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'There's no magic bullet': Affordable housing crisis prevalent in Chapel Hill

The Lindsay Street Duplex is one of the first new units to be completed in Carrboro as a part of the Affordable Housing Development.

The cost of housing is on the rise in Chapel Hill, and so are the demands for affordable housing. 

Since 2017, average housing costs have increased by 37 percent in Chapel Hill. For low-income households, that means the majority of housing options are unaffordable.

A presentation from the Town's affordable housing staff found 84 percent of rentals in Chapel Hill are unaffordable for households that make less than $50,000 per year. Additionally, 77 percent of home sales are unaffordable for households making less than $70,000 per year. 

“We recognize difficulties and the pain inflicted by the lack of affordable housing on, you know, the people who live in our community (and) the people we want to live in our community,” Town Council member Michael Parker said. “So, I think it's a real priority of ours.”

Short-term initiatives

The Town has recently implemented two key housing assistance programs. 

The Emergency Housing Assistance fund has provided over $6 million in housing assistance to more than 1,500 Chapel Hill residents since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Sarah Viñas, the affordable housing and community connections director for Chapel Hill, said the Town is exploring ways to further support the EHA fund. 

“We've continued to see a tremendous amount of need,” Viñas said. 

The council approved updates to the Town Employee Housing Program, an initiative introduced in 2018 designed to help the Town employees purchase and rent housing within town limits. 

In the relaunched program, officials increased the assistance amount and broadened the eligibility criteria within the Town Employee Housing Program. 

“In our experience with the pilot program, we saw that sometimes employees would apply, and the assistance didn't appear to be enough to necessarily make a difference,” Viñas said. 

Now, employees who are looking to own a home can apply for up to $12,500 in assistance for a home within five miles of town limits. Additionally, employees who are looking to rent can apply for up to $4,200 for deposits, various fees and future rent. 

Previously, employees were only able to apply for $7,500 in assistance for a home, and the maximum rental assistance was $2,050.

Long-term development 

While these short-term initiatives have been able to provide support to low-income residents, the Town has also looked to long-term goals and made an effort to focus on permanent developments. 

Since July, five units have been added to the Chapel Hill affordable housing inventory. The Town currently has 1,155 affordable housing units.

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“Five units is better than nothing, but it's just a drop in the bucket to some extent,” Parker said. 

EMPOWERment Inc., a community development corporation, is one of many local providers working to increase the number of affordable housing units in Chapel Hill.

“We are one of the largest nonprofit, affordable rental owners in Orange County with our 64 units,” Executive Director Delores Bailey said. “But it's not enough. Aside from the ones that are being repaired, all of them are full.”

EMPOWERment Inc.'s current development project, PEACH Apartments on Johnson Street, is expected to add 10 affordable units to the Town’s inventory.

Bailey said EMPOWERment Inc. has raised approximately $1.2 million of the needed $2.5 million for the construction of the 10 units. As of now, they are on track to finish fundraising by the end of 2022 and break ground in 2023, Bailey said. 

Since June, substantial progress has taken place for two larger developments — Jay Street and Trinity Court — which are expected to provide over 100 affordable rental units combined. The concept plan review as well as the conditional zoning applications were completed and submitted for both projects. 

Community Home Trust, a nonprofit provider of affordable homeownership in Orange County, is one organization behind the Jay Street development. 

“When you look at the numbers, more than half of renters in Chapel Hill are living in housing that they can't afford,” Daniele Berman, the marketing and communications manager at Community Home Trust, said. “So we're super excited about this opportunity to put 50 new rental units into the market.”

In partnership with CASA, Habitat for Humanity and Self-Help, Community Home Trust is also working on the Homestead Gardens project — one of the Town’s largest affordable housing developments to date. 

This development is set to create a mix of 117 housing units that offer opportunities for renting and homeownership for a range of low- to moderate-income households. 

Viñas said the developers plan to break ground on the Homestead Gardens project by late summer.

“This is a really big and ambitious development,” Berman said. “It's really exciting to be working together with all these like-minded partners to come up with and build this big vision for this community at Homestead Gardens.” 

As these developments continue, Viñas said she and her team are preparing to present a request for the other half of the $10 million Affordable Housing Bond, which voters approved in 2018. Of the funding plan, $5.25 million has already been distributed. This money will be dispersed across several projects.

“I think the important thing to remember, there's no magic bullet here,” Parker said. “There is no home run for addressing affordable housing, we just have to keep working on multiple fronts.”


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