There’s a Chapel Hill Town Council work session tonight at the library, where town staff will recommend dialing back the missing middle housing proposal. We will not be attending or watching the work session, because many of us have young children and it starts at 6:30 PM on a school night. We plan to watch the recording online once it is posted and report back on what takes place.

There are three things that should be on council’s mind tonight:

Council members should know and be proud that they are doing the right thing by focusing on housing

Council members should be proud that they’re talking about a really, really difficult issue. It’s not easy—but if we continue limiting who can live here by restricting the types of housing that can be built, we will not be a place where people from all backgrounds can thrive.

The housing affordability crisis is a wickedly hard problem, and reforming our exclusionary zoning system is a critical part of the solution, We support Council making progress, standing up for the cause of housing abundance (and town staff’s efforts), and continuing to think about ways to shape this proposal to benefit both current and future residents of our town.

Council should think about the public input process and ways to improve it.

As Martin Johnson noted, the survey about missing middle wasn’t representative of Chapel Hill’s demographics–almost 30 percent of respondents were over the age of 65, while just 11 percent of residents are in that category—and there were so few respondents between 18 and 25 (a third (!) of the town’s population) that they weren’t even mentioned. Similarly, people of color, who make up a third of the town’s population, only constituted 12 percent of survey respondents, at best. 

We should not be governed by the heckler’s veto. Assuming no overlap between the people who attended neighborhood meetings (332 residents) and public information sessions (127), signed up for the planning department’s email list (471), and took the survey (821), only 1,751 people, less than 3 percent of the town’s population, participated in the public process. (And having watched all of the neighborhood meetings and public information sessions, we know there was extensive overlap, and that the same people were encouraged over email listservs to answer the survey in a specific way. To be fair, some of us overlap as well).

For this outreach to the older, wealthier, and whiter part of our community, the town committed 135 hours of staff time, or almost $10,000, not including the effort required to prepare for those meetings and review emails.

We think the town should make it a priority to do purposeful outreach to a broader cross-section of the community. For example, when Eugene (Oregon) was developing its missing middle housing policies, the town set up a randomly-selected committee of 29 residents, who represented diverse perspectives in the community. Over a series of meetings, these residents, who were paid for their time, helped the town establish policies that accounted for everyone’s perspective, not just those who had the motive and ability to show up to meetings. Chapel Hill could consider doing something similar for its rewrite of the town’s Land Use Management Ordinance

Similarly, tonight’s session is a work session on a school night. Parents of school-aged kids, college students, and people reliant on public transportation will not be in the room in large numbers.

We expect the folks who do attend will be older and more likely to be homeowners, and we hope council does not take the groans and sighs they hear from the audience to be reflective of public opinion. (Likewise, we encourage reporters who write about the meeting to not just report on the people in the room who are able to show up.)

We want council to call out misinformation and respond to it

Over the past 24 hours, CHALT and Adam Searing have sent out three inflammatory emails that are riddled with misinformation and examples blown out of proportion.

For example, CHALT claims that the meeting memorandum prepared by town staff shows that the proposal would “exacerbate traffic and parking impacts,” but that it offers “no suggestions for how to avoid those impacts.

But if you read the memo, it says no such thing.

The memo does say: “Missing Middle Housing requires access to multi-modal transportation to reduce the impacts of parking and traffic on existing neighborhoods,” which, yes.

But it doesn’t say that a new duplex here and there is going to cause traffic or parking problems, particularly on the vast majority of Chapel Hill streets with have plenty of space to accommodate additional cars, both driving and parking. (CHALT’s newsletter also claims that Chapel Hill has “an insatiable demand for student housing even with high rental prices.” In light of that claim, we wonder why CHALT did not encourage its membership to lobby the Town Council to approve the Aspen Heights student housing project, which was rejected last month. It’s consistent with CHALT’s efforts to oppose what they consider bad projects, while not lending support to “good” projects.)

Meanwhile, Adam Searing sent out an email that included a link to his handwritten notes claiming that there are thousands of housing units in the pipeline or under construction over the next few years. A cursory glance is all that’s needed to show those numbers make no sense.

Some of the units being counted are those which the council has already rejected (Aspen Heights, with Searing casting a no vote despite saying that he supports more housing downtown). Others include projects that are wholly within the discretion of Town Council to approve or deny and won’t be voted on for many months. You can be sure that if Searing has his way, the next Council won’t approve any of these projects. The list includes concept plans that are a long ways from approval, And, of course, even projects that are approved don’t necessarily get built (such as the 100-unit Graduate apartment complex in downtown Chapel Hill).

Finally, most of these proposed projects are larger, monolithic apartment buildings which CHALT and others have bitterly opposed. They typically do not offer their residents opportunities to own their homes, something that CHALT and we agree is important.

The town’s new proposal would allow smaller-scale residential development and redevelopment that is similar in size and scale to existing homes in our neighborhoods, and many will provide ownership opportunities. The main difference is these new homes will be able to house more families.

If you oppose larger apartment buildings, and also oppose smaller “missing middle” housing, there’s not a lot of new housing you do support beyond teardowns and redevelopment of older single-family housing .

Letting CHALT and Searing control the narrative is problematic. We are doing our best to counter it, but the Town Council reaches many more constituents. We encourage council members to start newsletters, address incorrect information on social media, and call out this misinformation when they see it.

Melody Kramer and Martin Johnson contributed to this post.

In the last municipal election cycle, we helped increase turnout by over 20 percent. We're all volunteers who care deeply about Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and we're working to make Chapel Hill and Carrboro more vibrant, accessible, fun, and sustainable.  Please consider a small donation to help us keep our digital lights on, host events, and hire students to do data deep-dives.

Geoff Green, AICP 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 that everyone can...