Feel-good decisions

As I interact with people when I do errands, I often ask them whether they live in Chapel Hill and why. I ask those who live in town what they would like Town Council to know. Usually, I hear the Big Three Issues: affordability, flooding and traffic.

Not long ago, I heard a new one: Stop making decisions that make yourselves feel better.

That was hard feedback to hear, especially after I reflected and realized the resident had a point. We sometimes make decisions that sound good but don’t consider the impact on the quality of life of many of the people who live here.

We did it again last week by voting to allow accessory dwelling units to be exempt from short-term rental regulations. The decision allows those garage apartments and backyard cottages often rented year-round to grad students, singles and couples who don’t make a lot of money to sit empty, awaiting visitors who pay more for a short stay than the property owner could charge for year-round rent. I was the lone dissenting vote.

A prior council approved ADUs almost everywhere in town to increase the number of affordable housing units. At last week’s meeting, a council member flipped the rationale, saying that ADUs would bring in extra income for the property owner, thus making the main property more affordable for the owner. And that’s true.

Except that the vast majority of ADUs are in fairly well-off neighborhoods — historic districts and established single-family house neighborhoods with large yards — whose homeowners enjoy the extra income but don’t rely on it to stay solvent.

Households making less than the Area Median Income of $80,000 a year likely would be hard-pressed to borrow the $150,000 or so to build a garage apartment or cottage. Banks won’t consider rent as income, and are reticent to lend money for housing if the borrower already owns another home. The rationale, a banker told me, is that the motivation to repay a loan is less if the borrower has another place to live.

Tourists who can afford the nightly rates charged for ADUs likely will spend a lot of money at restaurants in town. We want that for our businesses and for the tax revenue it brings in. But it will come at the expense of those modest income earners who want to live in town.

Certainly, I understand the desire to boost one’s income. As someone who has been self-employed for nearly a quarter century and who worked for nonprofits and the government in expensive cities before that, I’ve been chasing the dollar all of my career.

That’s also why I stay so firmly fixed in support of affordable housing. People want a chance to build a good life for themselves. As our affordable housing options in Chapel Hill shrink, so do the opportunities for others at the beginning of their careers or who have chosen careers that don’t pay a lot.

Council felt good about its decision to give financially secure residents one more way to increase their livelihood. But for the 200 or so people who live on very tight budgets and no longer will have the option of renting a garage apartment or backyard cottage, living in Chapel Hill will become that much harder.

— Nancy Oates

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  1. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  September 16, 2019

    With the UNC campus preparing to phase out dormitories to redevelop campus, Council needs to think of what kind of double whammy is in store for renters: rentals taken off market in favor of short-term app-driven rentals, and more renters altogether looking for housing. It looks like rents are set to rise.

    At the same time, real estate taxes are rising to pay for the additional services needed on a per-capita basis, like police, ambulance, fire, waste removal, school construction, school staffing; and services related to the growth itself, like inspectors, road maintenance, waste removal; and costs borne by everyone, like flooding, waste water treatment and raises for all the aforementioned service providers.

  2. Plurimus

     /  September 16, 2019

    I think the critic was not only annoyed by decisions that do not consider the people affected by them (both the benefits and consequences) but also by proclamations, self congratulatory declarations and support for causes and initiatives that are so clearly beyond your scope of influence. The term “virtue signaling” applies.

  3. Bonnie Hauser

     /  September 17, 2019

    Plurimus – agree fully. An outrageous amount of time is spent on virtue signaling, The county commissioners spend the first hour of every meeting on it. There’s no time left to conduct important business. Imagine the amount of staff time that’s wasted on it.

    The town of Cary, by policy, doesn’t discuss items that are out of their control. How refreshing.