Chapel Hill leaders raced against state legislation this week to enact a moratorium on development in the town's two historically affordable African-American neighborhoods.
The move, expedited as the General Assembly ratified a bill awaiting Gov. Bev Perdue's signature to limit the authority of towns to freeze building, halts most construction until 2012 and creates a window to save a once-thriving family community now at risk as investors eye quick flips or a stream of student rental money.
Town Council members chose to side with the lifelong residents of Northside and Pine Knolls, whose families built the UNC campus and much of the town but who are struggling to stay in Chapel Hill. The council rejected the arguments of the lawyer for a gravel company that worries about losing business, and of a local contractor and a real estate agent who claimed the move would hurt home values, commissions and day laborers.
The formal vote on the moratorium originally was planned for June 27, but to beat the state legislation, it occurred Tuesday night after press time. Seven council members—five are needed for passage—said Monday they supported the resolution. It would freeze all applications for building and special use permits, with exceptions for foundation repair, safety issues, zoning violations, catastrophic matters or the removal of a structure to be replaced by one of the same size or smaller.
The moratorium, which will run until Jan. 31, 2012, is the result of a March petition from the Sustaining OurSelves Coalition (SOS), a group of church, civil rights and nonprofit leaders who live in and serve the affected neighborhoods. The push for a freeze was born from several organizing meetings that about 250 residents attended. They expressed concerns about the changing character of their neighborhoods, including lots being subdivided to squeeze two houses where one should go, as well as issues of illegal parking and rising property taxes.
In May, SOS garnered unanimous council support for a hearing on a moratorium, making a case that the neighborhoods face serious challenges but are still worth saving. Census data showed the black population had dwindled to 24 percent in Northside and nearby areas, from 38 percent in 2000 and 59 percent in 1980. Investors now own 45 percent of single-family homes there, and Hudson Vaughan, associate director of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for Saving and Making History and an SOS organizer, counted 30 homes at risk— owned by people older than 75, in the process of sale or empty. By charting each individual parcel, he found that families still occupy pockets of the neighborhood, but they are fast evaporating. He said not acting now would mean a "horrific summer."
"That sense of community togetherness really will shift from something that has been really tightly woven where the fabric has been really historically rich to where the fabric is completely transient," he cautioned.
The group underscored the argument at Monday's hearing. "It's not too late, but we have to do something now," said Alexander Stephens, who serves as associate director of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center and facilitates SOS.
The town's planning board voted 5-4 in opposition to the moratorium, some seeking a higher cap for repairs than the proposed $10,000, others worried that a freeze would be too divisive. Four residents wrote emails or spoke before the council with concerns that a freeze would hamper home improvements, but the council was swayed by the overwhelming support from neighborhood residents who spoke at the hearing.
"We refuse to live this way," Northside resident Keith Edwards told the council on Monday. "Something has got to be done."
A stroll through Northside shows that while development may have complied with the Neighborhood Conservation District (NCD) established in 2005, the first in town, it isn't preserving the history and feel that its drafters intended. Trash bins are left on the sidewalk all week, cars are crammed atop lawns and parties draw noise complaints. Families are being priced out by rising property taxes and the drive to build four-or-more-person, off-campus housing units within walking distance to UNC and Franklin Street.
"It's very distressing that it hasn't worked out even close to the way we hoped it would work," said Councilwoman Sally Greene, who served on the committee that drafted the district details.
The Northside NCD rules hold that homes cannot exceed 2,000 square feet, consume more than 25 percent of a total lot or be taller than 20 feet in primary height and 35 feet in secondary height. In Pine Knolls, where an NCD was created in 2006, the limit is 2,500 square feet, and there's a rule against using more than 30 percent of the yard for parking.
Both NCDs also classify any residence with more than two bedrooms and a bedroom-to-bathroom ratio of higher than one, or with more than three unrelated people living together, as "rooming houses," but those have been hard to enforce.
Rae Buckley, Chapel Hill's housing and neighborhood services senior planner, says developers have become skilled at meeting the ordinance requirements while still building properties that the NCD seeks to curb. She points to residences built right up to the square foot and height limits that are still able to squeeze in eight bedrooms. Sometimes bedrooms are classified as "computer rooms" or "garages."
Resident Velma Perry, who has lived all her life on Lindsay Street, calls them "motels."
Councilwoman Donna Bell, a Northside resident, says investors "repackaged the same thing and hoped that we wouldn't say anything."
Buckley said she pulled the file on 229 Roberson St. after seeing construction that almost doubled the size of the home. It met the rules, but it stands out next to the modest homes that sit adjacent.
"You are changing the whole infrastructure of Northside," said Vernelle Jones, a Northside homeowner who moved to Durham, opting against living with students on either side of her in houses that dwarfed hers. She now rents the property.
It's clear to all who seek to preserve the neighborhood now that zoning alone won't accomplish the charge. "Residents told us that the NCD wasn't working to stop investors changing the character of the neighborhood, and they are right," Buckley said. "We know the NCD can't stop everything. We need a broad-based approach, not just zoning."
There are more ideas than answers at this point, but among the strategies: establishing funds to help elderly residents pay property taxes, creating a weatherization and home improvement program, working with UNC to increase communication with student renters, adding stricter penalties to the NCD, increasing incentives for landlords to hold tenants accountable to ordinances, and developing more affordable housing.
SOS also plans to work with the Institute of Minority Economic Development and other groups, including the developers whose activities they seek to better regulate, to write better rules and spur on residents.
"The moratorium is not supposed to fix the problem," said C.J. Suitt, another SOS organizer and Jackson Center associate director. "It is a time out so we can get the injured player off of the field."