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A Green Future for North Carolina Housing
A perspective from Elijah Gullet
As North Carolina grows, environmental activists cannot stand in the way of new housing construction. Housing activists and environmentalists should work in tandem to promote dense, sustainable cities and green innovations in the housing market.
The past year, North Carolina became a battleground state for housing construction. Currently North Carolina is the number 1 state for business, so it’s no wonder that it is also in the top 5 for in-migration. To accommodate these new residents, the largest cities have had to increase housing development. Aside from the negative impacts of increased interest rates on housing development, North Carolina saw 26.1% increase in new housing projects between May 2021 and May 2022. Even with delays, counties across the state are permitting more developments this year than last.
But our wealthiest communities, in Wake, Orange, and Mecklenburg Counties, face opposition to these new projects. Even affordable or low-income housing developments have garnered resistance from Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) activists who oppose them for a range of reasons, including environmental concerns.
Friends of the Greene Tract, a NIMBY organization in Chapel Hill for example, opposes new housing construction on Chapel Hill’s Green Tract trail. They cite wildlife conservation threats to the four-toed salamander as a reason to halt the project. Activists opposing the Jay Street affordable housing development in Chapel Hill cited environmental concerns as well, in this instance regarding the clear-cutting of forests for the units. This reflects broader national trends of NIMBY activists who use the rhetoric of environmentalism to oppose much-needed housing supply.
These concerns are not unwarranted. Development of any kind may pose threats to local wildlife and nature. Still, policymaking is the art of making smart trade-offs. All policies have consequences, but that does not mean we never pursue them. Instead, policymakers must weigh the relative costs and benefits of each decision. An additional hundred units may pose a risk to the local salamander population, but it will likely also create immense benefit for residents. It may even prevent lower income residents from seeking housing that requires longer commutes, making it an environmental net-positive. This does not mean that mitigating harm to local wildlife should not be pursued. It just means pausing all development to advance a singular goal is unwise.
Instead of restricting housing, environmentalist activists should embrace new construction and work to make it better. Chapel Hill is a hotbed for much of the NIMBY activism, but a study commissioned by the town and UNC-Chapel Hill revealed that the city would need to construct 500 new housing units each year to meet job growth. Chapel Hill is understandably a high-demand community due to its proximity to the university and Research Triangle Park, as well as many amenities such as walkable neighborhoods and greenways.
When activists make it more difficult to move to high-opportunity, high-demand neighborhoods, they necessarily increase the likelihood that people will live in the outskirts of town. In the case of Chapel Hill, people who work in the town often move to Hillsborough, Mebane, or Cary. This means those residents will drive 20-30 minutes to work each day and increase demand for suburban living. All of this contributes to the negative environmental consequences of urban sprawl, including increased carbon emissions, land-use, and further development of greenspaces in rural areas. While protesting any development in high-demand communities might feel like environmental activism, it often produces more damage to the climate by forcing people into less sustainable lifestyles.
And NIMBY activists should also realize that supporting new housing construction does not mean environmentalists can’t work to make housing better. For example, pushes are being made at both the policy and industry level to shift multi family housing construction towards mass timber. Mass timber presents an opportunity to lower carbon emissions compared to traditional home construction and actively sequester carbon. Environmentalists can also look to innovation advances being made in concrete materials that also sequester carbon.
Housing activists and environmental activists do not need to be in conflict. Instead, both sides can find reasons to work together to create more sustainable cities that meet the needs of both people and the natural environment.
Elijah Gullett is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill where he studied public policy and urban planning. He is the branch leader for ACC Triangle, representing Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.
“Viewpoints” on Chapelboro is a recurring series of community-submitted opinion columns. All thoughts, ideas, opinions and expressions in this series are those of the author, and do not reflect the work or reporting of 97.9 The Hill and Chapelboro.com.