This Wednesday, the Chapel Hill Town Council will hear, and possibly vote, on the Housing Choices for Complete Communities text amendment. As we enthusiastically wrote back last September, this proposal will make it easier to build small- and medium-sized housing in our community, which will give all of us more housing options.

Having more housing options – duplexes, namely – will benefit:

  • The growing number of people living alone
  • Multi-generational households
  • Young families looking for a starter home
  • Single parents
  • Divorced parents who need to stay near their kids
  • Graduate students and medical residents and
  • Senior citizens looking to downsize but remain in our community.

In short, having different kinds of housing for people to purchase means more kinds of people can put roots down, and live and flourish and stay in Chapel Hill.

That’s really important in a college town that’s home to the flagship public research institution in the state. It means we can welcome people from all across the state to live and work and go to school here.

It’s also important because we know that exclusionary zoning has been connected to racial segregation. Chapel Hill’s history is deeply intertwined with segregation, and many of our current land use patterns were created when Chapel Hill’s flagship university, schools, and neighborhoods excluded Black residents.

It’s also important because we enjoy living in a community with people from all different backgrounds and of all stages of their lives. We are seeing students, staff and faculty commute increasingly longer distances to travel to UNC.

And lastly, it’s important due to the dire threat of climate change. As economist Jenny Schuetz pointed out recently, “We need to support policies that make it easier for other people to live low-carbon lifestyles.”

Opposition to everything

Whenever there is the possibility of making it slightly easier for people to afford to live in Chapel Hill, there is fierce and angry opposition. Petitions are created. Neighborhood listservs are emailed. Angry and hostile emails flow into the town council inbox that berate the council and the town staff.

These tactics have worked, to a degree. Projects are canceled, watered-down, or take years to achieve.

This is true for the housing choices proposal, which will allow duplexes in many neighborhoods across Chapel Hill. The proposal that the town council will consider this week is a scaled-down version of what was first proposed, largely due to angry and loud feedback from homeowners.

In February, the homeowners started gathering signatures against housing choices. The petition, which outright dismisses structural racism, has since been signed by over 900 residents. They are overwhelmingly older and whiter than Chapel Hill as a whole. Using data from the North Carolina Board of Elections, we calculated that, as of June 9, between 87.6 percent and 94.2 percent of signers are white. (Census data shows Chapel Hill is 70.1% white.) The petition also skews much older, as did earlier surveys.

The petition signers do not seem willing to make any compromises, in spite of study after study indicating that Chapel Hill has lingering affordability gaps and unmet housing needs. When the town listened to their initial feedback, and eliminated triplexes and quads from consideration, the group fought back against duplexes. When the town conducted a requested study on the possible affects of duplexes, they called the study flawed.

Watering down the proposal

In an attempt to thread the needle, last week three council members—Mayor Pam Hemminger, Jess Anderson, and Amy Ryan—sent a joint memo to their colleagues calling for even further reductions to the scope of the proposal.

It’s unclear, exactly, who the audience for the Ryan-Anderson-Hemminger proposal is. Much of what’s in their letter is already in the draft policy. As noted above, the Save Chapel Hill crowd is not going to compromise – they don’t want any change, whatsoever. When the original housing choices proposal was reduced in scope to appease them, the Save Chapel Hill crowd slammed the revised proposal. It’s likely they won’t like this one, either.

The Ryan-Anderson-Hemminger proposal does contain two points we like. One – a design book – is an idea that Council has been discussing for a while. South Bend, Indiana has seen some success with this approach. Basically, if you pick a duplex design from a pre-approved list, you can move more quickly through the approval process. This helps ensure that new houses fit in with the existing character and scope of neighborhoods.

That may appease people who are worried about aesthetics. (At the same time, town staff noted that Chapel Hill’s topography and variety of lot sizes will make this design book less effective than it is in places that have a more traditional street grid layout, like South Bend.)

We also appreciate that they want to place additional restrictions on parking, which is both feasible and leads our community in a positive direction. This may help people who worry about more cars on their streets.  (Though we note that this would only apply to duplexes. Single family homes with two parents and three grown kids who have five cars would be exempt.)

But we find several of their suggestions to be a step backward, including:

  • “Protecting the Historic District from the teardowns of historic homes by prohibiting construction of new duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes in those areas, while encouraging increased density by adopting the proposal’s regulations for ADUs and cottages on compact lots in the district.

This requires us to ask: What, exactly, are we protecting? The vast majority of the homes in the local historic districts are not historic by any reasonable standard – many were built after 1930 – and the function of Chapel Hill’s local historic districts is to preserve design aesthetics, not history.

As we noted before, many of the houses in the historic districts, historically, were multi-family households. They were retrofitted into large single family homes. In doing so, the white working class residents of the historic district — with occupations like barber and bookkeeper in the 1930 Census — were priced out. (Back in 1930, there were 3 Black residents in the existing historic district; all three were tenants in rooming houses.)

Currently, duplexes are legal to build in several of the districts, and there are pockets where even denser housing is permitted. Furthermore, one of the oldest buildings in the Cameron-McCauley district is a 1928 four-story apartment building, which could not be built under the proposed rules. Meanwhile, the biggest threat to historic homes in the district—multi-million-dollar teardowns and 3000 sq. ft. “additions” to small homes—are not addressed by this proposal.

We would strongly push for further study on this issue, including the possible reduction of the historic district (Kenan St/Mallette St in particular are streets that could support a lot more density, and none of the structures on those streets have any historic or even architectural significance). Switching to a system that protects individual properties, not neighborhoods, would help us identify and protect properties with historic value.

  • “Improving tree canopy standards to 40% for duplex, triplex, and quad lots (as proposed in the town’s 6.14.23 news release), 40% for lots with ADUs, and the maximum practical for cottages on compact lots, as well as ensuring that current impervious surface protections remain in place.”

While this sounds good in theory, in practice this means that a developer wanting to build a million-dollar single-family house can take down as many trees as they wish, while someone seeking to build infill housing that’s better for the environment—as the people living there will be able to bus, bike, walk, or drive a short distance to work instead of commuting an hour—will find that their project is no longer feasible due to these requirements.

Unless the council believes that it’s better for the environment for people to live in Chatham Park and drive 1 hour+ a day to work, infill housing in town is the better environmental choice.

We are living with the consequences—intended and unintended—of exclusionary zoning. It is imperative that we end it.

We appreciate that the letter by Hemminger, Anderson, and Ryan explicitly states their request “that the vote take place as planned,” this week but find it troubling that they choose to make further demands less than a week before the scheduled vote.

We are living with the consequences of exclusionary zoning rules that were designed to keep students, people with low incomes and, yes, Black people, from living in parts of Chapel Hill. Exclusionary zoning has harmed, and continues to harm, all of us. It has made our community less diverse, less sustainable, and less prosperous. We encourage the council to vote on the text amendment as it stands.

The primary impact of the Ryan-Anderson-Hemminger proposal would be to make duplexes harder to build, while at the same time encouraging the continued development of large single-family homes because there will be no new restrictions on them. That is absolutely not the right direction.

It is also unnecessary. The evidence that staff has provided demonstrates that the pace of chance in communities that have adopted these proposals is not rapid. No one in opposition to the plan has identified a single community where there was rapid change and where they wanted some sort of guardrails in hindsight.

The college town of Gainesville, Florida is a good example. The city adopted a zoning ordinance revision allowing fourplexes throughout the city in August of 2022 and repealed it in January of 2023. If developers were chomping at the bit to build duplexes throughout that college town, they would have applied so that they could have had their right to build vested even after the city changed its zoning rules. But we’ve heard nothing about anything of that sort happening.

This seems to us a petition that will not win over anyone who is opposed to the housing choices proposal, that will be used only to delay its implementation, and will mean that  the only type of housing we get in this town are even larger single-family homes that get us further away from reaching our goals.

This piece was written by Geoff Green, Stephen Whitlow, Melody Kramer, and Martin Johnson.