On Tuesday night, the Housing Choices proposal made its way to the Planning Commission, an important step before the proposal goes back to Town Council for a hearing on May 24.

If you regularly read read the Blog Blog, you are probably familiar with the evolution of the proposal (or perhaps you attended one of the many public floggings – I mean public listening sessions – town staff have held on it). Briefly, the current iteration of the proposal would allow duplexes and cottage courts in most residential neighborhoods. Triplexes and quadruplexes would be allowed in areas where larger multifamily housing is currently allowed (in an earlier iteration, these housing types, like duplexes, would also have been allowed in most residential districts).

What exactly was the Planning Commission considering?

They discussed and voted on whether or not to support the Land Use Management Ordinance Text (LUMO) amendment proposal, which includes a number of changes to the LUMO to enable duplexes, triplexes, and quadruplexes in certain areas of town. You can read the full set of proposed changes in the ordinance. 

How did the discussion go? 

The Planning Commission heard the proposal at the end of an already long meeting. It received an update from town staff on how the proposal has evolved and heard public comments in support of and opposed to the proposal (including this humdinger from a former member of the Historic District Commission: “A lot of people are concerned that we as a town are being required to build housing for university students. And there’s a push behind that. It’s not our responsibility to provide housing”).

Following public comment, the Planning Commission members weighed in on the proposal. Excerpts of their comments, which have been edited for clarity and brevity, are below. The full video of the meeting is here.

John Rees

I’m a big fan of this, I’m not gonna beat around the bush. And I am disappointed that it is scaled back. Because what I think is important for people to understand is this is about opportunity. You know, it’s, people who own the existing properties should have the opportunity to do with what they want with it. And it’s, it’s not like all sudden, automatically, everyone’s just going to pull up stakes and giant apartment buildings are going to appear. And it’s going to be basically, this gives people opportunities to build different types of housing that does not exist before.

And it’s an inconvenient truth. Zoning throughout the country, not just Chapel Hill, has been specifically designed to exclude others. If we really want to have a diverse community and diverse housing types, we need to stop excluding others. I read [The Color of Law]. It’s about how we systematically have used land use to control where people live. And it’s something that everyone needs to reflect on. And it’s not just racial, it’s simply housing types.

John Rees is a writer for Triangle Blog Blog.

Erik Valera

In the interest of time, I’m going to just agree with everything John said.

Wesley McMahon

I’d like us to start to really tell a new narrative about what happened here: that it was proposed, staff went out to the community, heard from a lot of people, putting a lot of time and effort, and in some cases withstood a lot of abuse. That’s true. But hey, we’re here, and they’ve scaled it back. It’s been limited to what it can do. It’s a step forward for those people that wanted to see change in this direction. And we’re in the process of what it takes to run a town independent of what I wanted to see happen. We’ve been through a process that really engaged the community, and engaged our professional planning staff. And we’ve come to this place where we’re going to allow two family attached and detached options in R-1 and R-2, if I get the chart correctly. And I think it’s a win for our process. And it’s a step forward in creating housing options in our community.

Jon Mitchell

The history of single family zoning is is very problematic, in my opinion. I had some concerns in the last hearing around student housing particularly and whether – and with no offense intended to students, I was one for a lot of my life – it wasn’t the intention of the proposal to bolster student housing supply. It just wasn’t the purpose. The purpose is workforce housing. And that concern that I had is largely alleviated by the staged approach here. It’s hard for me to imagine like a student housing sort of Armageddon going on. 

Louie Rivers

I support this and I appreciate John’s comments. Words like historic mean one thing for one set of people before another set of people. Every time I hear historic, my spidey sense goes up and my third eye opens up. Historic is code for you don’t want me around. And maybe that’s not your intention. But that’s what a lot of us hear when we hear historic. Northside was historic too. But it’s no longer a historic black neighborhood because of the way things changed. So I think we gotta be very careful about how we talk about these issues. And I want to make it clear, I assume no ill will on either speakers or any commenters. I think everybody wants the best for Chapel Hill. But I think we’re sufused in a culture of racism and white supremacy. 

People like Chapel Hill because of the university. The university is great because we have a great students. I live in a neighborhood with a lot of students. I don’t like parties, I’ve got two little kids, I don’t like my kids staying up and being annoying. I want them to go to sleep at 7:30. But having students is what makes Chapel Hill special. And we need to find a way to live with them. And not to constantly castigate them as if they’re the enemy. And this is something I’ve had to evolve in have on him over my last five or six years in Northside. I used to also be like “I don’t want a student next to me.” I don’t think that’s the right approach. I need to find a way – we need to find a way to like – how can we build with these students, because they bring a lot to our town. And I think it could bring even more if we were willing to integrate them into our neighborhoods, without seeing them as outsiders or people who just have parties.

Elizabeth Losos 

The town staff has worked really hard to try and get out there and hear things and I think that’s greatly appreciated. I just want building on Louie’s point. I was at one of the Town Council meetings where this issue came up earlier this year. And there was a student who pointed out that, as far as students are concerned, we’re not just talking about students who are perhaps young undergrads who all want to have big parties. Students also are graduate students with families that need to live in a home, just like everybody else. So we just need to remember that student isn’t one type of person. It’s a very large group of people with a lot of different diverse needs. But anyway, I’m supportive.

Strother Murray-Ndinga

I like the way Wes was encouraging us to change the narrative about this. So I’ll just follow along in that line. I move that we recommend  the this amendment to the Town Council.

How did the Commission vote? 

The Commission voted 8-0 to recommend the proposal to Town Council. Chuck Mitchell joined the seven members quoted above in supporting it.

Stephen Whitlow lives in Chapel Hill. Trained as an urban planner at DCRP, he works for a research, evaluation, and technical assistance firm and focuses on the areas of housing affordability, fair housing,...