Yesterday, an email hit the Chapel Hill Town Council public email inbox that raised our eyebrows more than usual.
It was from a local attorney, paid for by twelve Chapel Hill households, begging the town to cease and desist with its housing choices proposal, which would allow structures like duplexes and cottage courts to be built in places where only single detached homes can be built today.
Also yesterday, coincidentally: we published a piece on the structural racism that continues to underlie the pattern of residential development in Chapel Hill.
It’s unusual for several reasons:
? It appears to be, at least partially, a response to one of our articles. (This is a first!)
A few weeks ago, we wrote a piece about how the term “neighborhood character” has been used in Chapel Hill over the decades as a coded term to continually exclude non-White people from neighborhoods.
We’re impressed that the piece, written at the dining room table in about 20 minutes, resulted in the hiring of an actual licensed attorney to write a letter in response.
Oh, how we wish we could have been a fly on the wall for that initial phone call: “So there’s these punk kids called the…what is it, honey? … yeah, the Triangle Blogging Bloggers. And boy do we need your help!”
Despite the big bucks thrown around, the letter doesn’t say anything new and continues the fear-mongering around the proposal.
The attorney writes, “It has been suggested, publicly by some local proponents of the Proposed Amendment that opposition to this measure is inherently exclusionary and racist, and that the concept of “neighborhood character” is merely code for keeping people out. As a commercial real estate attorney, I believe that position is flawed and deeply unfair.”
He then proceeds to “understand and acknowledge the historical and systematic barriers to home ownership over the past several decades” and notes that yes, “there are social justice and inclusivity issues at play.”
Ok, cool. We agree.
He then writes that the people of Briarcliff, Ridgefield, and Colony Woods just want to retain their peaceful style of living, and neighborhood character “is not a euphemism for exclusion or exclusivity.”
Well, here we don’t agree.
This assertion contradicts a large body of literature written by people who study zoning and race, most (if not all) of whom are not commercial real estate lawyers. People like Michael Manville, Paavo Monkkonen, and Michael Lens at UCLA; Mechele Dickerson at The University of Texas at Austin, and basically every single person cited in their respective bodies of research.
(The term neighborhood character isn’t a term specific to Chapel Hill. It’s a term that’s used so often by neighborhood defenders that there’s a McSweeney’s humor piece about it. More seriously (and if you don’t have access to an academic library), this guide from students at the University of Minnesota calls the term ‘racially-coded’; this piece discusses how the term was used to reinforce structural racism.)
?️ The letter acknowledges that it’s really hard to build in Chapel Hill
We wonder if the real estate attorney might have other clients in town, because he wrote this:
? The letter purports that there aren’t birds or animals in Southern Village or Meadowmont (lol)
The attorney writes: “A simple stroll down the streets of Ridgefield vs. Meadowmont reveals obvious differences. Neighborhoods like Briarcliff, Ridgefield, and Colony Woods, by design (and supported by zoning) have small houses located on large lots. This design affords privacy, quiet, and access to nature, a dearth of birds and other animals and less light pollution; characteristics that cannot be found in more dense neighborhoods.”
Ok, there’s a lot to unpack here. We’ll go in order:
- Ridgefiled retains its small house character because it’s in a Neighborhood Conservation District overlay zoning which limits house size. There’s nothing in the housing amendments proposal that would change that.
- Colony Woods has “small houses located on large lots” today. But they’re 50-60 years old and many have owners that have lived there for 20 or 30 years. As the homes age and houses turn over, they’ll become good candidates for teardowns — and there’s nothing stopping anyone from building much larger houses on their lots as of this very moment. We don’t expect Colony Woods to remain in amber, and we’re seeing this happen in neighborhoods across Chapel Hill and Carrboro that are slightly older.
- Southern Village has a lot of birds. The light pollution across Chapel Hill’s neighborhoods is roughly the same. (We looked at a light pollution map.) We assume there are animals in Meadowmont, given that it’s directly next to the 54 impoundment area and a hot spot of the Triangle Birder’s Club. Meadowmont is also home to Chapel Hill’s tree of the year (2019). We haven’t seen any noise complaints about either neighborhood on NextDoor, which you know would jump all over that shit immediately. This is a lot of words to say basically nothing. (Also, we’re pretty sure the lawyer misuses the word “dearth.”)
This paragraph also elides the very conservative character of the housing choices proposal. There are several critical elements of a zoning code which establish the physical design of a community:
- Minimum lot size.
- Minimum front setback (how far homes are built from the street).
- Minimum side and rear setbacks (the minimum separation of a house and any other structures, like a storage shed, from the neighboring properties).
- Maximum impervious surface on the property.
- Maximum height of a home.
- Tree canopy.
NONE OF THOSE STANDARDS ARE CHANGING. NONE!!!
In case the prior paragraph was unclear, none of those standards are changing! The front setbacks in the R-1 district today are the front setbacks in the housing choices proposal. Side setbacks, rear setbacks, maximum height, all are staying the same.
Wait, we were wrong. There is a change.
New triplexes and quadplexes will be subject to minimum tree canopy requirements, something that does not apply to new single-family homes today. (In other words, if you want to cut down all the trees on a lot and build a McMansion, you can do that today!)
The only change to these regulations is that instead of just one building that houses one family, the lot can have one building — same number of buildings! — that houses up to four families. The lot needs to be the same size, the setbacks need to be the same size, the building can’t be any taller than a single-family home today. (You can also build cottage court homes, which have their own set of design standards.)
If you wanted to supercharge the development of new housing, you would shrink the building setbacks, increase maximum building heights, eliminate the impervious surface limitations, and not impose design requirements on triplexes and quadplexes. That would be a radical change that would strongly incentivize the replacement of existing single-family homes, and likely change the look and feel of the neighborhoods. But that is not what is being proposed here. Town staff recognizes the sensitivity of these neighborhoods and bends over backwards to make sure the changes will be consistent with the current development in the neighborhoods, even if it will be less effective in addressing our housing crisis.
Today, we don’t regulate our neighbors. But they can make a big difference in “community character.” If your neighbors are an older, childless couple, the area around your home is going to feel a lot different than if they’re a 30-something couple with four young kids. Your neighbor could be an introverted couple who you never see, or a pair of extroverts who have friends over every weekend to use the fire pit in the backyard. That is something zoning does not (and should not) control.
And that’s what this is about.
On the same size lot next door, instead of three or five people you might have 10 or 12 people. The lots are perfectly large enough to support all those people with safety, health, and comfort, all in a building with no more impact than an allowed single-family dwelling.
Because you’re placing smaller dwellings on the same property, with shared walls, these buildings will unquestionably be cheaper than construction of new single-family housing in the same neighborhoods.
It is without a doubt an effort to exclude and control who can live in the neighborhood.
Let’s move on.
?The letter has some challenges with geography
The attorney writes, “Residents of the Town’s denser neighborhoods understood those communities would have a distinct character when they bought homes there. Those residents sought the activity, the close proximity, and the access to commercial centers that come with dense development. Density is character.”
Ridgefield is directly across the street from University Place. Colony Woods is situated next to I-40 and Fordham, which makes it easy for their residents to commute. Briarcliff residents can walk to Cook Out. Let’s not pretend that these neighborhoods are in the Hundred Acre Wood. They’re within walking distance of Chapel Hill’s main thoroughfares.
? The letter makes claims that are just silly
The attorney, who was paid by 12 households to write this letter, makes two principal arguments in favor of abandoning the housing choices proposal or, at least, delaying it.
Both are foolish.
First, he writes, “The Proposed Amendment places the burden for new housing on established neighborhoods, rather than new development, and will significantly alter neighborhood character without any substantial increase in available housing.”
The proposal broadens where new housing can be constructed and, if anything, distributes where new housing can be so that all neighborhoods across Chapel Hill can have a mix of housing, instead of forcing all new development into large projects on undeveloped land (? at Homestead Road). Increasing density gently means that neighborhoods will also be able to accommodate different household structures. As the AARP has pointed out, senior citizens looking to downsize will be able to stay in their neighborhoods, along with young families, single-person households, and multi-generational households.
The letter also claims that neighborhoods like Briarcliff, Ridgefield, and Colony Woods will be “ripe” for dense student development because they’re on bus lines. First, undergraduate students want to live near campus — and these neighborhoods are not anywhere near campus. It is possible that some grad students and medical residents and medical fellows may want to move in. They’re very quiet and already live throughout these neighborhoods, usually renting rooms. (When my wife and I rented when she was a medical student, we like to think we were decent neighbors.)
While buses run near these neighborhoods, they’re not particularly convenient. To take the bus from Colony Woods to campus, one would have to first walk 30 minutes, then take a 23 minute bus, and then walk another 4 minutes. To take the bus from Ridgefield, one would have to walk 2.2 miles and then take a 37-minute bus ride. Sure, it’s possible. It’s more likely that the homes will be occupied, as they are in other places, by multi-generational households and/or young couples purchasing a starter home.
?️ The letter wants to delay this decision until past the election (duh!)
The attorney writes, “Recent NC law changes cast doubt on the efficacy of older restrictive covenants” and then requests a delay — for a year — for residents to “shore up” their covenants.
Well, speaking as an attorney not licensed to practice in the state, I think he overstates the impact of the decision. But, if you really think the effectiveness of the covenants are in danger, might as well “shore them up” now.
Even if the housing choices proposal doesn’t move forward, some of the covenants may not be effective anyway. The request for a delay of “one (1) year” is a hilarious effort to push this beyond the next election in an effort to kill the proposal.
The letter closes by saying “This Proposed Amendment has invigorated the Town’s electorate. The costs of this Proposed Amendment are already being borne by the residents of the Town, as represented by my firm’s engagement.”
Hiring an attorney to block possibly 10 units a year, town-wide, is not a cost we all share equally — these residents didn’t have to spend this money. If it makes you feel better, though, we can hire an attorney to pay for an equally meaningless letter in support of the proposal so that we too bear the costs.
Melody Kramer and Stephen Whitlow contributed to this post.