Orange County

Professor’s column on Chapel Hill housing costs provokes debate

As land to build on has decreased, Chapel Hill has seen more infill development and taller buildings like the 140 West Franklin condominiums downtown.
As land to build on has decreased, Chapel Hill has seen more infill development and taller buildings like the 140 West Franklin condominiums downtown. File photo

You can now read and comment on more local news on my Facebook page (2,500 Friends and counting).

This week, I posted a link to UNC business professor Michael Jacob’s guest column that ran in Wednesday’s paper. You can read it here:

Jacobs argues the lack of low-cost housing and affordable housing in Chapel Hill is “a predictable consequence of many conscious decisions, which other Triangle communities should avoid.”

On my Facebook page, I wrote:

UNC Prof Michael Jacobs has made this argument before. But if a community decides it wants to pay more for schools, protect the rural landscape and control development, isn’t that its right?

Here is what some of you said:

Will Wilson: I’m sure this person’s solution is to eliminate any building restrictions and increase the supply of housing, and increase the Triangle’s population, just as the development industry in Durham advocates. But nobody ever talks about water resources: We rely on surface water collected in reservoirs. What size population can we handle in the face of recent droughts? Durham was something like 30 days away from no water in the mid-2000s; we would have run out of water if that drought took place today. How many people can we support?

J. Jay Kennett: I wonder if a community can make a decision to invest in creating a diverse, including socio-economically diverse, community. It means, I believe, moving toward a system based in equity rather than equality. So for affordable housing you must also provide tiered rates on taxes, water services and those city services that go into the making housing affordable. It requires builders to create communities with multiple entry price points and calls communities to provide access to affordable goods and services that create quality of life for all residents while still having employers pay a livable wage. It also requires those who are among the privileged by race and class to recognize that and work to check their privilege. It is doable in theory, but is there a community really willing to do the hard work to make it reality, that is the question.

Terri Buckner: I agree with you wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, the North Carolina legislature doesn’t allow individual communities to make those kinds of decisions. (Dillon’s Rule:

Bonnie Hauser: Professor Jacobs makes good and provocative points. The cost of land and housing is very high within the town limits and permitting/fees can add a lot to the cost of a home. So should our leaders revisit a 30-year-old land-use decision (the rural buffer) and consider whether parts of it should be relaxed to encourage more housing for working families. I wonder how many Orange County citizens even know where the rural buffer is or how it impacts development?

Gabriele Pelli: Without the rural buffer we’d have endless sprawl outside of Chapel Hill, ala U.S. 15-501. A rural buffer also makes it so that the city actually fills in, and builds up, instead of endlessly out.

George Cianciolo (Chapel Hill Town Council member): Without the rural buffer you’d probably have a number of Briar Chapels surrounding Chapel Hill. Is that bad? Or good? For elected officials the decisions are very difficult because when you ask for public opinion you often get responses only from those immediately affected by proposed changes. It is often after the fact that you hear “what the heck were you thinking of?”. Keep in mind that in 2015, considered one of the more contentious elections in Chapel Hill in which three incumbents lost their seats, only about 16 percent of the registered voters bothered to make their opinions known. So how many folks (i.e., what percentage) do you think show up for a re-zoning hearing?

Mark Marcoplos (Orange County Board of Commissioners member): He doesn’t add anything to the debate that isn’t already known. It’s a complex problem that is challenging municipalities all across the country. (Name a community that solved the dilemma.) Jacobs has devoted his life to strengthening the global and national economy that undermines local economies. Now he cries crocodile tears as he delivers a simplistic beating that is designed more to impugn “progressives” than to actually solve the problem.

Mark Barroso: I think Mr. Jacobs is calling is calling BS when he sees it. How many times have the NIMBYs protested public housing, homeless shelters or Habitat homes when they were proposed in Chapel Hill/Carrboro? And he’s spot on about the rail system. Dense development makes ecological sense but all of the units being built are for rich people. I don’t have the answer, but I do believe in honest labeling.

Mariana Fiorentino: It seems that the only voices raised during hearings are those of people directly affected. Affordable housing/workforce housing has been a challenge for decades in our area. People earning above 80 percent of the median income ($54,000) have few alternatives for assistance. It all begins with the high cost of land and follows with the glacial process for approval and topped off with exorbitant impact fees resulting in little to no affordable/workforce housing.

John Quinterno: The article simply is a recapitulation of the “trickle down” theory that says that what is holding back affordable housing in Orange County is unrealistic restraints on housing supply. Remove restraints like the rural buffer and allow developers to run free, and all will be well thanks to magic of the market.

The article ignores the two interconnected factors that have driven housing affordability to crisis proportion in so many places: the monopoly nature of land that allows for owners to extract unearned rents without doing anything productive and the emergence of a financial system that prefers financing housing/land purchases to most any type of productive investment. These two forces combine to produce a feedback loop that drives the prices of land ever higher.

And these problems are not unique to Orange County. They are on clear display in other parts of the Triangle and throughout the country. But by making it only about Orange County, the author can blame the results on policy choices for which he doesn’t personally care.

None of this is to say that the local governments here in Orange County are blameless. But the core problem is a refusal to understand why land isn’t a regular market good combined with a willingness to spend public resources to increase the value of land owned by certain stakeholders without making any corresponding effort to capture any of the windfall gains for the community.

Allen Spalt: It’s a myth that if the rural buffer were developed that it would be affordable housing. And he expresses such animus toward Chapel Hill in this piece that it is a wonder he stays.

Mark Schultz is the managing editor of The Herald-Sun.