Ask the experts

Lead, follow, or get out of the way. When it comes to working on the problem of not enough Nancy Oatesaffordable housing, town and county elected officials would do well to choose Door #3.

At the joint board meeting of county commissioners and Town Council members on June 2, county commissioner Bernadette Pelissier suggested forming a task force to encourage towns and county to work together on supplying affordable housing, or at least not duplicate efforts. Unfortunately, county staff proposed that the function be taken on by the Home Consortium, a group of four elected officials: a council member from Hillsborough and Chapel Hill, an alderman from Carrboro and a commissioner from Orange County.

Not that these four women don’t mean well, but they don’t know as much as someone who has made a profession out of trying to increase the supply of affordable housing.

A passion is not the same as a profession. I’ve been championing the need for safe, affordable housing ever since my first apartment – a five-flight walk-up in a vermin-infused tenement in a high-crime area – and I’ve been researching and writing about real estate and the housing industry for almost 20 years. Yet every time I talk with someone from Community Home Trust or CASA or Habitat for Humanity, I learn something I didn’t know before. Which makes sense. Passion is no substitute for expertise. No elected official could possibly know as much as someone who deals with all aspects of affordable housing, all day, every day, and has for years.

Ideally, we need to convene a group of directors of affordable housing nonprofits who handle rentals as well as owner-occupied units, and invite some developers of workforce housing and some relevant county and municipal staff members in charge of their government’s affordable housing. Most important, we need to include a real estate lawyer. Let’s sit them down together and see what they come up with.

Elected officials would be in charge of finding the money to implement this group’s ideas. And, after adopting the group’s strategic plan, we need to follow through on it. Chapel Hill has an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, but so far, only one developer – an out-of-state company with a strong record of philanthropy – has met the zoning ordinance, and that was with a nearly $1 million payment-in-lieu, but no units. A majority of council has voted to give all other developers so far an exemption.

At the joint boards meeting, George Cianciolo noted that every elected official in the room had campaigned on a platform that included affordable housing. But to date, we’ve only come up with band-aids when what we need is a comprehensive care plan.

Thus, I was pleased to learn at our June 13 Town Council meeting that a group of nonprofit directors had approached our town manager, asking to brainstorm with him and relevant staff and come up with a strategic plan that would be presented to elected officials.

With the right folks combining their expertise to problem-solve, then we, as elected officials, can get out of their way. We’ll step up again when it’s time to do our job – approve, fund and clear obstacles to implement.
– Nancy Oates

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
Leave a comment


  1. “Affordable housing” and the “achievement gap”, two political issues that year in and year out candidates pledge to deal with yet continue to remain persistently unsolved.

    I understand your basic call to assemble knowledgeable folks who work within the field over “passionate” pols Nancy but we have done that before. In fact, that is usually what happens, informally, year in and year out as new projects are proposed or funding is requested. I’d like to see a mix on local affordable housing leaders, business and community organization representatives and, yes, a few “passionate” residents to lend additional perspective.

    I suggest that the first task of any group is to review the history and many previous formal efforts to address the affordable housing conundrum over the last decade or two.

    For instance, citizens were warning about the reliance on in lieu monies and called for persistent funding out of general tax revenues for nearly a decade before the Council and Town changed its tune on these components. What other valuable suggestions lie within previous work that were passed over due to politics, stubborn adherence to “conventional wisdom” or a basic structural inability to act?

    Second, we need to be honest in appraising affordable housing needs and wants. As you know, the affordable housing meme of the day is “trickle down housing”. That notion is as bankrupt an idea as trickle down economics yet the more ideological driven of Council members and their advisory board appointees have sworn everlasting fealty to that factually unsupported strategy.

    Further, the Town did a survey several years ago that showed that affordable housing residents, especially those with or planning families, desire detached homes yet that expressed desire was not integrated well into Town’s affordable housing plans including for a variety of troubling reasons: it didn’t align with the high density “transit-oriented” future various pols and others had been pushing and it was morally “wrong” to want a small yard and not share a wall with your neighbor.

    Finally, and this is a bit tough given the expected membership of the task force, but we need to do an honest assessment of our local affordable housing organizations, determine what gaps exist, what can be done to assist these organizations and whether the county and municipalities should look at forming a new quasi-independent effort to move forward.

    I believe that our current organizations have done well, could use targeted structural and technical assistance but that there is also a major gap which requires either a new partnership or organization to fill.

  2. Nancy I love your idea of bringing the pros to the table. I might add the Cedar Grove Institute and maybe some urban planners from UNC. I might ask for a survey of best practices – and what’s working and what’s not.

    I’m struggling with “why” and “where”. Doesn’t the data suggest that low income families are leaving? Maybe for better options for good schools and housing in Chatham or Mebane? I’m always lost – because I never know if people are talking about workforce housing, senior housing, or subsidized housing for our lowest income populations. Until we clarify what we are talking about, we wont find solutions.

  3. plurimus

     /  June 22, 2016

    Once again It does not take a professional to see the issue.

    No one will solve affordable, workforce, subsidized or senior housing availability until they solve the problem of off campus students competing for the same limited supply of affordable units.

  4. Plurimus, the positive response I got from the developers of Amity Station when I asked them to look into longer term leasing with restrictions on sub-leasing as a possible tool for stabilizing off-campus student housing was quite encouraging.

    But the reality is until UNC-CH decides to honor its commitment for “a bed for every head” and the CHTC decides to stop granting variances for dense/tall private dorms we’re not going to see great movement.

    UNC says it can’t provide the type of on-campus housing its students want because they can’t compete with the local market in terms of rent, amenities and parking. While we routinely hear that excuse to not abiding by the pledge they made nearly 2 decades ago, we don’t hear what – specifically – citizens need to ask the legislature to do to make that happen.

    We tie local development decisions to school expansion (or at least pretend to do so) using SAFPO, maybe it’s time to tie UNC’s student roll expansion to vacancy rates and availability of on-campus accommodations.

  5. plurimus

     /  June 22, 2016

    “…….they can’t compete with the local market in terms of rent, amenities and parking”

    true dat, which is why many universities restrict freshman to living on campus and many also restrict freshman from having vehicles at all.

    It is fundamentally unfair for UNC to dump their inability to compete on the towns least well off residents without a compelling community benefit.

  6. Terri

     /  June 26, 2016

    The UNC housing policy is “Beginning fall 2010, students who have earned less than thirty hours of college credit after graduating high school and are enrolled in twelve or more hours at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill are required to live in campus student housing managed by the UNC Department of Housing and Residential Education.”

    It’s funny how many of you forget that Chapel Hill exists because of the University. Do those of you who want to direct it’s policy have any kind of direct relationship with the University? Do you know what the University has done and how far it has extended itself to work with this town?

  7. plurimus

     /  June 27, 2016

    Hi Terri,

    The statement that “Chapel Hill exists because of the University” describes the problem very well.

    What percent of UNCs +29K students does that requirement you quote affect?

    The only recent attempt by the university I am aware of is a rather small (.001% of UNC’s 3 Billion dollar endowment) “landbanking” programme to the Northside neighborhood. Not sure how that is working out since there isn’t much publicity. How much of that money has actually been directly loaned for affordable housing?

    Regardless of the number, 47% (+13K) students still live off campus. I posit a large portion compete directly for the affordable housing stock close to campus (on the bus line). The campus is expending.

    The point is that solving this problem will require a common strategy with close coordination between the Town, University, developers and the voters. Because the university is growing at a much greater clip than the Town, Individual piecemeal efforts will no longer suffice.

  8. Terri

     /  June 27, 2016

    The fall 2016 headcount for all students was 18,415 and 4,076 (22%) were freshmen. I don’t know how to find out how many are sophomores but 30 hours would include freshmen and at least first semester sophomores.

    Other ways that I know the university has invested in the town: the business incubator on Rosemary, the planning/design and a small cash settlement for the University Square redesign, the land for the IFC men’s shelter on MLK, long-term rentals throughout town, the sports teams that bring a regular influx of cash/revenue, the arts that bring a regular influx of cash/revenue, the research that brings reputation, and much more.

  9. Terri, I know two UNC freshpeople who didn’t live on campus and got out of their housing contracts. They told me it wasn’t that uncommon.

  10. Terri

     /  June 28, 2016

    The policy applies to first year freshmen. Technically, it requires 30 hours to be a sophomore by the Registar. If a student begins their second year with 28 hours, Housing treats them as a sophomore.

    For the freshmen requirement, the exemptions are:
    *married and/or with a child
    *military service
    *older than 21
    *medical hardship (need special caregiver)
    *living at home with parents

    Is it possible for someone to scam the system? Of course.

  11. Terri,

    When I attended UNC, a typical course load was 15 credits, i.e., five 3-credit courses, so everyone who took a full course load accumulated 30 credits by the end of freshmen year. It was not uncommon back then for male freshmen to move out of the dorms after one semester and move into fraternity houses; the frats encouraged it.

    The 18K figure you cited must be only undergraduates. There are about 10,000 grad students.

    I think it’s reasonable to ask UNC to consider requiring all Freshmen and Sophomores to live in on-campus housing, especially given that they have empty dorms. However, since most Sophomores already live on campus (I think), that’s not going to solve the problem. It would helpful to know what the university’s enrollment growth targets are for the coming decade or so and what, if any, plans they are making to ensure adequate housing—on-campus or off—for the student population.

  12. plurimus

     /  June 28, 2016

    Terri you leave out more than one-third of the total enrollment.

    According to US News and other sources:
    Total enrollment is 29,135
    Students who live off campus is 47%

    You can do the math, but I also suspect Grad students are heavily weighted toward living off campus and not being Frat/Sorority oriented also are the main competition for affordable housing.

    I do not doubt UNC contributes in some areas, but they are not very active in one major reoccurring problem. Affordable housing. All I am suggesting is that the interested parties need to come together and formulate a plan, rather than insufficient piecemeal efforts that only kick the proverbial can down the road.

  13. Terri

     /  June 28, 2016

    All freshmen are required to live on campus barring the few (and reasonable IMHO) exceptions I listed above. Including grad students in the calculations would not make any sense so I didn’t. Grad students are a diverse population, including those like me who are University employees and get 3 free classes per year.

    This demand that the university participate in the housing crisis boggles my mind. How many people would live here if it wasn’t for the University? How many people (wealthy people!) came here because of the excellent schools that are only here because of the university? Or the retirees who came because of the community amenities such as the arts and liberal government that are only here because of the university?

    Seriously–this town (and Carrboro) exists because of the university and its students. Trying to impose greater constraints on the students because the town has attracted so many non-University people who want to live here is ludicrous.

    Put your energy toward building a sustainable economic base that supports the non-university population and stop expecting the university to act as if they owe the town for every little problem that arises.

  14. plurimus

     /  June 28, 2016


    If the town wouldn’t be here without the university as you assert, wouldn’t the university be a part of building that “sustainable economic base”. Wouldn’t the university WANT to be involved?

    Grad students are indeed part of the problem when it comes to competition for affordable housing.

    Providing all of those amenities you list costs money. The university is growing faster than the town. The university has made promises regarding housing that it has not delivered on. The university has a +3 Billion dollar (with a B) endowment, while the town is in trouble financially.

    In fact I recall you complaining about some un-shoveled sidewalks that inconvenient for a day or so last winter.

    You seem to be saying (defensively I might add) it’s all OK and it shouldn’t even need to be discussed because the university is gracing with its presence.

    Sounds colonial.

  15. Terri,

    None of the participants in this discussion is demanding that the University solve the town’s housing challenges. Rather, Plurimus and others are calling for greater coordination between town and gown in addressing our mutual interest in making it possible for low- and moderate-income households to live in Chapel Hill.

    The University has a stake in this too. It’s harder for them to recruit and retain faculty when housing costs more than junior professors can afford. And if faculty live out of town, in Durham or Hillsborough or wherever, it becomes harder for faculty to cultivate friendships with and serve as mentors to students outside of class, or develop friendships with their colleagues outside of work, and the intellectual life of the campus community suffers as a result.

  16. Terri

     /  June 29, 2016


    You campaigned on the need for expanding the commercial base. My argument is that university already contributes significantly to the health and welfare of the town, it’s time for the town to take care of itself and develop that commercial base.

  17. Nancy

     /  June 29, 2016

    Terri, the town is trying to develop a commercial base. But because there is so much greater profit to real estate investors in building luxury apartments, we aren’t getting any proposals for the commercial/office/retail/light industrial space we are seeking.

  18. plurimus

     /  June 29, 2016

    The topic of the post is “ask the experts” and goes further to discuss asking the experts in the context of affordable housing.

    Will Raymond (who has far more history and expertise in this area than I) made the point that we have been here before. He believes there were good ideas that were lost when instead the path of least resistance was followed.

    I made the point that efforts to build affordable units are thwarted by a large, growing student population that chooses to live off campus. I also made the point that the University is sitting on a Oprah Winfrey like fortune and I might add pays a small amount of taxes relative to assets. Given these facts, the University’s collaboration is critical and conspicuously absent.