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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: The missing middle – is Chapel Hill a community or just a campus?

DTH Photo Illustration. The town of Chapel Hill needs more middle housing.

Despite being a grown woman, I’ve accepted having to share a too-small room and sleep sardine style in my twin bed for $900 a month for the foreseeable future. It’s not sustainable, but it’s what I can afford in college. 

There's great irony in the housing market of a college town. Generational homeowners supply run-down, roach-infested properties for an extortionate price, while deep-pocket developers monopolize residential zoning with large-scale complexes that price out the majority.

UNC students can (and do) fill these single-family homes or sign on to a pricey apartment lease, temporarily enduring fiscal affliction and cramped living conditions – it's not bad for four years. 

But not everyone who resides in Chapel Hill is a college student. People live here… or, at least, have tried to. The median sale price of a Chapel Hill home is $525,000, an over 20 percent increase from 2021.

It’s not affordable. It’s not sustainable. And it’s pricing out the people who make Chapel Hill more than a campus. 

The community has called for change – and legislators finally answered.

That’s where House Bill 401 comes in. In March 2021, the N.C. General Assembly tried to pass a bill that would have made it possible to develop mixed-use housing without the lengthy process of changing zoning laws. 

It died in committee, but different municipalities tried their hand at addressing the housing dilemma in its stead. 

The Town of Chapel Hill proposed to amend the Land Use Management Ordinance to allow property owners to bypass antiquated restrictions to build all kinds of housing. The proposal focuses on removing density limitations, so a property owner could build a duplex instead of building another single-family home. 

This ordinance is a game changer for what’s called the missing "middle housing." Middle housing is a residential sector comprising a range of multifamily homes and complexes: duplexes, triplexes or even townhomes. It's housing with the community in mind.

Middle housing is essential for a community looking to accommodate a diverse and growing community. These residential developments will not only meet the high demand of the already growing town, but address a wide range of options at an affordable price. Plus, middle housing will enhance Chapel Hill as a more walkable community.

Furthermore, these middle housing units can be an aesthetic addition to the town. Already, Community Housing Partners are working to redevelop Trinity Court Apartments. Located near Umstead Park, the development will create 54 new affordable units in Chapel Hill. According to the town of Chapel Hill, most of these two and three-bedroom units will be for residents making below 60 percent of Chapel Hill’s median income.

Though this is a huge step forward, it’s only a step. According to the Triangle Business Journal, Orange County is one of the most expensive counties in North Carolina, as the median property value stood at $435,500 in 2020, up 8.96 percent from the previous year. Furthermore, Chapel Hill sustains a 18.5 percent poverty rate according to the 2020 Census. 

These stats are sardonic considering the town's outward commitment to affordable housing.

Chapel Hill claims to promote and foster a diverse and sustainable community, as the town mission statement notes: “To enliven our community by providing exceptional service, creating opportunities for inclusive recreational and cultural experiences and nurturing beautiful, sustainable spaces.”

Still, too many people are priced out. The cost of living in Chapel Hill is nine percent more expensive than the state average and five percent higher than the national average. 

Over my gap year, I was able to live in a studio apartment in Vail, Colorado – one of the most expensive ski resorts in the world – for the same price as a room in Shortbread Lofts. It’s even possible to find a room in Midtown Manhattan for the same $1,000 per month budget. 

It’s unfathomable that Chapel Hill faces the same price point as a global epicenter. I love Franklin Street, but it’s no NYC. The strip mall with Whole Foods and Cava are cool, but it shouldn’t exceed property value like Vail’s renowned ski runs. 

I don’t know about you, but I'm psyched to see some duplexes and watch Chapel Hill become a bit more sustainable with middle housing. 


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