Richard Gurlitz, a Chapel Hill-based architect, found himself facing an unfriendly town council meeting last week.

He had presented early plans for The Reserve at Blue Hill, a 212-unit apartment complex meant to replace the current 65-unit Kings Arms Apartments on Ephesus Church Road, and it was time for the public and council to comment.

The new development would be taller, fancier, and, as council members noted, pricier. All 65 of the Kings Arms units were considered affordable. Only 31 of the new units would be.

Some current residents of Kings Arms sat through the meeting, grumbling and shaking their heads at renderings of cementitious panels, synthetic wood accents, and floor-to-ceiling windows. They also took to the podium to share their fears.

“In Hawaii, they have a saying: ‘It’s not heaven if the locals can’t afford to live here.’ Well it’s not ‘the southern part of heaven’ if the locals can’t afford to live here,” said one resident to applause.

“Folks, please,” said Mayor Pam Hemminger as she tried to keep order in the chamber, asking the crowd to wave their hands instead of clapping.

Maybe an earlier council would have been more friendly to Gurlitz’s presentation. But with a new affordable housing development plan and investment strategy on the agenda for later that night, council members were eager to show constituents that they were serious about affordability.

 “We as a council have expressed the goal of, and recognized, that this community needs more housing,” said council member Michael Parker. “But what we can’t have is a decrease in the existing affordable housing. That’s just an economic issue, but more importantly is a human issue.”

“The applicant shouldn’t be surprised that this is where this conversation is going if you’ve paid any attention to this council,” said mayor pro tem Karen Stegman. “And coming without even a real proposal for consideration is really a problem for me.”

The council didn’t take a vote on the future of the development last week. The hope is Gurlitz will come back with a proposal to preserve more affordable units.

After they finished expressing their displeasure with Gurlitz, the council moved on to discussion of the town’s affordable development plan and investment strategy, designed to guide policy over the next five years. It passed with unanimous approval. 

“I feel like there’s always an appropriate presentation before I come on,” joked Phillip Kash of HR&A Advisors, one of the town’s partners who helped develop the plan.

The 91-page document assesses the town’s current affordable housing efforts and provides recommendations to “reduce barriers to building homes, expand and preserve affordable homeownership, expand and preserve affordable rental housing, and increase staff and funding capacity.”

The document also looks to address racial discrepancies, citing higher prices as a “displacement pressure” that has caused a 32 percent decline in Black homeownership in Chapel Hill since 2010. By supporting construction of townhouses and duplexes, the “missing middle” between standalone single family homes and large apartment complexes, the plan would attempt to change a pattern of “historic discrimination and inequities in homeownership for Black households” most often seen in redlining and restrictive covenants.

Another recommendation is to create relocation assistance packages for renters, like those in Kings Arms Apartments, who are at risk of displacement or eviction.

“Affordable housing, as we’ve heard this evening already, continues to be one of our community’s greatest challenges. And it also is one of our council’s highest priorities. We believe that everyone in the community should have a safe and affordable place to call home,” said Sarah Viñas, the town’s director of affordable housing and community connections.

Viñas emphasized that the plan included both short and long-term changes. The first two steps would be to calibrate town’s the inclusionary zoning policy and identify funding sources.

Those funding sources were the biggest sticking point for some of the council members. The five-year plan would require $10 million a year to implement the new recommendations, while simply sustaining the pre-existing levels of funding impacts would only require $7 million annually. While the plan included suggestions for how to raise that money, including a new housing bond and a penny tax, it didn’t sugarcoat the fact that it would not be an easy journey.

“I support the strategy that you have, I think this is brilliant,” council member Amy Ryan told Viñas and Cash. “The place that I’m getting heartburn is the money.”

Instead of trying to quiet the audience, most of the council members joined in the clapping after their vote of approval.

Gurlitz, the architect, was nowhere to be seen.

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