Better planning for affordability

Last year, when Orange County commissioners proposed a $5 million bond to be used for affordable housing, I pushed for a plan. The county commissioners instead offered a slogan — 1,065 homes for $5 million — that was so unlikely to be achieved that it didn’t rise to the level of a goal.

Trying to squeeze more than 1,000 units out of $5 million amounts to less than $5,000 per unit. As is true with so many things, the real story is found in the fine print. Orange County hoped to combine that $5 million with more than $7 million from the affordable housing funds collected by Chapel Hill and Carrboro over five years and reduced the number of units added to the housing stock to 613. (The remaining 400-plus would be homes to be repaired or “non-construction” units, whatever that means.)

Forget that Chapel Hill, at least, already has commitments for spending its Penny for Housing and HOME grants. The slogan sounded good enough that voters approved it in the November 2016 election.

This month, the county commissioners allocated the first half of the bond money. Based on recommendations from the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition, the commissioners gave $915,334 to Habitat for Humanity to build 24 townhomes in Waterstone for low-income seniors; $1,373,366 to CASA for 28 apartments along Merritt Mill Road that straddle Chapel Hill and Carrboro, geared toward the disabled and homeless; and $211,300 to EmPowerment to buy and renovate a house in Northside.

All three of these organizations have documented decades of success, and these particular projects are to be lauded.

The fact remains that the county has spent half of the bond money for 53 homes. Using the 613-unit goal, that leaves $2.5 million for the remaining 560 units, or $4,600 per unit.
Achieving that will require a plan. At least start with an honest assessment of what taxpayers can expect.

Fortunately, the Chapel Hill town staff have stepped up to help. Chapel Hill has begun to list the projects it wants to complete and what each will cost. Chapel Hill’s plan includes a schedule for implementing each action step. The town manager has consulted with the key affordable housing organizations — the three above, plus Community Home Trust.

Commendable as those agencies are, we risk missing out on some new ideas by tapping the same four agencies we have for years. Widening the circle to bring in some builders who have completed workforce housing would be a worthwhile addition, as would thinking about who we need to incentivize to stay in town, and hearing from people who live in low-cost housing at present so we know what or target market wants.

The $5 million bond won’t cover all we need it to do. But with a plan, we can better leverage taxpayers’ investment.
— Nancy Oates

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


  1. Bonnie Hauser

     /  June 26, 2017

    Great organizations – but your point is a good one. What would happen if private sector builders had a seat at this important table? Wake is getting 14 Habitat homes for free courtesy of local builders.

    Too bad none of these communities will have access to reasonable public transportation.

  2. bart

     /  July 2, 2017

    Ronald McDonald House built out its property last year. They built five new buildings and reduced outdoor space to almost nothing. However, they can house more people. Their argument, when proposing the build out, was that they could not nearly meet demand for rooms.

    I have no doubt that was true. It is probably still true. But what was once a building with a backyard that felt like there was still some country nearby has become a compound with several dorm like buildings.

    They can serve more people, true. But in doing so they have altered the nature (no puns intended) of what they offer and what the place now is.

    That’s probably just fine for those spending time in RMH. But we’re going down the same road with respect to housing. We’re building more, fundamentally changing the nature of this place, but housing is still too expensive and is likely to remain so as long as demand is so high.

    But what’s the end game?

  3. plurimus

     /  July 3, 2017

    The great irony of course is that “sustainability” has become a growth industry.

    The rhetoric goes that we need to prepare for this tremendous growth and that leads to the notion we need “density” to deal with “sprawl”. This is the fantasy of the ecological modernist who believe with a bit more efficiency, everything can simply keep on “progressing”.

  4. bart

     /  July 3, 2017

    So, as we infill the evil sprawl, do we get rid of sprawl?

  5. plurimus

     /  July 3, 2017

    Heh. Yes #SustainableSprawl