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Chapel Hill residents consider housing, zoning policy in voting decisions

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Signs protesting against the Chapel Hill Town Council’s amendment to the Town's Land Use Management Ordinance efforts, like this one in front of a home on Hillsborough Street on Tuesday, April 18, 2023, have become a recent staple on many lawns in Chapel Hill.

With Chapel Hill municipal elections approaching on Nov. 7, housing policy has been a concern for residents when considering which candidates to vote for.

Housing Choices for a Complete Community, a text amendment to the town's land use management ordinance, was passed on June 21 and has become a prominent issue in this year's mayoral race.

The text amendment allows for some types of multi-family housing to be built in lots previously zoned for single-family units. It aims to increase the range of housing available in the community and meet demands for missing middle housing.

Adam Searing, a Chapel Hill mayoral candidate, was one of three town council members to vote against the text amendment.

Searing’s campaign website says he believes the change won't create more affordable homes for lower and middle-income families, but it will contribute to the building of expensive luxury multi-unit and investor-owned duplexes.

He also opposes building housing of any kind on top of preserved forest and open space purchased by voter-approved environmental bonds to maintain town green space, according to Searing’s website.

Jess Anderson, Searing's opponent in the mayoral race, voted in favor of the amendment.

Anderson’s campaign website says the goal of the amendment is to provide flexible housing options that will promote a more sustainable and inclusive Chapel Hill while ensuring that people can afford to stay in their homes.

Since the passage of the text amendment, no newly allowed multi-family developments have been approved.

Kelly Crane, a Chapel Hill resident and homeowner, said when she purchased her home in early 2021, there was not much housing inventory available on the market and her family ended up paying more for their house than they had planned.

“I think what I've observed is that that has a downmarket effect too,” she said. “So, when affordable housing purchasing is few and far between, the renters' market gets squeezed.”

Crane said she wants to see candidates working on the housing issue and giving it their attention — but she understands that it is a multi-year process.She also said not all housing issues that people are experiencing in Chapel Hill can be solved by elected officials and some need to be solved by higher-level leaders.

Samuel Gee, a Chapel Hill resident currently renting in a duplex with three roommates, said housing opportunities play the most significant role in him deciding which candidates to support.

“Who I’m choosing to support is really simple,” Gee said. “If somebody is pro-housing, if they support the town council or the mayoral position connecting policies that make it easier to build dense housing in Chapel Hill, I support them.”

He also said candidates in the municipal elections who believe that areas like Franklin and Rosemary streets should not be changed must consider that it is time for those beliefs to adapt to the present.

Height limitations kept in place in downtown Chapel Hill, Gee said, kill any hopes of new developments getting built because they make approval difficult.

"The housing problem in Chapel Hill, if we really want to meet it head on, has to be something where we hold very little sacred," Gee said.

Mark Shelburne, a housing policy consultant and professor of practice at the UNC Department of City and Regional Planning, said candidates should allow apartments and other dense housing options to be built in some areas currently zoned for residential and commercial use to combat rising housing demand and costs.

While multiple candidates are running against housing changes, Shelburne said, existing housing policy changes are minimal compared to the policy changes needed to minimize exclusionary zoning — the use of zoning ordinances to exclude certain types of land use from groups in a community.

“What I can say is a lot of municipalities, including Chapel Hill, have made their housing circumstance dramatically worse by perpetuating exclusionary zoning,” Shelburne said. “Those jurisdictions would materially ease the housing crisis if they were to reduce the extent to which their zoning is exclusionary.”

@mkpolicastro

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