Chapel Hill’s Three Options to Tackle Affordable Housing
By Matt Bailey

This fall, six different people will ask you for your vote to represent you on the Chapel Hill Town Council. One of the biggest issues you’ll hear all six candidates discuss is Affordable Housing. Chapel Hill has gotten so expensive, more and more people can’t afford to rent a home here, much less buy one.

What would each candidate actually do about it, however?

That’s where some candidates are likely to get cagey with you. Everyone supports affordable housing, but actually building someone a home somewhere on actual land? Well, that’s where things get divisive—and where candidates lose key votes.

Chapel Hill basically has three options.

1) Option one is we scrap the rural buffer around Chapel Hill and Carrboro to pave the way for construction of new subdivisions out into the Orange County countryside. We enacted the rural buffer in the 80s to prevent exactly the kind of suburban sprawl that mows down trees and takes away beloved natural areas and farmland.  Building new cul-de-sacs on the outskirts of town means more residents would be dependent on their cars to get around and would make it harder to serve more residents with our transit system. For folks who think any building taller than two stories ruins Chapel Hill’s charming village character, however, we’re going to need more land for those new single-family homes that match Chapel Hill’s existing suburban neighborhoods.

2) Option two is that we preserve our rural buffer around town and instead make more efficient use of the land we already have. That means we don’t have room for any more subdivisions, but we can create new homes in five-to-six story mixed use buildings, with new stores and restaurants on the ground floor and apartments or condominiums on the other floors.  These new homes would go on land that’s underutilized with parking lots and outdated buildings along Franklin and Rosemary Streets, along Fordham Boulevard near Ephesus Church Road where abandoned retail facilities have long been an eyesore, and along other major transit corridors. These new homes are designed for people who want to walk, bike, and use transit instead of their cars. These new homes are exactly what town leaders intended when they recommitted to the rural buffer years ago. The style of these homes might not be your personal cup of tea, but they’re exactly what many young adults are looking for who don’t want to live in suburbia.

What about people who don’t like option one or option two?

3) Option three is we simply don’t build any new homes anywhere (or hardly anywhere at least). As more and more people need a place to live in our area, the cost of living will continue to go up and up until only rich people can afford to live here. While some folks will be delighted to see Chapel Hill’s physical character frozen in time, building no new homes will change the character of the people who live in Chapel Hill, to the detriment of the progressive and inclusive values we publically proclaim we hold dear.

The very people who preserve these values will be gone.

So what’s it going to be, Chapel Hill? Are we going to address our affordable housing crisis by sprawling out, or are we going to create affordable housing by building up?

If a Chapel Hill Town Council candidate won’t commit to doing either one, they’re not really committed to affordable housing.