terri –

    Affordable Housing and reasonably priced housing are two entirely different things. Until the town accepts the fact that the only way to achieve reasonably priced housing is through higher density, Affordable Housing (that can be mandated) will be hard to come by because not enough affordable units can be added to the developers’ CODB in Chapel Hill.

  15. Terri

     /  September 6, 2015

    Dom,

    There is rarely a single answer to any problem. I get that you think density is the solution; I just happen to think the problem is more complex than a single answer.

    I also think it’s absolutely vital to understand the possible consequences of any and all “solutions” and make informed decisions based on data rather than on speculation. Density has been happening since I-40 opened and Chapel Hill/Carrboro have become consistently more unaffordable.

    I get that people who share your view believe there is a magic number at which densification reaches the “right” level and like magic the cost of living will come down. But even if that happens, if the economy is primarily based on state employment and retail, there will still be municipal budget problems and a large number of low income residents.

  16. many

     /  September 6, 2015

    DOM,

    Demand is based on the consumption of the goods and services provided by the supply side, but the means by which this demand is met requires trade in exchange for the items involved. Trade is through the use of money (or that evil credit). So then, where does the consumer or “demand side” acquire its money? Well, it’s from the supply side. There is no independent demand side of the equation.

    It is the closed system that ensures that the cost of labor in producing supply is recycled into the demand side of the equation so that goods and services can be consumed. Supply and demand are not independent variables interacting, they represent a symbiotic relationship where each is dependent on the other. Disruption of one automatically disrupts the other.

    As Nancy (I think it was Nancy) pointed out, for supply and demand to work, it has to be a closed system. Which is not the case here.

    It is really important we all understand that **there is no independent demand side**.

    Density will not solve the problem. Chapel Hill residential housing cannot achieve economic equilibrium without intervention.

  17. David

     /  September 6, 2015

    DOM,

    No, I don’t agree. Durham, Raleigh, and Cary have plenty of high-end single-family houses on relatively large lots. Your view is premised on the belief that housing prices are chiefly a function of supply (i.e., if we build more housing units, prices will go down), whereas in fact they are chiefly driven by demand. Supply of housing units increased 50% between 1990-2010 yet housing prices increased in real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) dollars. Why should we think that increasing the number of housing units by another 50% over the next twenty years will produce a different outcome?

    Similarly, one could impose draconian restrictions on housing production in a town where nobody particularly wants to live and it would have no effect whatsoever on local housing prices.

    Your view also seems premised on the belief that housing comprises a single market, such that an increase in any type of housing will lead to a decrease in the price of all types of housing. It’s more accurate, however, to think of housing as comprising multiple submarkets of varying quality and price. Increasing the supply in one submarket does not affect the price in other submarkets, because they cater to different populations of buyers. Thus, building more high-end apartments, which is the only thing that developers seem to want to build at present, will have no effect on the price of housing that moderate and low-income households might rent or purchase.

    Moreover, I don’t know anyone in town who is opposed to higher density per se. I do however, know lots of people who feel that it is both irresponsible and unfair to existing residents to increase density without concurrently putting in place the infrastructure (e.g., public transit, expanded parks, school capacity, etc.) needed to support the increased density. But all this new infrastructure costs money, which we don’t have.

    The incumbents want us to share their faith that somehow it will all work out in the end, that the Feds and the State will come through with the money to finance the transit needed to serve our new high-density transit-oriented developments. And if that doesn’t happen, then what?

  18. Terri

     /  September 7, 2015

    C’mon many–demand is based on market size and permeability. The ‘closed system’ thing is misleading at best; at worse it mimics the thinking of our local government in thinking they can still influence the market which they define geographically but which extends well beyond their regulatory control.

    We live in the RTP market area which is highly mobile, permeable, and transient, as well as increasingly competitive. The selling point in Chapel Hill has always been its school system and relative safety. As others have pointed out, neighboring jurisdictions are more and more competitive on those two factors. And Durham has surpassed us on the ‘funky’ factor although they are working hard to lose that leadership.

  19. many

     /  September 7, 2015

    Terri,

    Not sure I understand the difference between what you are saying and what I am. If supply/demand is currently coupled at all, it is at the high end low density housing and at portion of the low economic end (student rentals) and not in the middle of the housing spectrum. I presume by “permeability” you are referring to the ability to move around and not upward mobility. The question is; what is your “market size”?

    Based on that, I wonder why you say this “‘closed system’ thing is misleading”? What you wrote seems to agree with exactly what I am saying; all things being equal and in the absence of a closed system, market distortions decouple supply and demand. You give good examples why they are not in this area and I can think of more.

    Building “density” (supply) has not worked mostly because Chapel Hill is a desirable place to live. Construction costs constitute a smaller portion of the expense of housing here relative to other areas. That difference is a distortion caused by that desirability. Developers will exploit that delta by building higher cost units until Chapel Hill is no longer desirable and housing prices and rents will then fall in line with the rest of RTP or less.

    That is why I think DOM has it wrong when he says:
    “The greater relative attractiveness of Chapel Hill as compared with neighboring communities is mainly attributable to the large number of high-end single-family houses on relatively large lots. The major obstacle to making housing more affordable in this town is the mistaken perception of these relatively well-off home owners that higher density will adversely affect their already over-priced property values.”

    ….and I think you have it right when you say:
    ”There is rarely a single answer to any problem. I get that you think density is the solution; I just happen to think the problem is more complex than a single answer.”

    Again, density is not a cure all and increasing supply alone will not produce a desirable result. I think we agree that the solution must be more than just throwing supply at the perceived problem. We need a plan and current leadership in Chapel Hill has failed to produce such a plan.

  20. Terri

     /  September 7, 2015

    OK, I understand more about what you mean by a closed system now (although I think the term “fixed market” is more descriptive). My concern is that current leadership doesn’t understand that they can’t achieve affordability through land use planning alone. They’ve tried for 15-20 years and rentals are just the most current fad in that effort. It’s time to look for different problem-solving approaches. And while I know they have thrown an increase in retail into their mix over the past couple of years, I don’t consider it as a particularly robust or sustainable solution.

  21. many

     /  September 7, 2015

    I think you are correct. Because the market is distorted at the bottom by the students and at the top by the schools and quality of life, the middle is getting badly squeezed at both ends. I think Chapel Hill has always had this condition and probably always will.

    This middle is always what I think of when I hear the term “workforce housing”, but that may not be what people mean when they say it. As folks hve said here before; why would your average person buy here when they can get twice the home for the same money nearby?

    Creating middle income jobs will do nothing to alleviate the housing situation, but it should improve the diversity of the tax base. Market forces here make building more middle and lower income residential less attractive to developers. Students will continue to squeeze the lower end of the market and may drive some development of student oriented housing.

    Messing with an already distorted market in a piecemeal fashion without necessary infrastructure improvements as the current leadership is doing will likely yield undesirable outcomes.

    There are a number of interesting technological disruptions on the immediate horizon that will increase “permeability” dramatically. It is worth looking how they will affect this markets distortions.

  22. Terri

     /  September 7, 2015

    Middle income nation wide is considered to be $40,667 to $122,000. Locally its needs to be raised about $25,000 so jobs in that range could actually have an impact on the housing market.

    If the towns would leverage their fiber networks as economic development incentives, things could be very different. Oh wait….there still wouldn’t be any affordable office space for start up businesses. And that’s why we need a multi-dimensional economic plan.

  23. bonnie hauser

     /  September 8, 2015

    be careful with the salary info. It’s distorted by students who live off campus. That said, I agree fully that better paying jobs at UNC would make a difference.

    Where you are all losing me is on the schools and markets. I don’t know what labels you want to use – but there’s evidence that we are losing our cache.

    The Chamber reported that Chatham now exceeds Orange in average home price (higher desirability?). Chatham offers access to UNC, OC senior centers, and other assets, plus access to jobs in Cary and Raleigh along 64. Plus good schools and low taxes.

    Wake has excellent schools too – not all of them -but Cary, Apex, Wake Forest and others have affordable workforce housing, and good public and private schools. No wonder Apex is ranked number 1.

    Rather than get serious around the issues, the politicians have developed their own spin around town development and the county bond. There’s no plans to fix any of the issues with zoning, the local economy, or outdated school funding policies. Just feel good rhetoric and big numbers. Outsiders aren’t buying it and locals are not paying attention (note; voter turnout)

    There’s great interest in politicizing the issues – with little interest in genuine problem solving. It’s enough to raise the dead.

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