The Changing Face of Neighborhoods: Should we Blame Students?

What do we owe as a community to our marginalized, historic neighborhoods in a community built around a university? What do we owe to students from a university on which our communities thrive? Should we view students moving into existing residential neighborhoods as a threat or should we expect this change and manage for it?

The neighborhoods closest to the university are the most impacted by students as they move in. Impacts include more noise, foot and car traffic and sometimes more trash. They also result in co-learning, resource sharing and greater vibrancy. The challenge is that many of those neighborhoods are historically African American neighborhoods that have already faced cumulative impacts of systemic racism, dis-investment and gentrification.

Volumes have been written about the causes of gentrification. There are many causes. Can we point to the university as the culprit in this impact on historic neighborhoods? Yes, to some extent. However, UNC provides more housing for it’s undergrads than any of its peer institutions - by far. Housing students is laudable, but it doesn’t mean that the university’s responsibility to nearby neighbors stops at the campus border.  

An article by Richard Florida summarizes a study showing how research universities like UNC can deepen inequality in nearby neighborhoods. At the end of the article, Florida offers recommendations for what UNC might do to limit  impact and provide opportunity to existing communities in their midst.

I’d posit that another of the culprits in disrupting neighborhoods is many students’ love of the car. Scores of UNC students want their cars with them at college and a growing number of them choose to live farther from campus in areas where they need their cars to access community services. As go students, so goes society.  We have prioritized car travel over all other forms of transportation such that walking to access services and engage in community life is more challenging. In this vicious cycle, it’s no wonder students desire easy access to their cars.

In response to decades of auto-oriented development patterns, advocates in our communities are working with elected officials and town staff to create more walkable and bikeable neighborhoods and to develop a comprehensive regional transit plan. Can these efforts be a release valve for the pressure on these neighborhoods?

Amity Station, a mixed-use project intended to be developed on Rosemary Street on the Breadman's Restaurant property, will provide UNC students with housing and therefore relieve housing pressure from neighborhoods like Lloyd-Broad and Northside. Yet given the project’s situation in a historically African American neighborhood that has been negatively impacted for many many years,  it’s understandable why some Northside community members are combating its development.

One policy enacted to counter the negative impacts of concentrated student housing is to limit the number of unrelated individuals who may live together in one dwelling unit. The Town of Chapel Hill did just that, enacting an ordinance, which prohibits more than four unrelated persons from living under the same roof within the Northside Neighborhood and town-wide. Now, the Town of Carrboro is considering a similar town-wide ordinance that would limit the number of unrelated persons living in one dwelling unit to four as well. Yet as recent UNC grad, Brian Vaughn, points out in his piece, such an ordinance can impart sundry negative consequences.

Instead of a “rush to legislate”, both Towns should host inclusive community conversations. These conversations should intentionally involve communities of color. And they should explore such quality of life questions as: What level of development and residential density are desirable and acceptable? Which factors contribute to housing affordability and how can they be anticipated and addressed? How can we implement changes in communities that are acceptable to the majority of residents, especially traditionally underserved residents? How might limiting the number of people who live in one house exacerbate housing unaffordability? And how can and should the Towns consider UNC students’ housing-related perspectives?



might provide "more" but it is of a low standard/quality. Further as you point out, the lack of parking on campus also drives students to find other accommodations. How about rather than trying to coerce students into small, uncomfortable "dorms" UNC might provide housing that is competitive. Perhaps some concessions to parking?  Here is another idea rather than everyone (towns, county and university) acting independently on affordability, perhaps acting together, reducing duplication of effort might prove to be a force multiplier? 

Affordability is not just a problem for students, not just the poor, but there is a serious lack of workforce housing for teachers, fire, police etc.


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