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Column: Chapel Hill needs to be rezoned to allow for denser development


A sign stands on the side of East Franklin Street in Chapel Hill on April 16. It is meant to encourage people to fight against rezoning policies.

Chapel Hill Town Council is considering an update to the zoning code that would allow for denser development and more middle housing. The proposal has also received substantial criticism from not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) activist groups wanting to preserve Chapel Hill in amber. 

My argument is simple: if the Council believes Chapel Hill should be an open, inclusive and affordable place to live, it must support the zoning reform proposal. 

Chapel Hill, undeniably, is in the midst of a housing crisis. Housing prices have gone up eight percent in the last year alone, and the median home price in the town has gone from about $350,000 in April 2018 to over $500,000 today.

Part of the problem is space. 

In 1987, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County created the “rural buffer,” essentially drawing a line around the municipalities within which urban and suburban development could occur and demarcating large areas of land running up to the Durham and Chatham County borders that would remain rural in character. 

This buffer zone creates a hard limit on the outward growth of the town. Unlike Raleigh or Charlotte, which keep growing through concentric outward suburban development, Chapel Hill has, to some extent, already maxed out its sprawl.

This is reflected by population trends. While the rest of the Triangle's population rises at some of the fastest rates in the country, Chapel Hills' population has only grown by 8.3 percent in the last decade. This slow growth and rising housing prices also put pressure on surrounding communities, either forcing them to build faster than they’d otherwise need to or to face similarly high increases in the cost of living. 

The slow population growth doesn’t mean that there isn't a need for new housing, though. The original rough draft of the zoning reform plan explicitly states that Chapel Hill will need to add 440 new housing units a year between 2020 and 2040 to keep up with population growth.

Not meeting this need has ripple effects. The University is the star the entire town revolves around, economically and culturally. High rents hurt lower-income students and the general economy of the town by reducing disposable incomes and, thus, the amount of money they can spend at local businesses like The Purple Bowl or Time-Out.

It also hurts the University's recruiting efforts. An average one-bedroom apartment now costs almost $2,000 per month, $500 more than in Durham or Raleigh, where UNC’s peer institutions are located. For reference, the minimum stipend for doctoral candidates at UNC was a paltry $10,000 for the spring 2023 semester.

Graduate students at UNC are also grossly underpaid, but the point remains that high costs of living actively harm the ability of the University to attract the kind of talent that makes it one of the best schools in the nation. 

Given all this, it is clear that some sort of bold action to increase the amount of affordable housing needs to be taken. 

The current proposal is a toned-down version of the original. It would essentially upzone the entire town. Whereas right now, large swaths of Chapel Hill are filled with exclusively single-family detached housing, this would allow duplexes to be built across all residential zones. 

Ultimately, this is a small step in the right direction. It would, over time, increase density and increase housing supply as single-family homes are replaced with multi-family housing. 

It is also, unfortunately, indicative of the Town caving to the demands of a small group of committed anti-housing advocates. 

The original proposal would change R-1 and R-2 zones – residential zones that are currently exclusively single-family – to allow for quadplexes, as well as cottage courts, which are smaller detached houses that surround small courtyards rather than having individual yards. (They are very cute.)

This proposal would use the same mechanism as the revised one does, essentially allowing for a higher level of maximum density across the town and steadily increasing both density and housing supply. 

The Town chose to lower that maximum density from quadplexes to duplexes, slicing the maximum amount of housing the proposal could create in half. Part of the reason why was the responses to a community feedback survey. But nearly 40 percent of the respondents were over the age of 55 and nearly none were between 18 and 25. But, isn’t this a college town? 

A majority of this unrepresentative sample simply doesn’t want to build housing. 

A scan through the survey results showcases a shocking cognitive dissonance. Nearly 70 percent of respondents agree that “residential development should support vibrant, diverse, pedestrian-friendly and accessible commercial centers,” while 56 percent of that same sample say they do not agree that “missing middle housing, provided through small-scale residential development, should be provided within all neighborhoods for all family sizes, incomes and stages of life.”

Let's be clear, those two positions are wholly incompatible. You cannot have diverse, vibrant and accessible commercial centers while you block young and lower-income people from being able to live in your college town. And you cannot have pedestrian-friendly, walkable neighborhoods, as a majority of respondents say they want, while only supporting low-density, large-scale housing. 

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But this kind of short-sided NIMBY-ism is the exact opposite of what Chapel Hill needs, and, quite frankly, the unrepresentative demographic breakdown of these community responses should disqualify it from being considered in discussions.

Chapel Hill needs more housing. To build more housing, we need to open up the zoning codes and allow for more density. The Town Council should pass its original proposal. It's not a solution to all of the housing issues in Chapel Hill, but it is a start.

To do otherwise is caving to a group of predominately white, wealthy and older residents who want to “preserve the character of Chapel Hill” without any of us pesky students, or the things that actually make Chapel Hill special, in the picture.