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Weavers Grove: A case study on mixed-income, public-private housing

City of Wilmington

Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity held its annual fundraising event on Friday, with a keynote focused on mixed-income development. The case study was Weavers Grove in Chapel Hill, a development blending private development with publicly-supported affordable housing.

KK: So Ben, we went to Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity’s Golden Hammer breakfast, where they tout their achievements and thank donors for their support. And there were some interesting facts presented there. Last year, they got 10 families affordable mortgages, and got 28 families critical home repairs for existing homes. And they’re building a 35-home neighborhood called Haven Place, thanks to a land donation from New Hanover County.

BS: That’s here locally, but I was really interested in their keynote speaker — Richard Turlington from the Orange County, North Carolina Habitat for Humanity. They pulled together a really interesting project over there.

KK: But it took them more than 20 years because of really harsh opposition from neighbors. And the 2008 financial crash.

BS: Yeah, the project went through a lot of iterations for sure — It’s a really interesting case of why it’s so hard to build affordable housing.

KK: So here’s the basic rundown. Habitat in Orange County got ahold of about 17 acres within Chapel Hill city limits in the early 2000s. They hoped to build affordable housing there, but because it is located near a high-wealth neighborhood, they faced tremendous pushback from neighbors.

BS: They eventually got a revamped plan going...

KK: ...just in time for the market to crash, killing their momentum and killing the project financially.

BS: But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The great recession meant nearby landowners suddenly wanted to sell off those properties, and Habitat was in a position to buy them.

KK: At the same time, organizers at Habitat started to reconsider their hesitancy with mixed-income development. They actually embraced it as a way to make a large and ambitious project pencil out.

BS: So in this case, they basically decided to become the “developer” for their land. They got their land zoned, parceled out, and got it connected to water and sewer, with roads leading to different plots. Then, they sold off some of the land they had set up so nicely.

KK: For a substantial amount of money! Single-family plots sold for $100,000, and they sold off a couple plots aimed at condos for $1 million apiece.

BS: That also means this area isn’t just mixed-income, it’s also mixed housing types: they have condos, single-family homes, duplexes, and townhomes.

KK: All in all, there are 237 housing units on just 32 acres of land. 101 of those units are habitat units — so they’re affordable to people making, at most, 80% of the area’s median income. And they’ve put walking trails and other amenities in the neighborhood, which will facilitate the inter-community mixing that has substantial lifelong benefits for low-income neighbors.

BS: Right. Turlington talked about how children who move to better neighborhoods have 31% higher lifetime earnings, and are 32% more likely to attend college.

KK: I think The Indicator from Planet Money had an interesting episode about how cross-pollination between income brackets has positive effects on society and the economy. And this is a neighborhood built for that.

BS: My question is how we can do something like this in New Hanover County. The first question is obviously land — there is a lot of it that’s zoned for low-density residential in the northern part of the county.

KK: The county could allow re-zonings for affordable housing developments, but we’ve seen recently that even affordable developments that have staff’s approval can get rejected at the planning board.

BS: Still, maybe this mixed-income, mixed-housing type style of development will be more palatable. It did pass in Orange County.

KK: Unanimously, but at 2 a.m., according to Turlington. It was a real battle. I guess things like neighborly opposition never change.

BS: There’s also the issue of cost — affordable housing isn’t cheap. But there was obviously public support: Orange County Habitat raised roughly $8 million dollars from the public towards the project. Plus the county there kicked in nearly $400,000 — and Chapel Hill itself provided $3.5 million.

KK: And we have something here Chapel Hill doesn’t — the New Hanover Community Endowment.

BS: I did see Endowment VP Lakesha McDay at the breakfast…I wonder if she found this presentation as interesting as we did!

KK: We’ll have to wait and see. But, for now, Ben thanks for helping me unpack this.

BS: Happy to do it.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.
Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.