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Affordable Housing in Carrboro? Developers Offer Suggestions to Commissioners

by: Affordable Housing in Carrboro? Developers Offer Suggestions to Commissioners,

CARRBORO, N.C. — At the December 18 Affordable Housing Advisory Commission meeting of the Town of Carrboro, local developers Omar and David Zinn of Parker Louis LLC approached the board with ideas to make affordable housing more feasible.

The two brothers grew up in Orange County and expressed their deep interest in doing what they can to help with housing. They did not disclose future business plans.

“My ideas look at ways that we can incentivize developers and builders to not just donate money, but actually build land-trust housing,” Omar said. He is referring to a community land trust, a type of nonprofit corporation that fosters affordable housing, as well as other aspects of a community, such as civic buildings and public spaces.

The U.S. Census estimated Carrboro’s population in 2018 at 21,314. In 2017, about one in six people (16.4 percent) were estimated to be in poverty, with the median income estimated at $56,573. With the average home valued at $334,500 (2017), the challenge of providing affordable housing is clear.

The Zinn brothers’ proposals included density bonuses (allowing full-price houses added at a one-to-one ratio for every size reduction house), expedited processing, and a reduction in certain fees (such as developer and inspector reviews, and fees for water and sewage) to help counter financial losses.

“This would mean engaging with other local and state entities to give breaks and diminish fees,” said Omar.

Omar acknowledged that increasing housing density would reduce the amount of open space, which includes green space, playgrounds, trails and wildlife corridors. This trade would have to be approved by the Carrboro Board of Aldermen.

Density bonuses are a common practice to make affordable housing possible.

Community Home Trust is an Orange County–based, nonprofit realtor that brokers homes at rates deemed to be affordable based on median area incomes, and which may only be resold at a fixed rate of appreciation.

Community Home Trust Executive Director Robert DowIing said the organization has built 267 affordable houses in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, 223 of them in Chapel Hill.

“The Town of Chapel Hill has inclusionary housing,” he said. “The town requires a certain amount of affordable houses [15 percent] in any market rate development. Carrboro is voluntary.”

Chapel Hill has a density bonus in place, meaning land that developers with land that would normally only hold 100 houses could instead build 150, if they make a certain number of those affordable. Community Home Trust’s tenants are households earning less than 60 percent of the median income for the area.

“The problem is, for every business, the objective is to make profits. You cannot attract capital or equity lenders if you have a project that is losing money,” Dowling explained. “Land prices have gone up since the early 2000s… Everything is stacked up to make housing more expensive. So, it is not a climate set up to build affordable housing.”

Local realtor Buz Lloyd agrees with DowIing, stating that some markets make affordable housing an incredible challenge.

“The Triangle is a very affluent market to purchase a lot,” said Lloyd, “All of the laws of supply and demand in an affluent area works against affordable housing.”

But the density bonus does cut into open space and, though Chapel Hill has worked with this in order to provide affordable housing, many question how Carrboro will feel about sacrificing its undeveloped space.

The question, said Omar, is, “Does our community value open space more than we value affordable housing?”

Commission member Cain Twyman said, “It is a matter of priorities. I really do not know how the town board would feel about reducing green space at this time.”

“I am an environmentalist, but I chop down trees. That is our country’s model,” was Omar’s perspective. He saw the same need for balancing ideal and reality in the cause of accessible homes: “I care about affordable housing, but we are limited on space and I also need to measure how high of a risk our business can take… We have to ask how developers and builders can work toward this goal safely and with minimum risk.

“Housing is very expensive here,” Omar added. “The schools are such a strong draw, but it gets easier [to live] out in the county and out of the school districts.”

Twyman said she sees the struggle at her workplace. “I am a manager at a fast food restaurant and the people around me have to work two or more jobs to pay their bills. Others cannot afford cars, and so moving out into the county is not an option,” said Twyman. “With the cost of living in Carrboro, we may just have to start building up.”

Twyman said the commission must look at new ideas and then figure out the logistics.

“I would also like us to focus more on the homeless,” she added.

The meeting’s agenda reflects the variety of strategies being considered to achieve affordable housing; the most popular strategies are a plan to help displaced mobile home residents and using publicly owned land for housing.

Several commission members pointed out that there are people who grew up and worked in this area who can no longer afford to stay when they retire.

Commission member Terri Buckner suggested helping such individuals stay in their existing homes, and also the town purchasing older homes to fix up and then provide as affordable housing.

Omar Zinn pointed out that even the older houses can cost $250 thousand or more.

Commission member Betty Curry spoke about the struggle of black people, especially “families that make $30 thousand and below,” to live in Carrboro.

Curry does not believe that peppering affordable housing among expensive housing is beneficial to low-income black communities, saying in an interview after the meeting, “White people do not understand our community and do not want us in their neighborhoods.”

This was Curry’s reasoning for her meeting proposal, “We should put the affordable housing units all together in the same neighborhoods or complexes.”

Curry also had other concerns she spoke publicly on: “By catering to the college students and encouraging gentrification, we are pushing the blacks out of the area and into surrounding counties.”

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