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Chapel Hill's housing zoning rules have changed. What now?

A sign intended to protest against the Chapel Hill Town Council’s rezoning efforts stands in front of a home on Hillsborough Street, Chapel Hill on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

The Chapel Hill Town Council passed a text amendment to its land use management ordinance on June 21 that allows more multi-family housing to be built in what were previously single-family zoned lots. The full ramifications of the decision are yet to be determined.

The change — which would permit two-family homes on all residential lots and three- and four-family homes in some higher-density areas — is aimed at creating more "missing middle housing" and promoting "gentle density."

Town Council member and now-mayoral candidate Adam Searing was one of three council members to vote against the ordinance change on Wednesday, partially because he said the ordinance would not apply to many neighborhoods in Chapel Hill, including his own. 

State law, he said, does not allow the Town to override neighborhood pacts that ban non-single-family housing, which Searing said most neighborhoods built in Chapel Hill during the last 30 years have.

A March study from the Urban Institute found that loosening zoning restrictions in single-family residential areas allowed for slightly higher density over time, but may not lower costs or make housing more accessible for those earning below the national median income.

Searing cited this study in his remarks during the town council meeting on Wednesday and argued that the change wouldn't impact affordable housing.

Searing said the existing housing pipeline and what he projected as 25 percent growth of Chapel Hill in the next couple of years makes the zoning change unnecessary and too controversial to move forward with. He said the approval of South Creek, an 815-unit development near Southern Village, shows that the town has other ways to grow.

"We're approving these units," Searing said. "I'm not sure why this is even a question. This is one thing that drives me crazy. It's like, 'Oh, Chapel Hill's not growing at all.' Of course, it is."

Molly McConnell, a member of the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, said she opposed the measure because she believes it will not create affordable or missing middle housing. She said new developments will cause problems for those living nearby.

"If you allow this kind of large housing to go on in a neighborhood that was not meant to have all that at a time when people are struggling to hold on to their jobs and their housing — the economy is not good — people are going to get displaced," she said.

About 530 homes are currently in the Town's affordable housing development pipeline. Chapel Hill is in need of more than 5,000 additional affordable homes to fill the town's need for those earning below 80 percent of the area's median income, according to Chapel Hill Affordable Housing's most recent quarterly report.

But, several members of the town council have said the change was never directed toward affordable housing.

"We have an explicit affordable housing strategy that is very effective and impactful," Mayor Pro Tempore Karen Stegman said during the meeting on Wednesday. "There is much more to do, no question, but we have one and we invest significantly. This is a housing supply strategy. It's to increase housing supply and types of housing and diversity of housing."

Geoffrey Green, a city planner and Chapel Hill resident, said that one of the biggest barriers to creating affordable housing in Chapel Hill is that the state cannot require new developments to provide affordable housing. He also said statewide building codes make it difficult to build housing that is not single-family homes. 

He said that changes in housing policy, like in the text amendment, may cause residents to feel frightened due to the notion that the "feel" of neighborhoods will change.

Town Council member Jessica Anderson voted for the proposal and said during the meeting that she believes increasing density can work to provide more housing options in town.

"I grew up in this type of housing," Anderson said. "And based on that experience, I know that gentle infill can fit into existing neighborhoods, support a more inclusive community and support our environmental goals."

Zoning laws, like those Chapel Hill had prior to Wednesday, have historically been used as a tool of discrimination against people of color. A 2021 White House report found that restrictive zoning laws both increased housing prices and kept poorer community members out of high-opportunity neighborhoods.

The report also connected restrictive zoning laws to racial segregation, increased disparities in financial outcomes and an increase in the Black-white racial wealth gap.

Paris Miller-Foushee, another member of the town council, also voted for the proposal Wednesday evening. While she said the land use amendments alone cannot fix systemic racial inequities in housing, it is an important step in the right direction.

"Our land use housing systems create enormous costs and disparities, which are disproportionately worn by vulnerable populations, low-income families and Black and brown communities," Miller-Foushee said during the meeting. "That analysis has been done. And those studies are very clear. The past common ideal of the American Dream is stuck in the 1950s and we can no longer wall off access to the future."

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Summer City & State Editor Walker Livingston contributed reporting to this article.


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Ethan E. Horton

Ethan E. Horton is the 2023-24 city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a city & state assistant editor and as the 2023 summer managing editor. Ethan is a senior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and political science, with a minor in history.

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