This is a question every Town Council candidate In Chapel Hill in 2023 needs to answer. It is not a simple topic, and therefore my answer is not simple. If anyone who reads this wants to summarize my view as “Elizabeth Sharp is for single-family zoning” or “Elizabeth Sharp is against single-family zoning” then that will be what it is, but it would not be an honest summary of my opinion. Which is:
Gentle densification would be a positive thing in many areas of Chapel Hill. However, it must be approached carefully and deliberately so that it actually achieves the desired result of housing choice diversity. Without that level of intention, we could end up not only actually adversely affecting the affordability of housing in Chapel Hill, we may also destroy some of the best aspects of our town.
There is an unavoidable consensus among current urban planning experts that single-family zoning limits housing stock, makes inefficient use of our existing infrastructure, and causes sprawl, to the detriment of the environment and the vibrancy of our towns. All of these arguments make sense to me.
Unfortunately these same experts routinely leave unaddressed the fact that in America in 2023, real estate is one of, if not the most, complex and competitive commodities in our economy, particularly in a college town. In theory, we should be able to densify gently without disrupting the equilibrium of our community, and possibly even strengthen it. But in practice, the strongest force in American real estate is the primacy of return on investment. All other influences and outcomes are secondary at best.
Housing affordability is a problem of giving as many people as possible access to a necessary resource. The text amendment passed by the Chapel Hill Town Council proposes an open market solution to this problem: increase the supply of that resource and its cost will necessarily go down.
But the open market is historically very, very bad at solving problems of resource distribution equitably. It is very, very good at making a profit for those with the most capital to invest. And profit in the open market is measured purely in dollars, not in quality of life, or meaningful human connection, or walkability, or whether or not the original goal of a zoning amendment was achieved.
Allowing denser building in Chapel Hill’s existing single family neighborhoods - without accompanying measures to ensure that new building is made available to a wide range of people at an affordable rate - essentially pits the wallets of wealthy single-family homebuilders against the wallets of wealthy real estate investors. Rarely, if ever, would an independent buyer purchase a single-family house in order to convert it to a multi-family dwelling with the intention of living in one unit themselves and then renting or selling the others (I don’t include the notion of ADUs in this assessment - they are already a successful part of our single-family neighborhoods). And buyers in need of affordable housing are unlikely to be the most competitive bidders when bidding against those with enough money to invest in real estate or tear down one house in order to build a bigger, newer one. So when smaller or older, and therefore more affordable, homes go on the market in a Chapel Hill where multi-unit dwellings are allowed in what were once single-family neighborhoods, we can expect either a new mansion or a new multi-family rental unit. And in Chapel Hill, 40% of rental units are occupied by students. Nowhere in this market-based solution are the needs of middle or low income residents represented, nor are the needs of young professionals looking to buy their first house, retirees wanting to downsize, or any of the other myriad family arrangements that “missing middle housing” is meant to serve.
There are those who claim that concern about student rentals is a result of “fear-mongering” - unnecessary angst about an unlikely negative outcome. But we are not standing in the desert screaming about sharks. Chapel Hill is a university town. It’s rational to worry that family neighborhoods near campus will turn over to student housing when more multi-dwelling units are built in those neighborhoods. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that housing for students near college campuses is one of the few bright spots in a currently soft commercial real estate market, where office buildings post-pandemic continue to sit empty. According to the Journal, “rents for student housing are poised to grow, boosted by limited supply and strong demand at many colleges, especially top research universities and schools in the five highest-earning athletic conferences for U.S. college football.” In other words, betting on building housing for students in a town like Chapel Hill is likely to pay off, at any scale.
College students, as has been pointed out, are not monsters. They will not ravage neighborhoods out of malicious intent. They are just young, as we all were once, and they do the things young people do when living away from their families for the first time, in residences to which they have little financial or emotional attachment. Their landlords assume this and therefore invest minimally in maintaining properties that they cannot expect their tenants to treat carefully (again, return on investment carries the day).
One of the very special things about the parts of Chapel Hill near the university is the proximity of student neighborhoods to family neighborhoods. This is a boon to both the families and the students, who benefit from each other’s respective stability and energy. But if encroaching student rentals start to push families out of current family-oriented pockets - which have likely persisted near campus precisely because of single-family zoning, its other drawbacks notwithstanding - we will lose this special, delicate balance. Families will increasingly live on the edges of Chapel Hill, while students will inhabit the interior neighborhoods, close to downtown and campus. This will not only segregate the two populations, but drive non-student business out of downtown, where goods and services are accessible not only by car, but on foot, bike, or bus.
At the present moment in Chapel Hill, post-passing of the LUMO text amendment, our challenge is to mitigate the negative impacts of the zoning changes. Creative work needs to be done here. Reliance on standard, market-based solutions will not suffice.
We are lucky to have well-established non-profit organizations like EmPOWERment, the Community Home Trust, and Habitat for Humanity in Chapel Hill. We should implement policy to streamline these organization’s access to properties in existing single-family neighborhoods. They need to be at the bidding table with the real estate investors and the wealthy homebuilders.
We also need to strengthen our relationship with the university and the university health care system, in whose best interest it is to help maintain the character and livability of our town. Both organizations have immense leverage with which to influence both housing supply (through the financial resources of the health care system) and demand (through the proper utilization of on-campus housing).
There are almost definitely more, and more interesting, feasible, and effective solutions to housing in Chapel Hill that we have yet to discover. With research and creativity, we will find them. But in the meantime, we must not surrender to what looks on the surface like an easy solution, but is fraught with long-term complications. We can do better.