Nearly two years after he first suggested it, Orange Community Housing and Land Trust Executive Director Robert Dowling is still trying to convince the Chapel Hill Town Council to stop requiring developers to build so many affordable housing units and start accepting more cash instead. The town's planning staff is recommending that the council refer Dowling's petition to its affordable housing committee during tonight's Town Council meeting. Below, read a story from when Dowling first proposed this approach in January 2007.
By Jesse James DeConto
CHAPEL HILL - When she bought her three-bedroom townhouse at Meadowmont, Evan Hirasawa would have preferred a single-family home for herself and her two children.
But she wasn't complaining. It only cost her $95,000, right in the middle of Meadowmont Village, with million-dollar townhouses a stone's throw away.
The local art teacher was among the first moderate-income buyers in the town's "inclusionary housing" program, which requires developers to make 15 percent of their homes affordable to households earning $30,000 to $50,000 a year.
"It's been really helpful to me and my family," Hirasawa said.
Four years later, Meadowmont developer Roger Perry is planning another major project called East 54 on N.C. 54 near its intersection with U.S. 15/501.
Perry's affordable housing plan is challenging the town's inclusionary housing model.
In exchange for the town's approving high density -- half a million square feet on 11 acres -- Perry is offering to double the town's requirement: 30 percent affordable housing, or 60 out of 200 condos.
"This proposal is far and away the best affordable housing proposal that's ever been presented to this Town Council or any Town Council," said Robert Dowling, executive director of the nonprofit Orange Community Housing and Land Trust, which manages the inclusionary housing program.
Dowling proceeded to tell the Town Council to reject Perry's proposal.
"If we take all these units on, I can foresee really difficult problems," Dowling told the Town Council last month. "We're not Coldwell Banker. I have 1.5 people selling houses."
Dowling counts about 150 subsidized condominium units in the pipeline for construction over the next few years, with major building projects being planned downtown and along public transit corridors such as N.C. 54 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Those units would have to be managed by the land trust, which caps their future sales prices to ensure they remain affordable over time. The organization has five staff people to manage 125 existing homes.
"I'm a cautious person," Dowling said. "I'm not as brave as Roger Perry is."
Perry's company, East West Partners, will return to the Town Council on Feb. 26 for a final vote on the project, planned for the current site of the Best Western University Inn.
Dowling said the flood of condos would be harder to manage than single-family homes because condos are starter homes that few people, especially families, would live in for very long.
"They're going to turn over a lot," Dowling said. "That puts a lot of pressure on the organization."
Since they were built in 2003, seven out of 32 townhomes in Hirasawa's neighborhood have resold, one of theme twice.
"We don't plan to move, but I could see how it could be a steppingstone for some people," Hirasawa said. "They are on the small side."
Citing fear that Perry would build units the land trust couldn't sell, Dowling has suggested the town require the developer to build on 26 units -- 30 percent of the first phase of the project.
"Let's see how the land trust handles it," Dowling said. "I don't know the depth of the condo market."
Dolores Bailey, who also oversees development of affordable housing as executive director of Empowerment, Inc., made a similar argument in support of Greenbridge Development's plan to donate $525,000 in lieu of seven units that would be required by the town policy.
The plan for Greenbridge, which is also up for a vote Feb. 26, includes about 100 condos in the West End of downtown, seven of them artists' studios to satisfy the other half of the affordable housing quota.
"Everbody doesn't want to live in a condo," Bailey said. "Imagine the homes we could build for $500,000."
Dowling has likewise urged the council to accept cash from developers as a means of funding maintenance on the land trust's existing homes.
At $75,000 per unit, Perry's payment in lieu of the 34 units would exceed $2.5 million.
Dowling projects the land trust will need about $2.8 million over the next 25 years to renovate its existing housing stock. Moderate-income homeowners simply don't have the money to maintain their own homes, especially costly items such as roofs, heating and cooling systems.
Dowling asked the council to consider taking payments in lieu of housing units to help fund the long-term maintenance, but the council resisted.
"We get one chance to get units built by the private sector," said Mayor Pro Tem Bill Strom.