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Affordable housing vocabulary can be confusing, here are the terms to know

City-affordable-housing-dictionary
Texture courtesy of Adobe Stock.

During those marathon town council meetings, it seems like elected officials, Town staff and developers can use their own vocabularies to discuss affordable housing. The words don't make sense to an untrained ear. Cost burden, AMI, LUMO — what does any of it actually mean?

Talking about affordable housing can be confusing. Here's a breakdown of the important words, acronyms and phrases to know before stepping into your next town council meeting.

Units are, very simply, the amount of apartments or houses or townhomes a development has. If there are 50 units in an apartment complex, there are 50 apartments.

Town councils, in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, vote on and either approve or deny affordable housing projects (along with a whole bunch of other stuff). They vote on these projects just like a larger elected body does, working with Town staff and the people proposing the development to figure out all the details.

Again, these are elected officials, and election rhetoric often makes its way back to affordable housing and the decisions town council members made. This past election cycle was a prime example.

Developers are often the main driving forces of the affordable housing scene. Much of the time, towns like Chapel Hill or Carrboro do not have the funds to build and maintain their own affordable housing projects, so they rely on developers to come along and propose projects that contain affordable housing. Developers have been a point of contention in recent election cycles – many candidates expressly denied donations from developers.

AMI is an area's median income.A lot of the time, this is how affordable housing is measured. For instance, a town council member may ask a developer, 'How many units are under 30 percent AMI?' Essentially, the council member is asking how many units are priced for people who earn 30 percent or less of the area median income. Much of the time, AMI is discussed in 10 percent intervals, from about 30 to 80 percent.

Subsidies are often required to build and maintain affordable housing. It is often very costly to a developer to build a housing development and then rent those units below the local market rate (a measurement of how much non-subsidized housing costs elsewhere in the community).

So, subsidies are required to keep costs down for the tenant. Often, subsidies are sent from higher levels — the county, the state or the federal government — or nonprofits.

Someone is cost burdened when they are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. In Chapel Hill, 58 percent of renters and 22 percent of homeowners are cost burdened. Cost burden is another way to measure affordable housing in a community.

For instance, what percentage of the units in Chapel Hill are affordable — as in, not a cost burden — to someone earning 80 percent of the AMI? (It's less than half, if you were wondering.)

Zoning determines the type of buildings that can be built on a lot. There are several different types of zoning, including residential, commercial and industrial. Residential zoning can be low density, like single-family housing, or high-density, like a large apartment building. Zoning types can be changed by town councils and adapted to fit the kind of building either developers or the council wants to build there.

Missing middle housing is housing that falls generally in the middle of density and affordability scales and tends to be underrepresented among the types of housing. Townhomes, duplexes and cottage courts fall into this category. Missing middle housing has been pushed as a way to diversify housing types and who can live in a community.

LUMO stands for land use management ordinance — the primary document guiding and regulating development in Chapel Hill. In Carrboro, it's just the LUO, or land use ordinance. Land use ordinances set rules for things like zoning types, easements and density. But, those rules can be changed.

Chapel Hill changed one of the big rules in its LUMO last summer to try to increase "gentle density" and missing middle housing. That change became the defining factor of the municipal elections. Factions formed behind town council member Adam Searing – who opposed the change and ran on a platform of overturning it – and now-Mayor Jess Anderson on each side of the debate.

@ethanehorton1

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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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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