Correction: Tonight’s Town Council meeting starts at 7:00 pm, not 7:30 pm. It’s been corrected below.

Fear of the unknown is a powerful motivator. And, in early 21st century America, one’s home (especially if you are an owner) is often not only a secure and safe place, it is the retirement plan. The inclination for many is to try to freeze the home and neighborhood in stasis, protecting it from outside influences and any change, even if the change might be good.

We think that’s what is driving a lot of the reaction to Chapel Hill’s proposal to allow property owners to build new types of housing beyond just the single-family homes that dominate the landscape and are just about the only type of home you have been able to build for the last fifty years.

Many of us love our homes, and we’ll still love them even if a duplex or a triplex is built next door or down the street. We know what our restrictive housing regime has created in the face of great demand to live in town  — a massive shortage of housing, increased costs of living, and further sprawl out into the countryside, beyond our much-loved rural buffer.

These potential Chapel Hill residents who are forced out of town may not live here, but they still drive to work here, or they drive through town and cause the traffic congestion that we all complain about. And, of course, because they live out in the country, they’re cutting down trees and emitting carbon to an extent that would horrify an environmentalist.

The time is right to act now.

The housing choices proposal is the first small step towards creating more housing, and more types of housing, in Chapel Hill.  Allowing townhouses, duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in many more parts of town will allow landowners to explore new housing options. In a nod towards community concern that this housing will irrevocably change the character of their neighborhoods — something we have thoughts about — the proposal keeps most of the same limitations that exist today, so a new triplex can be no larger, and no taller, than a single-family home on the same property; it will just be able to house more than one family.

This will not be a panacea. New construction is expensive, so it’s not likely that these housing options will substitute for the dedicated affordable housing that is underway, like the new Trinity Court project. But they will be less expensive than new single-family homes, and will provide living options other than large single-family homes or multistory rental apartment buildings.

It’s likely, as Durham and Raleigh experienced, that there will not be many new duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes built in our neighborhoods, at least in the first few years. And perhaps these new regulations are not enough.

Maybe the tree-canopy requirements for triplexes and fourplexes (a requirement that does not apply to single-family homes — you can cut down all the trees on your property if you like) will make it to hard to build these housing types. Perhaps the contextual height standards will prove an obstacle (standards that don’t apply to single-family homes). And, there are building code requirements and financial lending practices and other roadblocks that may need to be changed at well. We will have to see.

But the key thing is that we’re making the first effort, and it’s the biggest one. The goal is to develop missing middle housing to increase and diversify our housing supply and allow families of all sizes to have opportunities to live in Chapel Hill. Once we can get there, we can make adjustments as necessary so that the program is successful.

If the program fails, we get the same types of single-family homes that we have today. If the program succeeds, we’ll have a variety of new housing choices and opportunities.

If you’re a supporter of the plan, please let the Town know.  Here’s what you can do:

  • Email Town Council at mayorandcouncil@townofchapelhill.org. They will read your email. Wondering what to say? You can check out some of our prior posts on the proposal (one, two, three, four, five). And, here’s a site about missing middle housing in Arlington, Virginia which has collected some emails from supporters that could serve as inspiration.
  • Come to the Town Council meeting tonight (Wednesday, January 24) and speak during the public hearing. The meeting starts at 7 pm, and the hearing is early on the agenda so it’d be smart to arrive by 7:30 pm. (The meeting will be at Chapel Hill Town Hall, 405 MLK Jr. Blvd.) We expect there will be a lot of opponents in attendance — that’s how it always works — so it will be helpful to have more voices on the pro-housing side.

Many of us at TBB have lived in one of these mixed-housing types. I lived for several years in a sixplex in St. Louis; Martin lived in a duplex in Brookline (rental) and a rowhouse in Baltimore (owned); John lived in a fourplex in Burlington, Vermont; Mel has lived in duplexes in Philly and Chicago. And these were all homes, and neighborhoods, we loved. We hope more people have the opportunity to find places like that to to live in Chapel Hill.

Geoff Green

Geoff Green, AICP (@geoff_green) lives in Chapel Hill. In his day job he's a practicing urban planner; in his spare time he rides his electric bike around town and advocates for improved facilities so...