When you are a student deciding on where to live next year, the choices can feel binary. You either cough up a hefty check to live in a ‘luxury apartment’ or you pay a more reasonable price to live in a house, which is often further from campus.
Chapel Hill lacks a solid middle housing option for students, and it is hurting the rest of the town as a result. We are in need of something that offers density, affordability and accessibility.
This phenomenon is known as Missing Middle Housing, and it is common in cities across the United States. It means a town, like Chapel Hill, lacks enough diverse housing options to support local retail and public transit. Strong middle housing options include duplexes, cottages or courtyard buildings — housing options between single-family detached homes and high-rise apartment buildings.
Filling in the middle is how Chapel Hill can become more connected and walkable for all residents.
Luckily, there may be a state legislative solution on the way, and it’s even co-sponsored by Chapel Hill’s own state senator, Valerie Foushee. Senate Bill 349, titled "Increase Housing Opportunities,” aims to create middle-income housing throughout the state and has gotten bipartisan support among legislators from urban and rural districts.
The exciting piece of SB 349 is the deregulation and potential for growth of fourplexes — multi-family homes with four separate apartment units — and Accessory Dwelling Units, also known as granny flats. The support for middle housing in this bill is also a progressive move toward connectivity and walkability because there are no parking requirements or conditional use permits needed.
Middle housing legislation of similar scale and scope was passed in California in 2017, and housing development has skyrocketed throughout the state. Homeowners built over 12,000 ADUs in 2019 alone, and that number is expected to keep growing. That figure represents a ten-fold increase since the state passed its housing law.
And the potential for housing growth is even greater in North Carolina. Labor, land and materials are all cheaper here than in California. Normally, North Carolinian homeowners see this as a reason to buy bigger homes with bigger backyards. However, if we are trying to increase the housing supply to improve our communities, then we need to be utilizing these large single-family lots for things like ADUs.
You may be thinking of an ADU as something like a guest house for your in-laws, but recent reports from California show that over half are being used as income-generating rental units. ADUs were also shown to increase low-cost rentals in low-density neighborhoods.
Deregulatory laws on ADUs and other middle-income options lead to more housing. That is why solving the mystery of the middle in North Carolina needs progressive legislation now.
Some in the Triangle are resistant to a bill like SB 349 because they argue it will disempower local governments and enrich developers.
But is that even a bad thing?
By and large, it isn’t. When we leave housing up to local control, as we have been doing for decades, it does not result in the best outcomes for our community. This is especially true over the past 10 years, where the growth in housing units has been just 0.6 percent. That is well below both state and national averages for growth over that time.
When considering any piece of housing legislation, it should always start with the idea that more housing is good. SB 349 aims to create more housing. While the methods for achieving those outcomes are laissez-faire, housing is controlled by the market and we need to rely on it to fill in this missing middle gap.
Chapel Hill demands housing choice. Legislation like SB 349 is how we get it.
This cannot be a town of Boomers on the outskirts and college students in luxury apartments — we need diversity of age, class and status to thrive. That means exchanging spaced-out backyards for mixed-use neighborhoods and building homes across the affordability spectrum.
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