Chapel Hill cracks down on Northside housing ordinances to help with affordability

Judy Johnson, principal planner for Planning and Sustainability for Chapel Hill, presents the Neighborhood Conservation District amendments for the Northside and Pine Knolls neighborhoods to the Chapel Hill Town Council on Monday, Feb. 8. The council approved changes that would affect the affordability and energy efficiency of the homes in these neighborhoods. (Janell Smith/Carrboro Commons)
Judy Johnson, principal planner for Planning and Sustainability for Chapel Hill, presents the Neighborhood Conservation District amendments for the Northside and Pine Knolls neighborhoods to the Chapel Hill Town Council on Monday, Feb. 8. The council approved changes that would affect the affordability and energy efficiency of the homes in these neighborhoods. (Janell Smith/Carrboro Commons)

Change — it’s something the Northside neighborhood has grown accustomed to over the years.

On Feb. 8, the Chapel Hill Town Council approved ordinances that would create more changes in the historic, black Chapel Hill neighborhood. These changes include improving the affordability and energy efficiency of homes in the neighborhood.

The ordinances also raised concerns about enforcement issues with student renters.

Mayor Pam Hemminger said the timing of these ordinances was crucial, as students are beginning their housing search for the fall semester. “The main goal is safety and enough housing for everyone,” she said.

Judy Johnson, principal planner for planning and sustainability for Chapel Hill, said staff met with residents, property owners and the Planning Commission over the past several months on this initiative and presented three ordinances to the Town Council for approval.

The first ordinance, the Northside Neighborhood Conservation District Plan, is meant to preserve the history and charm of Northside, while promoting diversity, affordability and community interaction, Johnson explained. Similarly, the second ordinance for the Pine Knolls Conservation District aims to preserve the “character of a particular, older residential neighborhood.” The third ordinance sought to increase the floor area of single-family homes to up to 2,250 feet in the Northside and Pine Knolls Conservation Districts.

According to the Town of Chapel Hill website, Neighborhood Conservation Districts are a set of land regulations that are applied to specific neighborhoods as an overlay zoning district. The Town of Chapel Hill has nine NCDs that regulate physical design but cannot regulate noise, ownership, affordability, sidewalks or streets in the neighborhood. Northside was the first NCD created in 2004, followed by Pine Knolls in 2006.

In 2012, the Council approved a six-point community plan that included affordable housing, cultural and historic preservation, enforcement, education and outreach, parking and zoning.

Student renters

Because of state legislation that eliminates the local governments’ ability to regulate design elements for one- and two-family homes, enforcement issues have underpinned the need for these ordinances. Student renters tend to violate Chapel Hill’s occupancy rule, which restricts the number of unrelated occupants in one house to four people.

Delores Bailey, executive director of EmPowerment Inc., said enforcement is critical. “It’s not fair,” she said. “I live at 203 N. Graham Street; I still hear the parties. Not only do I hear the noise from just the parties now — if you’ll remember the arcade is on North Graham Street — I hear that all night long as well.”

From overcrowding to displacing students, Bailey said what’s happening in Northside is a burden for the neighborhood. “There has got to be, again, some relief for the neighborhood.”

Bailey said she wants the community to figure out how to solve these issues without penalizing students, while still holding landlords responsible.

Hudson Vaughn, deputy director of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, said structural changes have helped reduce these housing violations and have made renters better neighbors.

“The [state]-mandated changes are unfortunate because the design has had a huge positive impact,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn mentioned one house that had six violations, four in one year. He said that other nearby houses, built after the community plan and redesign, housed students without any disruptions to the neighborhood.

“The collective efforts are working, and I hope we can stay that course,” Vaughn added.

By 2010, homeownership rates in Northside had fallen from 28 percent to around 21 percent. Much of this trend is due to student demand. Sixty-three percent of UNC-Chapel Hill students live off-campus, and they make up roughly 55 percent of renters in Chapel Hill, according to a 2012 report by community development nonprofit Self-Help.

According to the Town of Chapel Hill, gentrification of the neighborhood has nearly halved the number of African-American residents in the past 30 years as a result of affordability issues.

Community preservation

Zachary Kopkin, coordinator for organizing and advocacy at the Jackson Center, said  the Center has become a prime vehicle in preserving the Northside neighborhood. To celebrate the neighborhood’s history and diversity, the Jackson Center has collected hundreds of oral histories over the years.

“I think that’s kind of the beauty of it, too,” Kopkin said about the oral histories and neighborhood. “There isn’t one story, and the community members only want to be neighbors. They want the students here.”

Kopkin added, “Everything we do…it’s just a result of what we hear. We go to Town Hall and bring our neighbors with us in order to preserve our future.”

The future of the Northside Neighborhood Conservation District partially depends on the town’s ability to enforce its housing ordinances and maintain an orderly and family-oriented neighborhood. The town has hired two new enforcement officers, which was a welcomed change.

Councilmembers also suggested strengthening the relationship between community members and UNC-CH students, increasing students’ awareness of consequences of violations and implementing more proactive enforcement policies.

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Author of the article

Janell is a senior journalism and global studies at UNC-CH serving as editor of the Carrboro Commons