DHIC: Down, but not out.

Last week brought news that DHIC‘s application for low-income housing tax credit funding for a project in Chapel Hill was denied. Although this is terribly disappointing, it in no way dampens my enthusiasm for the project or my interest in seeing it through to another application next year.

The application was rejected because DHIC’s own commitment of $300,000–itself a tremendous vote of confidence in the project–was not properly documented. While the mistake is regrettable, it says nothing about the merits of the project, which remain strong. I heartily second Mayor Kleinschmidt’s reaffirmation of the Council’s commitment to this promising and exciting opportunity, and I look forward to their trying again.

This is the first Chapel Hill venture for Raleigh-based DHIC. A market leader in the production of high-quality affordable rental housing, DHIC is the Triangle’s oldest and largest nonprofit housing organization. The application was for the first of two planned new rental communities: Greenfield Place, consisting of 84 apartments for working families with incomes up to 60 percent of the area median income. (A second planned phase, Greenfield Commons, consisting of about 60 apartments for seniors, would be the subject of a later application.)

Together, these proposed 144 low-income rental apartments form part of the Town Council’s vision for a redeveloped Ephesus-Fordham district. The project would be built on 8.5 acres of  Town-owned land on the northeast end of the district. The idea emerged from a mayor’s committee on affordable rental housing that my colleague Donna Bell and I co-chaired last summer. It gained strength from two other conversations. One was a close look at Town-owned properties with an eye toward selling the ones that no longer served appropriate needs. The other was the interest in ensuring that the Ephesus-Fordham district would include affordable housing.

The notion that a property with an appraised value of $2 million be invested in housing, rather than sold on the open market, reflects a notable turn in the community conversation about affordable housing. What I and other Council members have been hearing is a new willingness to invest public resources in solving this problem. It’s the same kind of thought that resulted in our budget decision to dedicate a penny of our tax dollar, now and into the future, to affordable housing.

The journey from last summer’s concept to the completed application took a tremendous amount of work by both DHIC and the Town–from understanding the site’s topographical challenges and infrastructure needs to ensuring that the necessary rezoning was put in place by an aggressive deadline. As a first step, the rezoning required a Council vote in favor of the entire Ephesus-Fordham form-based code district.

Although establishing of the form-based code district was controversial, support for the DHIC project has been consistently strong. Rental housing for people who make 60 percent or less of the area median income is greatly in demand. Homeless advocates, for example, have an eye on the project for its potential to house people emerging from homelessness under the housing first model.

Low-income housing tax credit projects comprise about 90 percent of the affordable rental housing currently built in the nation, and even so, it is not keeping up with demand. The crisis for very low-income Americans is severe. A report published today by the National Low Income Housing Coalition concludes that “it is nearly impossible for renters with income at or below 15 percent of area median income to find housing that they can afford.”

Tax credit applications are highly competitive. DHIC’s success this go-around was never a sure thing, despite their well-celebrated reputation for excellence.

To begin to understand the potential benefits of Greenfield Place and Greenfield Commons, we can look to a long-term study of a low-income housing tax credit project in Mount Laurel, New Jersey–the subject of the legal opinions resulting in the Mount Laurel Doctrine, which requires New Jersey municipalities to implement inclusionary housing policies.

The study, reported in the recent book Climbing Mount Laurel, found that moving into the apartments had the following impacts: a reduction in the number of negative life events, lowered levels of mental stress, increased employment and earnings. For children, living in the apartments meant they had a quiet place to study and more support from their parents, who spent less time worrying about daily needs.

The DHIC project, with the Town’s collaboration, will extend the many benefits of living in Chapel Hill to dozens of families who can’t now afford the rent. It responds to one of the key ideas of Chapel Hill 2020–the goal of becoming a more inclusive community. I count it lucky that such a fine organization as DHIC wants to partner with Chapel Hill, and I look forward to celebrating its success next year.



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