It's another season of self-congratulation for Raleigh. We're No. 1 on this year's Forbes list of "Best Places for Business and Careers." We're No. 2 for "Most Educated Cities," trailing only Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Durham is third.) Concurrent with these accolades, Raleigh rolled out a new downtown plan, modestly dedicated to "supporting creativity, entrepreneurial growth and innovation in the most walkable and civic-minded downtown."
For those who remember the downtown of, say, 15 years ago, with its dead streets and ghostly pallor, the notion that it's poised to become "a dynamic, diverse city-center neighborhood anchoring tourism and culture for all generations" is almost too much to fathom. Take a moment. Pinch yourself.
But not too hard, because for all our progress, it's also true what Gregg Warren said a few days ago. "Newsflash!" Warren began, as a cartoon light bulb popped on the screen behind him. "We're not No. 1 in everything!"
No, indeed. When it comes to affordable housing in our downtown, we're not even in the running.
Warren is president of DHIC Inc., a nonprofit Raleigh developer of mostly affordable housing with a 40-year track record of success. Ironically, the initials used to stand for "downtown housing improvement corporation." Of late, however, the company's focus has broadened to the rest of Wake County as the cost of building anything downtown—driven by the cost of land—skyrocketed.
DHIC does have one project underway on the east side of downtown, called "Ten at South Person." The 10 sleek townhouse units sold for between $269,000 and $283,000, which strains the definition of affordable. Warren points out that four units were reserved for buyers with incomes below $85,000, a threshold for down-payment assistance from the N.C. Housing Finance Agency. But the sales prices were above the $170,000 limit for the city's first-time buyers' assistance program—a limit Raleigh declined to increase.
Well, shed no tears for DHIC, because the 10 units were snapped up quickly before construction started. And Warren's not apologizing for them, not at all. "These are the least expensive units being delivered in downtown Raleigh right now," he says.
But that's the problem, he adds: They are the least expensive units.
It's a fact that should concern Raleigh leaders, Warren says. Though for most, "it's not even on their radar screen."
I heard Warren speak at a forum at the AIA North Carolina Center for Architecture and Design in Raleigh. The forum was full of ideas about how to diversify housing choices in city centers. Common threads were co-op ownership and shared spaces, inside and out. Living units can be small, for example, if workspaces are shared; not everyone needs his or her own yard (nor, in a city, can everyone have one) if there's a shared play area or a city park.
Some of the best designs were for "tiny houses" or tiny units as small as 300 square feet, about half the size of the typical efficiency apartment. Big windows and skylights were among the modern touches to make them seem larger.
Against this backdrop of innovative thinking, however, the sad sameness of what's being built in Raleigh was on everyone's mind. It's either expensive single-family houses or else cookie-cutter apartment projects with big parking decks, no grass and rents of $2 per square foot or higher, meaning $2,000 per month for a 1,000-square-foot apartment.
The market, someone said, is great if you work for Red Hat, the software company, and make $80,000. It's not great for the nearly 50,000 households in Raleigh with incomes of $50,000 or less, according to the American Community Survey. Two-thirds are considered "cost burdened" because they're paying more than 30 percent of gross income for housing.
"We need to make places for working families and kids," architect Tina Govan said. "There's a missing middle," Warren agreed.
So what to do?
The downtown plan, prepared by Sasaki Associates, is a faithful assessment of what city officials and developers think should happen in the next 10 years. Nash Square and Moore Square should be spruced up. Hargett and Martin streets are the sweet spots for "new development," "active streetlife" and "vibrant retail." A big grocery should go on one or the other.
In the plan, these goals are depicted with a picture of upscale 20-somethings, who might work for Red Hat except that they're hanging out at a ritzy tavern in Washington, D.C.
The plan, in other words, is to keep doing what we've been doing, with many more upscale projects, until they fill in the spaces that continue to separate Glenwood South from the Warehouse District from Fayetteville Street from Moore Square—and, of course, the dismal design of state government buildings means the Peace Street developments are stranded up north for the time being.
It's an OK plan as far as it goes. And to repeat, that a nifty downtown is within our grasp is marvelous. But the plan doesn't go far enough, because working families and lower-income people with jobs downtown have no housing choices within it. And public transit, while mentioned, is left for another day.
As Warren said, the city's tax revenues are about to soar as projects like the 23-story SkyHouse Raleigh apartment project come to fruition. Why not use some of that sky-high money to incentivize innovative housing that average folks can live in? Use city land. Buy more.
And put these affordable units at transit stops so the folks can get around Raleigh without a car. First, of course, we have to decide where the transit stops should be.
Fortunately, the plan is up for public comment. This is mine.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Downtown Raleigh Goes the Way of D.C."