Some in Carrboro think it’s time the town followed Chapel Hill’s lead to rein in housing redevelopment that turns older houses into student rentals.
“I’ve been talking about ‘studentification’ for four or five years,” said Alderwoman Jacquie Gist.
Chapel Hill’s town code prohibits more than four non-related residents from living together, a rule intended to curb the redevelopment of smaller single-family homes into larger rental properties marketed to UNC students. Town officials in recent years have stepped up enforcement of the rule, publicizing the regulations and fining landlords.
Gist thinks Chapel Hill’s crackdown has pushed student renters into Carrboro.
“When Chapel Hill put that [ordinance] in place as a way of preventing gentrification of the Northside neighborhood, then all of the people who wanted to be building that kind of housing said, ‘Carrboro doesn’t have that,’ and they moved into Carrboro,” she said.
She said she’s seen that type of re-development taking place not just along the town’s border with Chapel Hill, but throughout the neighborhoods circling Carrboro’s downtown, creating a tighter housing market for non-student renters.
“It’s devastating to rents for middle-class families, just devastating,” Gist said. “You cannot rent anything anymore.”
According to the 2016 American Community Survey, 5,278 of Carrboro’s nearly 9,000 occupied housing units (59.1 percent) are rentals, compared to 3,660 units (40.9 percent) which are owner-occupied:
Board members said they have heard about this type of redevelopment happening in the Lloyd-Broad neighborhood, on Carr Street, Poplar, Old Pittsboro and Oleander. Town staff did not cite statistics, but said a recent renovation on Lloyd Street was the latest to raise concern.
In the past Carrboro officials have opted against setting occupancy limits defining what constitutes a family in the town’s housing code, or placing restrictions on unrelated residents. Gist, who has served on the board since 1989, reflected on the historical context of that decision.
“We decided not to because we thought it would be used to kick out or not rent to LGBTQ families,” she said. “I think times have changed now that we have marriage equality, not that that’s not an issue, but it’s not as big of as an issue as students gobbling up every spare bedroom in this town. I’d like to look closely at what Chapel Hill is doing.”
At a recent board meeting Alderwoman Bethany Chaney suggested targeting developers and landlords, not renters.
“You can blame it on the students, but the truth is, it’s the developers that are happy to figure out a way to cram as many people in a place as they can,” she said.
She suggested adjusting the town’s permitting process to require developers come before the board for special-use-permit approval in a wider array of circumstances, along with examining how town planners could more aggressively enforce current regulations.
“I’m interested in whether or not there are ways we can define or redefine housing based on the way it’s traditionally been utilized,” she added. “A single-family home that we know is rented by the room, why is that not a rooming house?”
‘A really high priority’
Alderman Damon Seils agreed he’d like see the town use the development review process to address the issue rather than focusing on occupancy rules.
“I’m not interested in making any message to students clear about whether they’re welcome or not in Carrboro, or whether they’re using our town,” Seils said. “Students, like every other part of our population, are looking for housing they can afford to live in. I guess I’d like to think more broadly about what this particular problem is, not who the population is.”
The board asked town staff to re-examine the town’s occupancy definitions and explore how the size and scale of what’s allowed under the current town code might be enabling outsized redevelopment projects that end up as high-priced rentals. The board will consider the issue early next year.
“I think we need to give it a really high priority,” said Town Manager David Andrews. “Every time that it happens, the neighbors are just really upset. They are irate. And we throw our hands up because there’s nothing we can do.”
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Town staff will look at Carrboro’s occupancy definitions and how the size of what’s currently allowed under the town code might be allowing large redevelopment projects that end up as high-priced rentals