In its ongoing series on affordable housing, the Town of Chapel Hill hosted Michelle Winters, senior visiting fellow at the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing last Tuesday to talk about the policy tools and best practices for affordable and workforce housing.
Winters began her presentation discussing housing trends nationwide and specifically talked about the recent surge in renter households that is expected to continue into the future. The most important takeaway: Half of all renter households are at least moderately cost burdened, meaning they spend at least 30% of their income on rent. This statistic highlights why housing professionals have broadened their discussion of what affordable means in recent years to include a range, all the way from homelessness to just below market rate. As the town’s executive director for housing and community development, Loryn Clark, put it: housing needs to be affordable for everybody.
Winters outlined several best practices for designing affordable and workforce housing. Specifically, affordable housing should be (1) mixed-income, mixed-use, and intergenerational; (2) walkable, well-located, and service-enriched; (3) well-designed, meaning attractive, sustainable, and compact; and (4) well-executed, through the leveraging of partnerships and the use of financially innovative approaches.
She also summarized the following as important approaches to providing affordable and workforce housing:
- Communicate why housing matters
- Preserve what’s already there
- Use land use tools to support inclusive communities
- Streamline the development process
- Financial strategies to spur production
What stood out to me most in Winters’ presentation were just how many approaches to providing more affordable housing Chapel Hill is not currently utilizing – and how this fact has had a real negative impact in our community.
For example, our development process is currently a cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive affair. Many developers have simply written off Chapel Hill because of this and chosen to develop elsewhere. Those developers who have continued to do business here are forced to charge higher rents and home prices to recoup their upfront costs, which only exacerbates our affordability problem. Streamlining our processes is a fundamental step we have to take to make affordability a more achievable goal. How much longer can we wait to do this until it’s just too late to make a difference?
Accessory dwelling units are another tool Winters highlighted to increase the affordability of housing, yet homeowners in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, if they are allowed to build accessory dwelling units at all, face regulatory obstacles to doing so. Winters specifically emphasized the importance of crafting regulations that make providing accessory dwelling units easy, unlike the ordinance in her home of Arlington – and unlike existing regulations right here in our community.
Another important point Winters raised that is particularly relevant to trends in Chapel Hill and Carrboro is how we should respond to rising rents and home prices along major transit corridors. Some elected officials have suggested increasing transit service and adding density is something we shouldn’t do because dense, walkable areas are desirable places, meaning it’s costly to live in these areas. Contrary to this line of thinking, Winters’ solution seems a lot more intuitive and sensible to me: Build more transit to create more desirable places to live and therefore reduce prices by increasing supply.
There aren’t easy answers to our affordable housing crisis, but there are solutions we can implement right now to move us closer to our goals. The real question is why haven’t we taken major steps to fix our development process and regulations already – and what will the consequences be if we wait any longer to implement these absolutely necessary changes?
The final “Come Learn with Us” session on affordable housing is April 9th at 5pm at Chapel Hill Town Hall. The presentation is entitled “Opportunities for the Future: Recommendations and Strategies for Affordable Housing.”