by Joe Schwartz
Chapel Hill rolled out a proposed Community Plan for Northside and Pine Knolls on Monday that leaders hope will help combat a student-rental takeover that is pricing out the town’s black and working class residents.
The plan comes during a six-month moratorium on development in those neighborhoods meant to buy time to craft a plan to keep housing affordable and better relations between students and long-term, single-family residents.
“I feel like I’m fighting for my life, and I shouldn’t have to feel like that, but the reason I feel like that is because investors came into my community with greed,” Keith Edwards, a long-term Northside resident, said during the public hearing.
“They came in and just ran over us like a bulldozer taking away our way of life.”
Born out of meetings with stakeholders and drafted by town planners and the Sustaining OurSelves coalition, the plan focuses on affordable housing, cultural and historic preservation, enforcement, education and outreach, parking and zoning.
Each facet includes solutions, action steps, goals, potential partners and costs.
Among the many recommendations: creating an affordable housing program, establishing a cultural community center, adding officers to enforce current code, crafting a guide to the rules for student renters, conducting an extensive parking study and limiting parking to four cars per house,
Proposed zoning changes would decrease the maximum size for a single-family dwelling from 2,000 square feet to 1,750 square feet, restrict the secondary building height from 35 feet to 26 feet and ban flag lots and rooming houses. The proposal also would OK duplexes and triplexes, which current aren’t allowed, so long as they are 100 percent affordable.
UNC leaders expressed support for the plan at Monday’s public hearing. Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Chris Payne said the school is increasing efforts to implore students to be good neighbors. He added that the campus has the capacity to and current does house about 56 percent of undergraduates.
Thought some members of town council and others who spoke expressed support for the changes, the key issue lies in enforcement. Even though Northisde and Pine Knolls have designated as Neighborhood Conservation Districts, developers have found ways to meet the letter but not the spirit of the law, in some cases, and in others, violations have gone unpunished.
That’s because the town has only 0.5 employees working on enforcement,
“I feel like this is 1980 again or 1990 again,” resident Estelle Mabry said. “I'm here to ask you to enforce the rules. that's the thing that's been missing.”
Councilwoman Penny Rich summed it up.
“I think that what I'm hearing over and over again is that we put really good ordinances in place, and then we don't enforce them," she said.
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward says he wants to fund a full-time position as soon as the plan is adopted. He also expressed disdain for the way investors have treated the neighborhoods.
“I don’t want to have a nice conversation with landowners that have been packing students into a house where there is supposed to be a limit of X number, and they are putting in twice that many,” Ward said. “They haven’t shown any respect to the community in that way.”
Chris Brewer was one of several investors who questioned the wisdom and intent of the plan.
“Do we really think this is going to create a better relationship?” he asked, describing the plan as a call to be good neighbors or we’ll fine you. “It appears it's trying to vilify investors and landlords who have done nothing illegal.”
But Alexander Stephens, an SOS organizer and associate director of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, countered that, “We aren't trying to vilify landlords. That is not our goal. Our goal is to preserve this community.”
Added colleague Hudson Vaughan, also an associate director at the Jackson Center and an SOS organizer, “We're not against student housing. It's the way that student housing is happening and what it's doing to the neighborhood.”
The council is scheduled to vote on the plan at its Jan. 9 meeting. The moratorium ends Jan. 31.