Inter-City Visit: Lessons From Boulder

Business accelerators: good. Regionally integrated transit: good.

Homes selling for 800,000 dollars: perhaps not.

Earlier this week, nearly 100 local leaders traveled to Boulder, Colorado, for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s biennial Inter-City Visit. Every other year, the Chamber leads a visit to a town much like ours: visitors tour the city, meet with local leaders, and learn how other communities have tackled their problems – many of which are the same problems we face in Orange County.

Situated just outside Denver, at the base of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder is home of the University of Colorado. Town leaders there pride themselves on strong business development – focusing not just on incubators but also “accelerators” that help keep startups in town past the ‘incubation’ stage. And they’re also proud of their transit plan, which incorporates driving, busing, biking and walking together as essential components. Less exciting, though, is a rapid spike in housing costs that puts Chapel Hill’s concern about affordability to shame: the median home in Boulder sells for more than $800,000. (Consequently, far more people live outside Boulder and commute into the city to work. In Chapel Hill it’s the other way around.)

What did the Orange County delegation learn from the Boulder visit? WCHL’s Aaron Keck spoke with several people, both during and after the trip.

Listen to Aaron’s conversation with NC AIDS Action Network executive director (and former Chapel Hill Town Council member) Lee Storrow.


Listen to Aaron’s conversation with Carrboro Alderman Bethany Chaney.


Listen to Aaron’s conversation with Aaron Bachenheimer, UNC’s director of Fraternity & Sorority Life and Community Involvement.


Listen to Aaron’s conversation (post-ICV) with Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger.

Orange County Board of Commissioners Moving Forward with Affordable Housing Plan

Orange County hasn’t had a plan for affordable housing since 2001. Until now. The Orange County Board of Commissioners met Thursday to discuss the strategic plan that was first introduced in April.

The Board is moving forward with the plan that will allocate one million dollars to developing one thousand affordable housing units over the next five years for people below the median income level. According to the plan, this will help close the gap for those who need affordable housing, but don’t have it.

“When you talk about the gap it can be looked at from many angles and perspectives and we certainly have had discussions from many angles,” said Audrey Spencer-Horsley, Director of the Orange County Housing, Human Rights and Community Development Department.

Spencer-Horsley said there are currently community and business partnerships working to close that gap, but they aren’t working quickly enough.

“I think they’ve done a wonderful job with the resources,” she said. “But I think we have to think more creatively about how we can bring more units with the resources that we have.”

The Board also discussed how they were going to lay out the project so that there would be room for the proposed housing units. County Planning Director Craig Benedict was also at the work session. He said maybe Orange County will have to think outside the box.

“Maybe we purchase land and change the zoning to a mobile home park or a cottage home development,” he said.

District One Commissioner Penny Rich said the most important thing is that everyone who makes up Orange County works together to make the plan come to life.

“It’s not just Orange County,” Rich said. “It’s everybody in Orange County. So we need to be working with our partners.”

Some of these partners include the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program and Community Home Trust. Spencer-Horsley says she hopes to develop more partners soon, and get as many people in the community involved as possible.

“One of the things that I’m hopeful is for example, that we can engage more of our financial institutions to be a resource,” she said. “So we’ve started talking to some of the banks in the community about how they may be able to help.”

The total plan is estimated to cost 13 million dollars with 12 million coming from sources such as grants, funds and bonds.

Carrboro Awards $20,000 to Community Home Trust for Affordable Housing

Community Home Trust applied for $20,000 through the Carrboro Board of Aldermen to buy a townhouse in the Whispering Hills subdivision in Carrboro, but not just for any reason. The non-profit is trying to increase permanently affordable housing in Orange County.

Assistant to the town manager Nate Broman-Fulks presented the application to the board at its Tuesday meeting. He says Community Home Trust hopes to buy the house because if the current owner sells the townhouse privately, he or she will have to pay back Orange County half of the equity on the home.

“The purchase price, whatever they sell it for, minus what is owed on the mortgage, so the revenue basically from selling it, they would have to buy back.”

But if the non-profit buys it from them, it will move to permanently affordable inventory.

Robert Dowling is the executive director of Community Home Trust. He attended the meeting to answer questions about the application. He says the non-profit can cover most of the expenses of purchasing the house. But the money that is needed is to help with things like acquisition costs and remodeling.

“We had a home inspection done. And we know there’s work that needs to be done. It’s a 30-year-old house. It’s in good shape, but still – it’s a 30-year-old house. And like any 30 year old house, there’s things that need to be done.”

Dowling says the whole purpose of the project is to provide the house in as best shape as possible to the next buyer, and to provide that buyer with somewhere great and affordable to live.

“What do we have and how do we make it work in the future? And that’s how we view this. And with $20,000, we believe we can make this work.”

Community Home Trust may also receive funds from the Housing Finance Agency once the non-profit finds a buyer for the home.

DHIC Awarded Second Round of Tax Credits for Chapel Hill Affordable Housing Development

DHIC has been awarded tax credits for a second year in a row to develop an affordable housing community in Chapel Hill.

DHIC is a non-profit organization based in the Raleigh area that has worked for over four decades to develop affordable housing communities in the Triangle.

The Town of Chapel Hill has donated nine acres of land on Legion Road for DHIC to develop two affordable housing projects Greenfield Commons and Greenfield Place.

In addition to the donation of the land, the town is providing $450,000 low-cost loan to the Greenfield Commons senior-housing development.

President of DHIC Gregg Warren said the donations provided by Chapel Hill was the most crucial part of making the project happen.

“What really impressed us was our partnership with the Town of Chapel Hill to make this happen. We have been so pleased by the support we have received from both the town council and the town staff,” Warren said.

Warren said despite the normal high-cost of living in Chapel Hill, the town has been easy if not easier to work with than other towns in the Triangle.

“I think it’s no secret that it is difficult to develop in Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill has very high standards for housing and any kind of development work, there is a vibrant public participation process that can take a while to get approvals,” Warren said.

Warren said the rigorous approval process may be keeping other developers away from the area.

“I think that some developers, maybe even affordable housing developers, choose not to work in Chapel Hill just because it’s what we call a high-barrier to entry market. But, we really felt that it was important, given the town’s commitment, to stand by the town to make this happen,” Warren said.

Greenfield Commons is the second phase of the affordable housing developments in Chapel Hill the only difference being, the age requirement of 55 years or older for the current project.

The development will be located off of Legion road with 69 apartments available. Click the link to learn more about the Greenfield Commons Development.

Applications are Available for Affordable Housing Projects in Chapel Hill

The beginning of July brings a new fiscal year and more funding for affordable housing in Chapel Hill.

Each fiscal year, the Town of Chapel Hill provides $688,000 from the Affordable Housing Development Reserve. With this year being the fourth funding cycle, the Chapel Hill Housing and Community Planner Sarah Viñas said they expect more applications than they have funds.

“We’ve had applications from agencies every cycle and, in fact, the last funding cycle, the amount requested from these agencies exceeded the funds available in the reserve. So there’s tremendous need in the community, even more so than what is available through this funding source,” Viñas said.

The application process for these projects follows certain guidelines based on the priority project areas.

“There are four of them: Land banking and land acquisition, rental subsidy and development, home ownership development and future development planning. The reserve funding is dedicated to funding applications that meet one of those priority project areas,” Viñas said. “The town’s housing advisory board is involved in reviewing applications that are submitted and scoring and evaluating them. It’s a pretty rigorous process that applications go through, and I think that has helped us stay focused and to really fund quality projects.”

There has been a variety of projects that have been approved with the council. Viñas said they expect to have a variety of asking prices on funding these projects.

“There is no minimum or maximum threshold for applications. We’ve had applications for as little as $10,000 to as much as $400,000, so there is a real range. Affordable housing is expensive so we expect some high price-tag project proposals,” Viñas said.

Projects that have been funded in the past have covered home purchase and rental options and have been distributed to large organizations like Habitat for Humanity and local non-profits like EmPowerment Inc.

Applications will be accepted through August 29 at 2 pm. To view specific details on the Affordable Housing Reserve and the application process you can visit the Town of Chapel Hill’s website. If you have any specific details you can email Sarah Viñas at

Chapel Hill Approves Affordable Housing Project

Local housing non-profit DHIC Inc. is continuing work with the Town of Chapel Hill to help offset affordable housing needs for working families in the area.

Earlier this month, Chapel Hill town manager Roger Stancil approved the permit for the affordable housing project, Greenfield Place.

The Town of Chapel Hill partnered with DHIC to bring the affordable rental units to the Ephesus-Fordham District on Legion Road next to the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery.

The development will include four apartment buildings with 80 rental units on almost six acres of land.

DHIC received low-income tax credits from the NC Housing and Finance Agency to assist with development and construction costs on its first project in Chapel Hill.

Construction of Greenfield Place is expected to begin in September of this year.

A second development plan called Greenfield Commons is being considered but has not yet been submitted to the town.

Greenfield Commons is expected to include 69 senior apartments on three and a half acres next to Greenfield Place.

Both affordable housing projects will include mitigation for storm water, sidewalks and improved streetscape along Legion Road.

‘Affordable Housing’ is Workforce Housing

One of the topics that we’ve heard a lot about recently is affordable housing.  The towns and the county have discussed it a great deal and the media has given it a lot of coverage.

If you ask people exactly what is affordable housing and how it works you’re likely to get a lot of different answers.  It would sure be great if we could bring some clarity to this topic.  Especially, given the time and importance it has.  I’ve always felt that the label of affordable housing isn’t very useful.  Talk to any realtor and they will tell you that every since house in our community is affordable to someone.  So, why do we talk about affordable housing as if its code phrase?

In the Town of Chapel Hill documents, they say affordable housing refers to that housing that is affordable by a section of society whose income is below the median household income.  Housing is considered affordable if a household pays no more than 30 percent of its income for housing costs.  Very low income residents qualify if they earn less than 80 percent of our area median income.

Area median income in Chapel Hill for a family of four is $67,400.

So, we’re talking about hard working people who simply don’t earn enough to live in our community without help.  Many are the backbone of our public and private workforce.  They’re the people who make this the place we love.

So, why don’t we talk about housing for all of our workforce?  Do you have a better alternative to the affordable housing label?  If so, how about sharing it.


— Fred Black


Have a comment or opinion you would like to share? Submit your commentary or column for the Commentators, on WCHL 97.9FM and

Looking at affordable housing in a different way

It’s time for us to revise our approach to affordable housing.  We are fighting against the tide as we seek to provide housing options for low-income people. As land becomes more scarce, it becomes more expensive.  As the economy continues to improve, construction costs escalate.  And perhaps most importantly, we are facing huge demographic changes with both Baby Boomers and Millennials, many of whom want to live in towns and cities.

As a result, I believe it will be increasingly difficult to provide affordable rental and ownership housing for the lower paid people who work in our community.  To maximize our impact, we need a new approach.

Currently and rightfully, each of our local governments has its own strategies and funding for affordable housing.  However, there is little coordination of effort.  I believe we would be more effective if we identified the types of housing that are not being provided by the market and determined how and where we can address those housing needs.

This should be a coordinated effort among all the local governments and the nonprofit organizations.  We are fortunate in our community to have elected boards that are willing to provide resources for affordable housing.  We also have experienced nonprofit organizations that know how to create and preserve affordable homes.  Working together, we can leverage our strengths and assets, thus increasing our collective impact.

Ten years from now will be too late.  Now is the time to shift our thinking about how to address affordable housing in our community.


— Robert Dowling

Commissioners To Hold Public Hearing On Upcoming Bond

The Board of Orange County Commissioners will be taking public comment on the upcoming bond Tuesday night.

It will be the first of two public hearings on the bond which, if passed in November, will be the largest in county history at $125 million.

Up to $120 million dollars is planned to make necessary health and safety upgrades to Orange County Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. This would be the first step in acquiring the funding needed to finance over $300 million in repairs.

Another $5 million dollars is expected to go towards affordable housing.

The meeting will begin at seven p.m. at the Southern Human Services Building in Chapel Hill.

A second hearing will be held in Hillsborough May 5 at the Whitted Building, which will also begin at 7:00 p.m.

Orange County Homes Are Pricier – But How Much Pricier? And Why?

If you’re in the market to buy a home, where do you get the most bang for your buck?

In 2015, the average closing price for a home sold in Orange County was $342,172, according to Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson. “This is a new high since (before) the recession,” he says.

2007, right before the housing crisis, was the only year in history that Orange County saw higher home prices – and if current trends continue, the county will break that record in 2016.




But what are the numbers underneath those numbers? How does the price of housing in Orange County compare with other counties in the area? If there’s a difference, what’s driving the difference? And is that difference growing, or shrinking?

Start with the average cost of a home. $342,000 is a lot to pay for a house – compare that to Durham County, where the average closing price was just over $200,000 in 2015. But Orange County is not number one, not anymore: closing prices are actually higher in Chatham.

“Chatham County peaked above Orange County for the first time last year,” Nelson says, “and (it) remains in that slot.”

In 2015, the average home buyer in Chatham County paid $359,000 for their house, $17,000 more than they did in Orange.




But that doesn’t necessarily mean Orange County is offering a better value: Nelson says Chatham County houses are more expensive partly because they’re bigger. In terms of the cost of housing per square foot, Orange County is still the priciest: $142 per square foot, versus $138 in Chatham.

And if you want a home in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district, you’re going to pay even more. Last year, the average home in Chapel Hill-Carrboro sold for more than $382,000, or $157 per square foot.

(Compare that to $107 per square foot in Durham.)

“Housing in Chapel Hill is 30 percent more per square foot in the district than it is in Durham,” Nelson says. “So that 3,000-square foot home – the same home – costs 30 percent more.”




So if you’re in the market for a new house, you can get a much better value in Durham – and a slightly better value in Chatham – than you can get in Orange County or Chapel Hill.

But there are signs that this may be changing. In Chatham County, the cost per square foot has gone up dramatically – nearly 10 percent in the last two years. In Durham it’s gone up about 6 percent.

In Orange County, though, exactly the opposite has occurred. “For the first time,” Nelson says, “last year we saw a slight decline.”

For the average home sold in Orange County, the cost per square foot actually dropped by 4.7 percent from 2013 to 2015.




So the value gap may be narrowing between Orange County and its neighbors.

But is that necessarily good?

“If you’re an affordable housing advocate, you are heartened by this information,” Nelson says, “(but) if you’re worried about the erosion of home value, you are concerned.”

The cost of housing in Chatham County is on the rise partly because it’s bigger – and partly because it’s newer. The same is true for Wake and Durham. The housing stock in Orange County, by contrast, tends to be significantly older – and that may be contributing to the decline in cost per square foot.

And the cost of the home itself is not the only factor when it comes to housing value. Don’t forget about taxes, Nelson says: “A $300,000 house in Orange County has a $150-a-month higher tax bill than the same house in Wake County.”

If you’re looking to get a mortgage, Nelson says that translates into about $28,000. “You can buy a slightly more expensive home in other markets,” he says, “so the taxes do impact our cost of housing.”

All of those numbers, Nelson says, are things that homebuyers do consider when it comes to making the decision to live – or not to live – in Orange County.

Nelson made those comments and delivered those statistics at his annual State of the Community Report, last week at the Friday Center. 

Read the full report here.