Think of the possibilities, then plan

How many times have we heard, usually from people who make money by developing or Nancy Oatesselling real estate, that affordable housing is not possible in Chapel Hill? That we might as well admit defeat and build only luxury apartments in town, thus forcing out the modestly paid and the middle class?

Yet towns similar to Chapel Hill have been able to create housing affordable to people who work in the community. Earlier this month the CEO of Habitat for Humanity in Charlottesville, Va., Dan Rosensweig, came to Chapel Hill and spoke to affordable housing advocates, potential donors and interested elected officials to share the success his organization has had and talk about what might be possible in Orange County.

Two of Charlottesville’s successes have come from Habitat redeveloping trailer parks into multifamily neighborhoods, one of them a mixed-income community where market-rate houses help subsidize affordable homes.

While mobile homes provide a very affordable living situation, trailers built before the mid ’70s can’t be moved. If the trailer park is sold, owners of those older mobile homes lose their investment along with their place to live.

In-town trailer parks are a threatened source of affordable housing. As large parcels of land become more scarce, and developers of high-profit luxury apartments are willing to shell out exorbitant amounts for remaining acreage, trailer park owners stand to make a lot of money by selling out. It takes a landowner with a strong humanitarian commitment to resist.

Charlottesville Habitat found such a landowner, a woman who owned a trailer park that was home to 1,500 people. She sold the land to Habitat at a reasonable price and agreed to owner financing in which Habitat paid interest only on the loan until it could raise the full amount. Habitat partnered with the mobile home owners to collaborate on redevelopment ideas.

Could something like this work in Chapel Hill? We’ve got some obstacles to overcome first, not the least of which is Town Council. While Chapel Hill has an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance, a majority of council members have voted to waive compliance for every eligible project that has come before them, except for Courtyards of Homestead, which made a nearly $900,000 payment-in-lieu.

Rosensweig mentioned that elected officials in Charlottesville had approved by-right zoning for the Habitat projects, and he looked at me in disbelief when I told him that the majority of council members in Chapel Hill had not included any requirements for affordable housing or environmental building standards in the by-right zoning they approved for Ephesus-Fordham.

Taxpayers have agreed to dedicate a penny tax increase for affordable housing, but council committees still have no plan for how to use it. The county is proposing a bond in November with $5 million for affordable housing, but likewise seems to have no plan for how to spend it. This will not get us where we want to go.

Nonprofits whose mission is to increase the supply of affordable housing have some ideas and would like to be part of formulating a plan. We need to lend them our support and lobby for a change of heart among the old guard on council.
— Nancy Oates

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  1. Nancy – I’m fascinated by the trailer park solution – have been for some time. Not sure its right for Chapel Hill – but there are several trailer parks – near schools and transportation — that wold be fantastic sites for such development.

  2. Terri

     /  August 29, 2016

    Trailer parks are very complicated. Their success depends on land ownership. I don’t have time to explain right now but wanted to share this link on Aspen CO’s long running affordable housing program:

  3. Plurimus

     /  August 29, 2016

    First. trailers built prior to 1976 are well known fire hazards. As a matter of public health and safety, Chapel Hill and Carrboro should be doing everything possible to get people out of these units.

    Second; To be cost effective, affordable housing has to be dense, reasonably near amenities such as shopping, public transportation and schools. Land that has these desirable characteristics is at a premium. Chapel Hill and Carrboro have painted themselves into a corner because the rural buffer construct drives density and development down but prices up. What trailer parks are you thinking of?

    Third; It is an economic fact that because there is not enough student housing, land is expensive, vacancy rates are low, rents are high; that the affordable housing market is distorted. Wouldn’t any solution you come up with that meets the above criteria be severely diluted by students in search of low rent?

  4. Nancy

     /  August 29, 2016

    First, there is plenty of student housing. And more coming online all the time. Alexan is marketing itself to students. And almost all 190 acres of Ephesus-Fordham is expected to be apartments. And UNC has two empty dorms. Second, residents of Habitat Charlottesville developments have to apply and be screened. That process can make sure the units go to families and working singles not in school. Habitat would like to shift from single-family houses to multifamily buildings. So there’s your density. As for pointing out specific trailer parks — you’re not a developer, are you, Plurimus? — the ones in Chapel Hill I’m thinking of are well-located, and therein lies the problem. Without a social justice-minded seller who wants to sell to an organization that will provide affordable units to the current mobile home owners, market-rate developers will be able to outbid Habitat. But just because the private equity investors and other developers motivated solely by profit get all the press, that doesn’t mean community-minded landowners don’t exist. I haven’t given up hope.

  5. Plurimus

     /  August 30, 2016

    Nope. Not a developer. Is there is one on MLK up by Timberline? but that is valuable commercial real estate. Maybe the one on Weaver Dairy is still there. I think there are some off of western Fordham Boulevard but I think they are in Carrboro? I can’t think of any more. You are correct they are well located commercially and the owners, after sitting on them for years probably intend to maximize their profit. I would. The TC through the approval process is seemingly the only entity that can attenuate profit to (more or less) match community need by enforcing some of the guidelines they had ignored over the past administration.

    The shift from single-family houses to multifamily buildings does not work if there is no water and sewer utilities, not extending them guarantees short supply. Accessibility to shopping and transit seems to be the urban hipster trend. Short supply of trendy stuff = low income folks get priced out.

    When referring to student housing, I wasn’t speaking of the high rent student housing going up currently. I do not consider Alexian “affordable”.

    Thinking back to when I was a student (before microwaves and ATM machines). My friends and I were pretty much on our own financially. Even when some had funds because of regular jobs, we always sought out low cost digs in order to maximize other priorities such as travel. Perhaps things have changed.

    No one seems to be able to point to what the actual impact is on the affordable housing stock for sure but we all know the town’s population grows by a significant number when the students are here, they can’t all be affording +$1500 per month rent. How many students vs. how much affordable housing stock? I suspect people don’t really want to know and would be surprised by the true impact.

    UNC has two empty dorms, Why is that? How many could reasonably be housed there?

  6. >UNC has two empty dorms, Why is that? How many could reasonably be housed there?

    More to the point, what happened to UNC’s firm commitments to house its students. The Hooker pledge of “a bed for every head” wasn’t idly done, had a broad context behind it and was considered a vital element of planning for years.

    Both Greene and Harrison have been around long enough to have seen and been part of letting UNC “off the hook”. UNC has zero incentive to take on the politics as long as the CHTC continues to approve private dorms and apartments targeted to students.

  7. Terri

     /  August 30, 2016

    For the millionth time, UNC cannot build student housing to compete with the commercial market. As a state entity, they are required to build to higher safety standards which increases the housing prices. And because campus housing is an independent agency, they have to charge true cost. The claim to a bed for every head is old and worn out. Give up, it ain’t gonna happen whether Sally or Ed want it to or not. And that has much more to do with economics than politics.

  8. I’m told that UNC students of yore found some very creative affordable housing solutions. For example, in the late 1960s a number of students allegedly lived in tents in Battle Park and took their showers in Woolen Gym. Apocryphal, perhaps, but true to the spirit of the times.

  9. Del Snow

     /  August 31, 2016

    Terri, I appreciate your frustration at having to repeat what seems obvious to you – it’s a feeling I know well. That said, I don’t think the reality is quite as black and white as you do.
    Developers come in with proposals that are claimed to be targeting anybody but students, and then, with approvals in hand they market the apartments to students. At this moment in time, hundreds of apartments are being dangled in front of the student population – Alexan, Evolve, Timber Hollow, Carolina Square, Grove Park, Saw Mill (concept),Rosemary Place (concept), Amity Station, and somewhere on the horizon, Carolina North. We don’t yet know who Carraway Village, Bridgepoint, Woodfield, or South Creek (Obey Creek) will try to attract.
    What is the net effect? Costs, such as police and fire protection, usually borne by UNC are instead shifted to the Town. Transit becomes more burdened as students cannot walk to class. Those elusive high wage earners who will spend their plentiful dollars pumping up CH’s economy don’t move here. If Council included stipulations in approvals that dissuaded developers from targeting the lucrative student market (Longer leases, age minimums) the number of off campus units could be lowered and yes, the higher cost on-campus dorms may not be empty.
    There are at least 6 trailer parks up in NW CH – and I believe that Rigsbee is for sale. The Northern Area Task Force specifically recommended a census of the area parks back in 2007 because the loss of affordable homes was anticipated. That census was finally done this year. What will they be replaced by? Again, this is where the art of negotiation should play a major role. The value of the inclusionary zoning ordinance covering for-sale units should not be lost to the rental community. By insisting on density bonuses for affordability, Council can send the message that it is THEY who decide what gets built, not the applicant.
    Instead, our trajectory is veering toward an elitist town where students can live off campus while the people who serve them, the fire and police personnel, the maintenance workers, the teachers, etc have to drive in, be bused in, or justify the LRT to get to work.
    It’s time for CH to reclaim its soul.

  10. Plurimus

     /  August 31, 2016

    Terri, your stance sounds dismissive and defensive with an emphasis on excuses and not much creative thought.

    From your statement it sounds as if there is a double standard when it comes to student occupied housing? It sounds as if the university is more concerned about liability than student welfare. Maybe UNC and the TC together could step in and force the same (presumably fire) safety standards for landlords who market and rent to multiple students in the same unit as they have done for Fraternity and Sorority houses. That would level the playing field, not sure of the negative impacts but worth an examination.

    I am still amazed there are two empty dorms. Hasn’t someone suggested the university might want to cut their loss and lower the rent, or is this an exercise to justify space reuse for something else?

    A detailed understanding of the impact of students on affordable housing would go a long way toward contributing to discussion and a solution.

  11. Terri

     /  August 31, 2016

    Del–my frustration is with the “a bed for every head claim.” I agree that there are costs beyond development, and that the town should hold the developers responsible for absorbing those costs (but have they been quantified?). University Housing is required to pay for their operations out of their charges only (they get no state funding, tuition transfers, etc.). They have no leeway to do the things Pluribus describes. These are not University decisions; they come from the State.

    I could be wrong, but I believe the town pays for fire protection on campus. There could be a funds transfer but not sure.

  12. Plurimus

     /  August 31, 2016

    Again, dismissive. So we should just throw up out collective hands and say “too bad, how sad”?

    University Housing is not the only player in the game. As I said in another thread here the individual efforts do not amount to much compared to what could be done if all the stakeholders wanted to address this issue. I seriously doubt any progress on affordable housing is possible until the stakeholders decide on a comprehensive effort.

    The town does pay for fire protection on campus. UNC has donated trucks before (painted Carolina blue). The state pays the town a small amount yearly out of a general fund in lieu of what would be a much larger fire tax if the university were taxed as everyone else is.

    That not my point though.

  13. Terri, you might be tired of the reminders of the “bed for every head” commitment but UNC did abide for a handful of years to that pledge.

    There is no justification for throwing up our hands and opening the floodgates – as the CHTC has done the last 5-7 years – to development aimed at students because UNC is in a tough place.

    Continuing on with this destructive trend of luxury apartments which are really meant to serve students and private dorms is not sustainable.

    We can’t continue to allow developers and UNC to externalize the costs of these developments to residents simply because, for the developers, it’s eminently profitable, and, for UNC, it’s the path of least resistance.

    I recall Holden Thorp making comments to the effect that it would take the Town, UNC and the people of North Carolina working together to demand reform of the rules that are apparently making it difficult for UNC to address this issue.

    It’s well past time for the Town and Gown to meet and hammer out some plan of action.

  14. Gregg Gerdau

     /  September 1, 2016

    Perhaps the possibilities of realizing a good outcome from the tax increase and bond issues would be possible if we focused on affordable housing specifically for teachers as described here

    Our schools have deteriorated significantly along with the quality of instruction. Anyone who still says they’re “great” envisions a time long ago. Regardless of the facility problems, refreshing the staff of teachers with qualified instructors who are part of our community (not commuters) would be a giant step toward returning the quality of public education to the level we recall is once was.

  15. Terri

     /  September 3, 2016

    Will–it’s been at least 15 years if not more since a UNC chancellor supported that promise. It’s time to move on. The town and the University worked together to plan the Bicycle/Lux apartment complex off MLK. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe they don’t work together on other developments like Carolina Square. My understanding of the concerns you, Del and others have is that the collaboration is all focused on expansion into the community rather than the imposition of controls and/or cost sharing. I agree with that concern, just not the use of the bed for every head claim. To me, it distracts from today’s reality and just churns up the past and recycles the same argument over and over again.

  16. Plurimus

     /  September 3, 2016


    The subject of the thread is “affordable housing”. Throwing the collaboration with the Lux and Carolina Square is off topic. Students are still competing for limited affordable housing.

    I agree with Will. Nothing of substance will happen until there is recognition of the scope and magnitude and a meeting of the stakeholders to hammer out solutions.

    The a bed for every head claim was made. Are people supposed to ignore it because it old, or because the University has no intention of making good on the promise? Are you saying promises from the University need to be renewed every so often, or can be ignored whenever administrations change without anyone reminding them? I am just not clear why this sets you off.

  17. Terri

     /  September 3, 2016

    Even if the university provided a bed for every head, the students want to live off campus. There’s a degree of paternalism in the belief that the university and the town can make living decisions for young people who want/need to learn to live independently. Plus affordability isn’t just for housing local residents–students and their families deserve some consideration.

  18. Plurimus

     /  September 4, 2016

    Terri, agreed. However the students be definition are not fully integrated into society. They do compete with the most economically vulnerable. Isn’t part of the living lessons we learn that unfair market distortion is not good for the economy or for society? As college educated adults they will find themselves for the most part separated from those they are currently competing with for housing. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to ask them to participate in an honest discussion on the topic?

    I do not suggest the university force anyone except first year students to live on campus. What I do suggest is that the university partner with the town businesses, landlords, affected communities and students to come up with solutions rather than everyone going it alone. I think understanding the magnitude and scope is the first order of business. I think pay is part of it, I think building and protecting affordable units is part of it. There are people closer to the problem that understand it far better than I and they need to work together.

    A bed for every head does not necessarily mean the bed is on campus housing (at least not to me anyway), but by the same token it can’t just be expensive apartments for those who can afford it and a wretched competition for the rest.

    Unless of course you think that the paternalism only goes so far.

  19. Julie McClintock

     /  September 5, 2016

    Thanks to everyone for providing a really interesting discussion on possibilities for affordable housing by working with our well located trailer parks.

    We need to deal with unfortunate trends in student housing too. It’s a desirable goal to house students on campus because that promotes campus life and causes less auto travel and congestion on our roads. The present trend for the town to approve new “luxury” apartments with parking lots that are marketed by the owner to students does just the opposite.

    I understand the economics but it’s crazy that UNC can’t fill its dorms. A UNC housing expert explained that overhead and various admin costs are added to their costs. But living at UNC could be competitive if the pricing structure were changed.

  20. Terri

     /  September 5, 2016

    I do think students should be engaged in the discussion. And they have been. The Marion Cheek Jackson Center in Northside is staffed by many UNC students. Students are also involved in various ways with the Rogers Road community.

    But those students still need a place to live and for many, especially the graduate students, dorms are simply not a viable option. When the Luxe and Shortbread Lofts were proposed, the community objected (too tall, too big) even though those developers worked with the town and the university.

    I don’t agree with the recent CHN editorial that says let the market make these decisions. All I’m advocating for is that the students be treated with the same respect as any other new resident to town, instead of being pigeon-holed into dorms because they are young.

    The apartments on campus are filled, even if the old-timey dorm buildings aren’t. So it’s not that students don’t want to live on campus. It’s that the economics on campus can’t accommodate student demand for adult-like living conditions.

  21. Bruce Springsteen

     /  September 6, 2016

    If UNC dorms are empty because UNC students don’t want to live in them and if there’s not enough affordable housing in town which results in UNC employees living far away then howzabout just having the UNC employees live in the dorms?

  22. Nancy

     /  September 7, 2016

    Suite-style dorms (4 bedrooms & a common area & a bathroom) could be converted to 2-bedroom apartments fairly easily. Converting them would be worthwhile, either to rent to modestly paid UNC employees or to students, to draw them away from some of the really crummy living conditions they endure in nearby neighborhoods. Council asked UNC’s Anna Wu to consider that a couple years ago. I did not hear whether she replied, but from the inaction, if she did reply, it was in the negative.

  23. Terri

     /  September 9, 2016

    I don’t believe Housing does fall under Anna’s leadership. Then there’s the challenge of how to pay for such “easy” conversions. Perhaps the Council should ask for a discussion with the Housing director to get real info instead of speculation.

  24. Terri

     /  September 13, 2016

    Here’s Nate Silver’s description of the impact building more on-campus residences has had on Temple University:

  25. Plurimus

     /  September 14, 2016


    The article you cite specifically states that on campus housing is not the cause of tuition increases.

    The article states that the greatest reason for the tuition increases are due to state funding cuts and salary increases.

    Based on the table in the article UNC saw a 3.9% increase in tuition and a 1.6% decrease in per student funding. Half of the tuition increase was explained by state funding cuts. Since they have built no new dorms, the article leads me to believe that salary increases account for the rest.

    Comparatively UNC seems to be still a bargain for tuition and about in the middle of the pack for increases and in the bottom quartile for cuts.

    What point are you making?

  26. Terri

     /  September 14, 2016

    State funding has been cut to the bone. To build more on-campus housing means the funding will have to be born by the students, who are already paying more for tuition. It’s a choice that seems easy to me–forego building more campus residences and let the public sector carry that burden while keeping the total costs lower for students.

  27. Terri, I assume you meant “private sector” but “let the public sector carry that burden” is actually fairly accurate – at least in Chapel Hill – as the CHTC has routinely let these student targeted developments externalize costs that are, unfortunately, being directly borne by the residents of Town.

    I’ve been looking at Orange County’s tax valuations in prep for next week’s revaluation public hearing and have found that the tax burden borne by student-oriented complexes has fallen quite steeply as compared to equivalent residential properties.

    I’m working the numbers now but when you compare complexes which haven’t changed ownership recently to properties like condos that do change hands more frequently, you see their relative income capitalized valuations have diverged significantly in comparison.

    In other words, eight years of waiting has cost Orange County a chunk of change for these apartments as their rents go to say $1200 yet their tax valuations remain based at something like $500.

    Of course, Orange County has been getting a bit of a bounty as it appears many of the newer condos in Town – like those at Greenbridge, West140 and East54 – are over-valued – “upside down” – for tax valuations.

    It will be interesting to see how the tax burden shifts as the condo driven income drops and, presumably, we see larger returns on those apartment complexes which have seen the steepest rent increases.

  28. Plurimus

     /  September 15, 2016

    Well, I guess all I am going to get is an acknowledgement that the cost shifting is real, but I still say it would be a good thing to quantify. Who knows, it might be enough to keep the sidewalks clear during a snowstorm.