Carrboro

Carrboro’s housing crossroads: Which direction will we go?

When I moved to Carrboro from Washington DC in 2015, someone sent me the “unofficial town music video” which showed a variety of people hula-hooping, dancing, and rocking out on the Weaver Street lawn.

I immediately fell in love.

It’s not hard to love Carrboro. We’re known as one of the most progressive communities in the South, we have a great farmer’s market, and we have a pretty walkable downtown with small, local, independent businesses. I often describe it as being the Ernie to Chapel Hill’s Bert.

But Carrboro is not immune to change.

We’re seeing changes in who can afford to purchase a home here.

According to Triangle MLS, housing prices have jumped 27% from 2020 to 2021 (Jan-Jul) in Orange County, with the median price of a home in Orange County going up to $415,000 in 2021. We also see these prices growing faster than nearby counties. From 2020 to 2021, median house prices in Orange jumped 27%, compared to 13% in Chatham, 13% in Durham, and 13% in Raleigh.

Meanwhile, only 4% of Orange County’s total housing stock has been built since 2010. We’re seeing home prices jump, and we’re seeing new construction slow to a trickle. That’s pricing people out and making them drive further for work.

We’re seeing changes in how much money people are spending on rent.

Over half (57%) of Carrboro residents rent, and the median rent in Carrboro rose 14 percent from 2014 to 2019. As of 2021, a minimum wage worker would need to work 103 hours per week to afford a local 1 bedroom rental (up from 96 hours in 2020), according to data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach Report.

These changes in housing prices have changed our commuting patterns.

In the past, it would have been easy for the person taking your order at Carrburritos, handing you a beer at Cat’s Cradle, or teaching your 2nd grader at McDougle Elementary to live close to their work and grow here with their family.

But because of the lack of affordable housing, that’s changed. Since 2008, the number of Carrboro workers who commute into Carrboro from outside of Orange County has risen by over 1,000 people. And young workers (29 and younger) driving into Orange County for work are at an all-time high, up over 14.5% from 2016. Some of my coworkers at a large research university down the road drive more than an hour to get to work.

In other words, we’re seeing more people commuting further to work here as housing prices rise (and housing stock grows very slowly.) We’re also seeing more renters spending greater percentages of their income on rent.

For Carrboro to retain what makes it so unique, we now have to make some hard choices.

Our friends in Chapel Hill are also grappling with these issues. Last year, a report about Chapel Hill’s housing crisis came out, warning the town that a number of housing needs were going unmet, and that housing production needed to increase by 35% to meet their projected growth. The report warned that Chapel Hill was in danger of becoming a “Palo Alto.” (Palo Alto has a median home price of more than $3 million.)

The report was not about Carrboro, but it provides a warning for our town too.

Carrboro has some tough decisions to make. We can decide we want growth – but not here, and not that type, and not if it means cutting down those trees. Those types of objections slow down or stop development projects altogether. Or we can choose to actively welcome people into our community, and do so in a way that is better for both the environment and people’s lives.

City planners and other experts in environmentally-responsible growth are clear about the best way to do that. We must change our zoning rules to allow for more density because low-density developments with single family homes produce a lot more greenhouse gas emissions than higher-density alternatives. We must add housing — duplexes, triplexes, condos — along transit corridors so that people can bike, bus, and walk to work instead of commuting an hour by car. We must build housing that is accessible and affordable for artists and teachers and town employees. And we also need to change parking minimums and actively encourage more people to not use cars when going downtown.

These changes require a shift in perspective. We need to think about the forest (e.g., the Triangle region as a whole) instead of the trees (the few blocks around our own homes). Clear-cutting communities an hour away so people can commute here via car is terrible for the environment, much more so than building dense housing on transportation lines here. Put another way, we cannot simply offload our housing shortage onto other communities.

If you’ve lived in Carrboro a long time, these changes will likely feel really hard and different — and you might find yourself rejecting them. You may want to slow the pace of change down, or stop it altogether. You might find yourself saying, “It’s not that I don’t want change, but I don’t want this change to happen in my neighborhood or with this specific patch of hardwood trees.”

I see a growing nostalgia for “quaint Carrboro” on Facebook and NextDoor, mainly from long-time residents. I see residents decrying new developments and projects that would add affordable housing. Last April, a resident told town council that building the 203 Project would “change the character of the town.”

I hear that fear about change. It’s hard to watch a place you love become different, particularly if you’ve helped make Carrboro the awesome little town it is.

But what makes Carrboro distinct is its people —  not street widths or building heights. The real danger to the character of our town is losing our focus on the whole community. We must continue working to be a place for all people: both current and future residents, both renters and homeowners, people who work here and people who live here — and not be afraid to build a better future.

All of the data in this piece was sourced from the U.S. Census Bureau, the American Community Survey (2015-2019) and LODES (OnTheMap).