3Cs fights ‘studentification’ in Chapel Hill

Local folks will remember the fights, several years ago, over the construction of Greenbridge — a “LEED-certified” monstrosity built right on top of one of Chapel Hill’s few remaining black business districts. When the shovels first broke ground on that building, I had pretty much lost hope that anything could be done to stop the tidal wave of greenwashed capital that was transforming Chapel Hill into a playground of condos and boutiques.

How things have changed!

For the past year or so, we @ 3Cs have been working with folks from UNC-NOW (a student-neighborhood alliance) and the Marian Cheek Jackson Center for  Saving and Making History to figure out how counter-mapping could be useful to the continuing struggles of residents of Northside and Pine Knolls. Northside and Pine Knolls are two of the remaining historic African-American neighborhoods in CH; more appropriately they’re the only names left for a cluster of historic neighborhoods on the W edge of Chapel Hill.

We started with a series of open workshops on basic GIS, counter-mapping and the situation in Northside so that we could all be on the same page in terms of basic technical skills and knowledge of the situation. A small group of us kept meeting more-or-less weekly to dig through data, strategize, and make maps. We poured over lists of property owners to determine which ones were investors and which were homeowners. We found out that investors from as far away as Hawaii owned property in Northside, and that the neighborhood’s demographics had shifted from 60% black to 34% in just 30 years. That shift is being driven by ‘studentification’ — as student housing becomes more and more scarce in Chapel Hill, landlords are able to charge outrageously high rents to students (often $500/month for a single room in a packed 6 or 8 bedroom house) . Because the rate of profit is so high, outside investors and developers want into the market, and because Northside and Pine Knolls lack the historic protections of other neighborhoods near campus the best way for them to get in is to convince Northside residents to sell their homes, then either tear them down or renovate them on the cheap to create student apartments.

As we started mapping this process, we were blown away by just how quickly the changeover from family neighborhood to student apartments had taken place in Northside. We remembered visiting friends who had lived in student rentals in the neighborhood in the early 2000s, when it was still predominately black families. Looking at the maps, we could see that most of the change had happened in the past 5 years.

And things were still changing rapidly… if there was a chance to stop the developers, something would have to happen fast.

A few weeks ago, we joined residents and activists in  pushing Chapel Hill’s town council to enact a development moratorium. If it passes, the moratorium would make it stop developers from building any new apartments or renovating any houses for several years, giving all of us some time to organize and figure out how to preserve Northside and Pine Knolls as affordable, family neighborhoods for the long-term. Hudson Vaughan, of the Jackson Center, presented some of the maps we’ve been working on as he made the case that “something needs to happen and happen fast”. To our amazement, Council agreed — unanimously voting to move forward in considering the moratorium, against the recommendations of their own town planning department.

Now we’re getting together more and updated maps to support the testimony of neighborhood residents and activists at an upcoming public hearing, after which the Council will make a final determination. Stay tuned for more…

3 responses on “3Cs fights ‘studentification’ in Chapel Hill

  1. Louis

    I don’t understand why stopping development is good for low and moderate-income people in Chapel Hill. A moratorium will only raise the values of existing properties, which will result in higher property taxes for everyone, new and old residents alike. A better policy would be a homesteader’s tax credit, limiting the increase in property taxes for those who have owned houses for more than 10 years, accompanied by the permitting of high-density housing on Rosemary Street. Increase the supply of housing in downtown Chapel Hill to meet the demand, stabilize property taxes for historic Northside, and the neighborhood will remain mixed-income, and owner-occupied.

  2. countercartographies

    @Louis — why will a moratorium raise property values? property values in the area currently are skyrocketing not because homeowners are trying to move there but b/c investors are trying to buy them to demolish or renovate into student housing. you’re right that in many places a development moratorium would cause prices to go up by limiting the available supply of new residential housing, but in this case we’re talking about a fixed supply of houses.

    the moratorium is a temporary fix in order to give folks time to work out more long-term policy solutions, including homestead tax credits, better property tax relief, a land trust model, and a stricter zoning code. the number of building permits for outside investors in the nbhd for the first half of 2011 alone is as high as it’s been in any whole year, so it seems pretty clear that without a temporary stop, by the time we can enact any of the other many viable solutions the whole nbhd will be student rentals.

    1. Louis

      @countercartographies How would the fact of a fixed supply of houses change anything? Go to Isla Vista, Calif., where building moratoria have forced UC-Santa Barbara students to live in incredibly cramped, expensive housing and, more broadly, priced low- and middle-class wage earners in Santa Barbara and UCSB out of anywhere within an hour’s drive. The demand for housing in Chapel Hill won’t go away, and it’s far better for the city to meet that demand by permitting more construction in the downtown district (which only includes the Rosemary edge of Northside) than to focus on building moratoria.

      I would support a building moratoria in Northside if it was accompanied by a support for building mixed-use apartment buildings on Rosemary Street, but instead this effort seems to be just NIMBYism and misguided anti-urbanism, complicated by the history of segregation.