Yo tax nerds: We recently published a piece about how much a bunch of new apartment buildings pay in taxes in Chapel Hill. (Spoiler: A lot.) The piece itself was quite focused, though we did link to Matt Bailey’s piece examining town expenditures and later published this piece by David Anderson further looking at town expenditures.

As you might imagine, the piece sparked quite the, shall we say, animated response on social media. We were called “shills.” The piece was called “nonsense” and a “screed” and a “straw-man analysis” by people who don’t like apartment buildings.

We wanted to address a few more points that came up in our not-so-merry Christmas discussion online.

First, a point about naming:

Should we call the apartment buildings that house many town residents and that were built to Chapel Hill fire code ‘expensive firetraps?’

No. They have sprinklers and are designed to meet modern fire safety standards.

Should we call apartment buildings that house many town residents a ‘pernicious evil?’

That’s a matter of personal preference, we suppose. Some people like living in apartments and some people don’t. And for many people they are the only option – young people today are forming families later than in the past, are bogged down with student loan debt that makes purchasing difficult, and starter homes in a place like Chapel Hill simply don’t exist anymore.

If we truly had a wide variety of housing types in Chapel Hill — duplexes, mother-in-law suites, triplexes, apartments, single-detached homes — then we could serve people at different stages of their lives, and let them choose for themselves whether or not they want to share their building or lot.

But we can’t build duplexes or triplexes or quadruplexes in most of Chapel Hill.

That’s right. Currently, in most neighborhoods, only single-detached homes can be built with our current zoning laws. We’re looking forward to Chapel Hill Town Council’s upcoming discussion on re-legalizing different home choices like duplexes and triplexes. When we allow only single-detached homes, we ban all but the most expensive homes — and that determines who can afford and who can’t afford to live in Chapel Hill.

But I don’t want to build anything on my lot.

Then you don’t have to. Gradually returning neighborhoods across Chapel Hill to a variety of homes protects Chapel Hill from being increasingly segregated by income and helps mitigate the effects of sprawl and pollution.

You seem to be getting away from the Christmas Day apartment buildings conversation.

Oops, sorry.

I want to get back to the apartments. I hate the Berkshire.

That’s a personal preference – you don’t have to live there. But it has a very low vacancy rates and (we looked at voting records) houses lots of people in their 20s and 30s who for a variety of reasons may not want to or be able to purchase a home.

Of course, for those who do want to own a home, there aren’t many options in Chapel Hill right now — particularly for those who can’t afford a single-detached home. (Another reason we’re looking forward to people having more choices.)

Why does this matter? 

Climate change’s effects don’t respect Chapel Hill’s borders. If people don’t move into Chapel Hill, those people don’t disappear into the ether. They live just outside of Chapel Hill — where they do more driving.

And Daniel Herriges makes a good point: “When people live in apartments, they share walls, saving on heating and cooling-related energy use. On net, compact development gets people to drive fewer miles and makes it more possible for those so inclined to eschew cars altogether.”

Blue Hill, where most of our apartment buildings are, is actually quite walkable for the residents who live there. People can walk to get groceries, to a restaurant, or to shops — something most of us can’t do. (Side benefit: those people living in Blue Hill are spending money in Blue Hill, which means more sales tax revenue for the town as well.)

Are these 10-12 or so apartment buildings digging us into infrastructure debt for the entire town?

We assume by infrastructure debt that the poster is referring to costs the town incurs to build things like roads, water and sewage lines, and deliver services like trash and recycling.

First, we should note that this topic only comes up around multi-family units. 🧐 Second, the apartments we have in Chapel Hill contract for services like trash and recycling. Most of the large apartment buildings are infill developments that take advantage of existing infrastructure, like water, sewer, and roads.

There’s a large body of research that shows  it’s orders of magnitude less expensive to develop apartments on infill lots vs. single-detached homes with big yards because single-detached houses are further apart so they require more pipes and roads and things like that. (Another great reason to support Missing Middle housing—we can all share the burden of maintaining our infrastructure).

There’s also research that shows ongoing delivery of services is less for apartments, and that apartments generate more tax revenue per acre.

We also know that apartment buildings were net revenue producers for the town – even back a decade ago. So it’s more likely the opposite: the apartments give us revenue that we then use to subsidize public services for people living in single-detached homes.

Are you suggesting we only build luxury apartment buildings? 

No. We’re not. Also, “In almost every neighborhood in America where multifamily homes are allowed to exist alongside single-family units (and there are shockingly few such locations), it’s the single-family units that are the priciest housing on the market. Single-family homes, not condos and apartments, are the real luxury housing.”

What about this fire equipment we had to purchase specifically to fight fires at the very tall apartment buildings?

The new apartment buildings aren’t any taller than existing buildings on the UNC campus, or Granville Towers or Greenbridge. A new truck or equipment may have needed to be purchased — as it does on a regular basis — to keep equipment up to date or to replace old equipment. This very very very detailed history of the Chapel Hill Fire Department indicates that Chapel Hill purchased or received some new equipment in 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018 — which seems reasonable.

What about the road that the town is building for a single developer?

This is a political talking point that CHALT has brought up (and, most recently, by Adam Searing). Only, it’s not accurate. First, the Elliot Road Extension was planned in 2014 before the apartment project was proposed in 2019 (and it was planned because of residents’ complaints about traffic). Park Apartments gave land, valued at $3 million, to the town for the Elliott Rd Extension.

The town is paying for the road itself. The road is projected to carry 7,800 cars per day, far more trips than the Park Apartments will generate (the developer also contributed $1.5 million to the town for affordable housing). Once it’s built, people on the east side of Chapel Hill will use it to get to Whole Foods—and the Chapel Hill Public Library.

We’re getting luxury apartments on every square inch of Chapel Hill.

In total, the eight apartment buildings we reported on earlier that generate median tax revenue payments of roughly $343,946 per acre take up 41.7 acres of land. Chapel Hill has 13,920 acres. Apartment buildings are efficient uses of land and workhorse generators of tax revenue.

The Village is gone.

The Village, a 2004 movie by M. Night Shyamalan is a movie about a cabal of well-meaning social scientists who, in the 1970s, decide to build a utopian town in the Pennsylvania countryside to protect their children from the influence of outsiders. Chapel Hill is a thriving community that has more than doubled in population since the 1970s, and continues to be a place where people can create, explore, and succeed. Our beloved restaurant The Purple Bowl started in 2017! They’re younger than CHALT.

“Instead of building community with people who want to stay and commit to making this a better town, we’re getting what, on the surface at least, appears to be temporary residents who want this to be a more homogenized community with chain stores, a lot more traffic, and a reduced chance of running into friends while out shopping.”

You live in a college town, where one of the main features is that people move here for a few years to attend school. We’re happy they’re here – it makes our community great to have so many people studying so many different things.

We also see daily posts in the “Chapel Hill Mother’s Club” Facebook group about people desperately searching for housing and trying to stay in their homes – there are no starter homes here. We see graduate students using food pantries. We see people driving more than an hour to teach in our school system.

We also live here, and want to make this a better town — and that means building more housing, more types of housing, and building ways to get around by public transportation and bike — for our health, for the environment, and to create the kind of community we want to live in.