Chapel Hill (and maybe Carrboro) Inclusion Project

We’re launching the Chapel Hill (and maybe Carrboro) Inclusion Project and are asking for your help.

As we’ve been reporting for several months, the Town of Chapel Hill is exploring ways to expand housing choices by making housing that is currently illegal in many neighborhoods – missing middle housing like duplexes, triplexes, and quadruplexes – legal. Such changes are not a magic bullet to address the housing crisis affecting the Triangle (and much of America), but they are an important first step to enabling more homes and different types of home to be built. It’s also important to begin to undo the legacy of discriminatory housing practices – restrictive covenants were often adopted to ensure that only whites (and non-Jews) could own homes in certain neighborhoods.

Because we believe in the town’s effort and want to help, we’re launching a project to understand and catalogue the extent of exclusionary neighborhoods in Chapel Hill – i.e., neighborhoods that only allow the most expensive types of homes – in hopes of helping the Town and current homeowners build more welcoming neighborhoods.

What is the Chapel Hill Inclusion Project?

Inspired by the Hacking into History group in Durham, we want to crowdsource research into Chapel Hill neighborhoods to identify legal restrictions that limit the ability to build anything other than a single-family detached home in those neighborhoods. Such restrictions can be found in neighborhood covenants and HOA bylaws.

Some of these documents are publicly available, but it takes some digging to find them. Others are only available to people who live in these neighborhoods, so we need neighborhood liaisons to help find find them.

Chapel Hill has over 200 neighborhoods. So we need a team of volunteers to divide and conquer to find and catalogue which neighborhoods only allow the most expensive types of homes.

Can’t the town do this?

The town is doing this, we want to help them so they don’t get bogged down in this task. In response to the housing choice proposal town council is currently considering, residents have called for the town to document which neighborhoods might be impacted by the changes and which might not (depending on what’s included in covenants or HOA bylaws, certain neighborhoods may be able to block gentle density housing types even if town council legalizes them town wide.

The town staff working on the missing middle project are fantastic, but it’s a small team. If they have to research hundreds of neighborhoods on their own, the project could be delayed for many months (which is exactly what a small minority of homeowners in Chapel Hill want – they are trying to stall the project until after the election in hopes that the next Council will shut it down).

OK, what do you need?

You! We need historians and planners and library students and folks with GIS and data management and web design skills and kindhearted nerds of all varieties to find and review neighborhood covenants for exclusionary terms, such as a restriction that only allows single-family homes on 1-acre lots. We’re not going to lie, it’s a bit tedious, but also pretty interesting. (You’ll learn a lot about how decisions made decades ago have shaped how Chapel Hill looks today).

We also need people living in neighborhoods with HOAs to find their bylaws and identify exclusionary polices, such as banning duplexes or garage apartments (ADUs). If you own a home in a neighborhood with an HOA, you probably received the bylaws at your closing, or you can request them from the HOA or find them on your neighborhood’s website.

What are you going to do with this information?

We’d like to do several things:

  1. First, we simply want to collect and analyze the data and map neighborhoods according to how exclusive or inclusive they are
  2. Then, we want to share our data with town staff to aid their similar search
  3.  Longer-term, we want to build a network of neighbors who want more neighbors. Changing Chapel Hill from an exclusionary to inclusionary place is going to take a lot of time and energy and pushing back on the usual suspects who don’t want it to change.

If all goes well, we’d like to expand this to Carrboro. For now, since Chapel Hill is actively working on this, we want to start there.

How much time do you need?

It depends on how many people sign up and how you’d like to help.

If you want to help review covenants, some are very easy to find, say 5 minutes, while others might take 15 minutes or more. We’d probably ask volunteers to start with a batch of 10. (We will provide instructions on how to do this).

If all you want to do is find and share your HOA bylaws, great! We can’t get these documents without you.

Building a database and mapping what we find will take more time, but we bet there are some whizzes around here who do this sort of thing in their sleep.

OK, I’m in! What’s next?

Fill out this simple form to let us know you’re interested and how to get in touch with you. We will reply with next steps and instructions.

Can I help without my neighbors knowing?

Absolutely. Unless you want attribution, we will not reveal the name of anyone who assists. Information can be submitted through a secure form. We will need to know who you are and, if you want to help by sharing HOA information, which neighborhood you live in.

Does any of this matter? Restrictive racial covenants are unenforceable and HOA bylaws can only be overturned if a large share of HOA members agrees to do so.

If nothing else, it will be useful to learn what we can about barriers to housing choice in Chapel Hill. How many people even know whether their neighborhood bars ADUs or triplexes?

Ideally, this information, which we intend to make public via an interactive website that can be updated over time, will spur conversations between neighbors and lead to changes that build more welcoming neighborhoods.

We have to start somewhere.

What’s the timeline?

As noted, we want to move quickly so that town staff can focus on all the other steps needed to successfully implement this proposal. We’d like to complete data collection in February.

Who is leading this project for TBB?

We plan to divvy up data collection among several of us. The project leads are Geoff Green, a land use planner and attorney, Melody Kramer, a writer and librarian, and Stephen Whitlow, a housing researcher. This team will oversee data collection, review the data for quality, and share the data with town staff.