You can't mention affordable housing in Orange County without invoking the name of Robert Dowling. Just ask any local politician. Or ask all the people who live in neighborhoods they never could have called home without Dowling's hard work.
"For my tenure as mayor, whenever developers have come in to talk to me about a project, I've said to each one, 'Make sure that Robert Dowling is standing there advocating for your project, for the affordable housing component of your project, or don't bother,'" Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy said.
"It's not just for me, I just know that without him there the council is going to be skeptical, and the community is going to be skeptical."
Dowling, executive director and founding member of the Community Home Trust, has built that credibility during the last 12 years. In 1997 he took the reins of a struggling, near-bankrupt nonprofit housing program and, with the help of others, revitalized and repurposed it into a community land trust model.
The goal was always clear: to provide housing for those who live and work in Orange County and make less than 80 percent of the median income. To accomplish this, local governments would require developers to make 15 percent of the homes in any new neighborhood affordable through an inclusionary zoning policy.
That was a bold idea when Orange County governments drew it up, and the plan would have failed without Dowling's leadership.
Asked how Dowling supports the work that Carrboro does, Mayor Mark Chilton replied, "What work? He does it. He's 100 percent of it from Carrboro's perspective. We're a small town, and we really rely 100 percent on Robert to be the leader."
The group that became the Community Home Trust sold its first affordable home, a quaint single-family unit on Carrboro's aptly named Pleasant Drive, in 2000. Now the home trust has 156 affordable homes in its stable for low- and moderate-income workers and their kin. Dowling's vision and business acumen has provided the chance for the policemen, firefighters, teachers and social workers to live in the community they serve.
He's quick to credit his staff and a unique model that's being constantly refined. First, developers build the required number of affordable units and sell them to the trust. The trust then seeks homebuyers who earn between $30,000 and $55,000 annually, depending on family size. The applicants take eight hours of classes on responsible home ownership, apply for a loan and enter into a 99-year ground lease. The trust maintains ownership of the land, while the homeowner earns 1.5 percent annual equity. The homes stay a part of the trust and can only be resold by their owners to people who qualify through this same process. It allows the trust to make sure the homes remain affordable forever.
That means Dowling and his staff of six full-time people serve as real estate agents, property managers, planners and negotiators. It's a massive undertaking, but one that's vital to ensure that those who earn a paycheck in town can afford to live there, too.
"Teachers should be able to live in the neighborhoods where the children are," Dowling said. "We don't want to become a bedroom community where to live in Chapel Hill means you have to be able to afford a 500K home, or you're a student who rents."
A key word for Dowling is "inclusionary." These homes are not built on the fringes of town. Rather, they sit in the middle of luxurious and new neighborhoods like East 54, Meadowmont and Vineyard Square. You can drive down the street and not distinguish between the affordable homes and the homes built for the affluent.
"For inclusionary housing to be successful, our homes are not in the poor part of town. Our affordable homes are in nice neighborhoods."
"In nice neighborhoods, it's not acceptable for the affordable homes to become run-down, to be in bad shape in a short period of time."
Acting on that idea sets Dowling apart from other affordable housing leaders. He was among the first to push for long-term affordability, not just handing families the keys to their new homes and wishing them well. He realizes that the families who live in home trust properties likely don't have the discretionary income needed to maintain the property with new HVAC units, paint jobs and roofs.
So Dowling began advocating for what he calls "payment in lieu"—which allows developers to pay money instead of building some of the additional affordable units that the town requires. That money is then used to help pay for maintenance of existing affordable homes.
"It would be really easy to develop all this housing and sit back and say, '20 years from now I'll be retired, and that'll be someone else's problem because I'm retired,'" Chilton said. "That is not Robert Dowling. He's always looking at the big picture."
His real skill comes in convincing others to see that same picture. The Chapel Hill Town Council was concerned with maximizing the number of affordable units before Dowling convinced the group that real success would result from keeping a manageable number of homes affordable over a long time.
It's obvious that he could make more money doing something else. He did, in fact, as a banker in New York and Chicago before moving to the Triangle. But he and his wife had enough of the cold weather and the corporate job.
"When I retire, I think I can look back and say I worked hard to make a difference for some people in Chapel Hill and Carrboro," he said. "That's far more meaningful to me than to say I worked hard to make money for CitiBank."
He's the perfect blend, a person who has the corporate training needed to deal with daunting logistics and the small-town heart required to work tirelessly for people.
"It's a hard job to manage any kind of a nonprofit," Foy said. "But when you are managing a nonprofit like the one that he's managing, it requires skills in finance. It requires skills in real estate development. It requires negotiation skills, management skills. It requires a unique set of a skills and a unique person, and that's what Robert is."