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Column: Wake County has an innovative solution to affordable housing crisis

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.

Anyone driving through Chapel Hill these past few months has surely seen more than a few “Tell the Town Council ‘NO REZONING!’ Protect Our Neighborhoods” signs.

These signs were posted in the front yards of concerned residents in response to a text amendment proposal to the Town’s Land Use Management Ordinance. The amendment would allow for duplexes to be built alongside single-family homes. 

To many wealthy Chapel Hill homeowners, I’m certain the word “duplex” is akin to “Voldemort.” You must not utter it and if you do, pray it doesn’t come to haunt you and decrease the value of your home. It seems to them that affordable and multi-family housing has no place in their historic neighborhoods. In fact, it’s a threat.

In the midst of their own affordable housing crisis, Wake County has experienced a significant loss of housing that is affordable to individuals and families earning less than 50% of the area's median income.

The county has sought partners since 2018 to help develop permanent supportive housing, specifically for its most vulnerable populations. With the help of California-based nonprofit Step Up, Wake County may have found a way to avoid similar citizen pushback when trying to solve the local housing crisis. 

As of 2021, Step Up is responsible for housing 1,850 people, utilizing a unique model of creating more housing through the conversion of blighted motels, under-utilized office buildings, or malls into permanent supportive housing. After researching Step Up, Wake County’s director of affordable housing and community revitalization, Lorena McDowell, and her team endeavored to bring it to Wake County. 

Throughout their service, they’ve found that this approach tends to be a win-win for communities. By eliminating motels that Step Up describes as “a nuisance,” while simultaneously chipping away at the homeless population, Step Up and Wake County are creating a solution to the affordable housing crisis that sidesteps the political objection we see in Chapel Hill. 

Chapel Hill needs affordable housing desperately, but Town efforts to enact policy to make that possible are repeatedly fought by residents of wealthy Chapel Hill neighborhoods. If Chapel Hill were to adopt Step Up’s model, those residents wouldn’t have to be as concerned about their homes devaluing upon the construction of affordable duplexes because that wouldn’t be the only option for affordable housing. 

Transforming “nuisance” motels or even vacant office space into fairly priced studio apartments tackles key issues that prevent the construction of more housing in Chapel Hill: a lack of available land and primarily single-family zoning. It’s almost like Step Up devised their model with Chapel Hill in mind. 

Not only will this partnership alleviate the housing insecurity of hundreds of individuals across Raleigh, but they’ll also introduce an innovative way to circumvent gaining the approval of wealthy communities for the development of affordable housing. By steering clear of zoning policies and political red tape, Step Up offers a solution to homelessness that doesn’t pose as a threat to the value of some residents’ homes. 

Step Up plans to provide residents with services such as therapy, medical care and transportation, as well as opportunities for social connection and job training. Wake County has also agreed to supply residents with vouchers to subsidize rent.

Nevertheless, this is a partial solution, particularly one that still doesn’t fully address the gap in middle housing felt in Wake County, Orange County and many other municipalities. However, by giving individuals the resources to keep a job and provide for themselves, Step Up is preparing them for a life where upward mobility is possible. 

No one loses in this situation. Step Up is privately funded and the only expense Wake County assumes is the monthly rent checks. Homeless individuals get an apartment to themselves and the support necessary to get back on their feet. Concerned citizens reap the benefits of the restoration of old hotels and a decrease in the disturbances often associated with widespread housing insecurity. 

While this program may be a brilliant way of evading pushback from wealthy communities, I wonder if this should even be an obstacle that has to be considered when trying to help those without access to affordable housing. To covet your neighborhood as something that is unattainable and proudly so is to reject the beauty and progress that grows out of diverse communities. 

Besides, how great can a town be if no one can afford to live in it?

@dthopinion |

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