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Developers, residents butt heads over Crowne Pointe

The Durham City Council could be called on to decide the fate of a proposed affordable housing development Monday night. 

It would be understandable if the zoning map change that’s been requested to enable the construction of Crowne Pointe is overshadowed by other business on the agenda. After all, the other public hearing scheduled for Monday involves the proposed 2011-12 budget and the city’s five-year capital plan, both of which should affect far more people in Durham. 

But for many people living in vicinity of the now-vacant 6200 and 6300 Barbee Road, the council’s decision could have an immediate and long-reaching impacts. 

Maggie Considine, a real estate broker and resident of Auburn, near the proposed complex, has been encouraging many of her neighbors to make their feelings known to council members. 

“Most of the people that I have talked to really do not like the idea of a low-income housing project being built close to our neighborhood,” she said. “They don’t like the idea of the increased traffic on Barbee Road. They don’t like the idea of a concentration of low-income housing that close. 

“My personal feeling is that when something like that gets built in a neighborhood, the perception of that neighborhood goes down, and it means that property values tend to go down.” 

The requested zoning change would move the couple’s 7.3 acres from a low-medium density residential category to multifamily residential suburban. Despite staff having deemed the change consistent with local planning policy, the Planning Commission on May 10 voted 10-1 against allowing the 58-unit complex to be constructed. 

Jim Yamin is the president of Workforce Homestead Inc. of Chapel Hill and one of three developers of the property, along with landowners Leslie Smith and Gregory David of Cary. (The Michigan address listed on planning filings for the married couple is out of date, according to Yamin.) 

When asked about the Planning Commission vote, Yamin sighed and chuckled. He then paused before stating that he has worked on affordable housing for 25 years. “Residents justifiably are concerned with the integrity of their neighborhood and remaining crime-free, keeping property values up, traffic, and all that,” Yamin said. 

“The place where we kind of get off track in every one of these public hearings and public debates is that I think people’s fears kind of rule the day, unsupported by any kind of objective factual backup to those fears.” 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Kelly Culver is property manager for Auburn and the nearby Crooked Creek, where she lives. The homeowners association for which she works has not and likely will not take an official position on Crowne Pointe, but she opposes the complex. 

One of Culver’s biggest concerns is the traffic the apartments might bring. A Planning Department report shows that Crowne Pointe would only add some 350 daily car trips to Barbee Road. In 2009, staff figures show, Barbee carried about 8,800 vehicles per day, well under its expected capacity of 11,700. 

“Numbers on a page is not the same thing as a small two-lane curvy country road that’s handling traffic coming in and out of communities, people cutting through, driving way too fast for the way the road is designed,” Culver said. “And then adding another 350 cars a day on top of it? That’s ... been a major concern to a lot of people.” 

Another point opponents of Crowne Pointe make is that Auburn has seen home values decline in recent years, even before the complex was proposed. 

Chris Arena moved to Auburn’s Copper Creek subdivision four years ago. A new accountant who says he is ambivalent about Crowne Pointe, Arena estimates that prices in the area have dropped 5 percent since he bought his home. 

Culver said that local homes that once might have sold in a matter of weeks have been on the market for many months, and that many houses in the neighborhood are now worth less than the money owed on them. 

Considine sells houses in Auburn as well as elsewhere around the Triangle. “There are something like 30 homes for sale on the market right now in that neighborhood, and I feel like it doesn’t need anything else to give people an excuse not to buy there.” 

Considine said that she isn’t opposed to low-income housing and that she is fine with some Auburn residents using Section 8 housing subsidies. But she believes that is very different from a project such as Crowne Pointe. 

“I don’t think concentrations of low-income housing help anybody,” Considine said. “I don’t think it helps the people who live there to get out of their situations. I don’t think it helps the neighborhood around them. I just think it’s overall a bad idea.” 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Yamin says that many of the criticisms neighbors are leveling at Crowne Pointe come from an older generation of public housing projects. He described them as poorly built, poorly managed apartments that frequently saw bad behavior by tenants. 

But lessons have been learned since then, said Yamin, who expects to finance nearly two-thirds of Crowne Pointe’s $7.3 million cost with federal affordable housing tax credits and another 8 percent or so with similar state credits. 

“The actual experience with tax-credit projects has nothing in common with the negative images of quote-unquote ‘projects’ of 20, 30 years ago,” the developer said. 

The residents of Crowne Pointe would be screened using credit and criminal record checks and would be subject to quarterly apartment inspections to make sure dwellings are being properly maintained, Yamin said. Tenants would sign leases subjecting them to eviction for disruptive behavior. 

Residents “have to earn income,” the developer said. “They’ve got to pay rent. It just so happens that the rent is lowered because of the features of the permanent financing, specifically all the credit equity in the deal.” 

Yamin also argues that the perception that affordable housing projects causes surrounding property values to drop is false. He cited a brochure by the Center for Housing Policy and National Housing Conference that describes research debunking that belief. 

He also cited Carrboro’s Winmore development and Chapel Hill’s Cosgrove Hill. The former incorporates affordable housing, while the latter is located near Dobbins Hill, an affordable housing community. Both Winmore and Cosgrove Hill boast luxury homes, Yamin said. 

“Why are people buying those very high-end homes apparently not concerned that there is a tax credit project right in the middle of their community?” Yamin asked. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Another bone of contention between the opposing parties is Yamin’s March 22 request to speed up the zoning change process, citing the need to meet a June 10 deadline in the federal government’s annual housing tax credit application cycle. 

In a May 2 memo, Steve Medlin, the city-county planning director, wrote: “the applicant stated that he was made aware of the relevant deadline in early December 2010, prior to the submittal of the zoning map change application, but delayed making the request until March 22.” 

Considine blasted the developers request to expedite the process, calling it “as sleazy as can be.” 

“Doing an end run around neighborhood opposition is just the wrong way to game this process,” the real estate broker said. 

But Yamin said that the request wasn’t born from the desire to do an end run. Instead, he and his partners asked to accelerate the process because it lasted so long that they came to fear missing the federal deadline. 

“This whole business with the expedited review request was completely innocuous,” he said. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When questioned about the situation Friday morning, Mayor Bill Bell said he had been receiving messages from the public about Crowne Pointe. He declined to disclose what they said, and he wouldn’t indicate how he might be leaning on the matter. 

“The purpose of the public hearing is to hear input, and I try to wait until that happens until I make a final decision,” Bell said. 

That decision may end up being delayed. On Friday, Yamin said that he and his partners were considering delaying Crowne Pointe for a year “to continue to talk with residents about other approaches to developing that parcel that they’d be satisfied with [and] we’d be satisfied with.” 

Yamin used to run Durham Community Land Trustees, an affordable housing agency, and was an official with the N.C. Housing Finance Authority, and his sense is that the City Council “wants to be supportive” of affordable housing. 

“But in this particular case, I just feel like the way the dynamics are shaping up, unfortunately, our prognosis is not looking real good for City Council approval next Monday night,” Yamin acknowledged. 

Already, he claimed, he and his partners have gone above and beyond the call of duty, holding a meeting with neighbors that was not technically required. And the partners have committed to surrounding the apartments with materials comparable to existing area fences and to building:

* a committed left-turn lane on Barbee Road to access the complex; 

* a gazebo, a playground, a tot lot, two picnic tables and a grill; 

* and a community center with a multipurpose room, a kitchen, a laundry room, and a computer room with two computers. 

That hasn’t mattered so far in persuading neighbors to welcome Crowne Pointe. And maybe it won’t matter even if Yamin, Smith and David take another year to try to bring neighbors around. 

Still, maybe some neighbors can be moved. Arena has concerns about Crowne Pointe, but he’s willing to take an objective look at whether it might harm traffic, crime and property. 

“No one is showing any sort of proof that this complex is going to bring those things,” Arena said. “Until I see that, I’m not against it.” 

Which is the kind of approach Yamin says he wants. It will be interesting to see not just what decision is made but how the matter is decided. 

Comments

Matt Drew

The thing about this article that confuses me is that not a single person questions the wisdom of building yet more housing, in a city with a such an obvious plethora of vacant and boarded up housing. So instead of supporting groups that are rehabilitating and re-using existing housing, the plan is to build expensive new housing via huge subsidies from the Feds - notably, money that the Feds don't have and are borrowing?

Rob Gillespie

@MD-
I agree with you about the need to do something about boarded up houses being hoarded away by their owners. The vast majority of boarded up houses are privately owned, though. Would you suggest that the city be allowed to seize boarded up houses, say after being boarded for more than 6 months, for their fair market value (often times below $15,000) and rehabilitate them for affordable housing?

Matt Drew

@Rob-
No, I don't think that's necessary or a good idea. It would be slightly better than bulldozing them, which is what the city does now, but I think the damage to property rights would offset those benefits and that the shifting of such power to the city would have a corrupting influence. There's enough eminent domain abuse now that we don't need to add to the problem.

There are plenty of private organizations that are working to buy houses and rehab them before the bulldozers get to them. And private owners aren't the only ones hoarding housing:

http://endangereddurham.blogspot.com/2011/01/1102-wall-street.html

The city could start by divesting itself of housing that it has, and working with HUD and others to get their abandoned properties into the hands of those who can rebuild them.

It's also my understanding that private owners gain a significant state tax benefit from owning property, regardless of its condition, and that's the reason they can afford to keep paying property taxes year after year while the houses rot. Working to remove that incentive might loosen their grip on existing housing and get things moving quicker.

bb

I generally support developments like this, but all of those commitments mentioned (besides the left turn lane) are requirements for receiving federal low income housing funding anyway. I'm not sure it's entirely fair to then point to those as examples of going above and beyond the call of duty...

David

The article states that there is little to no evidence that low income housing hurts property value, as if that is reassuring. The best case scenario is that low income housing is neutral with regards to nearby property value. Its just common sense to see that there is no upside to low income housing with regards to property value. I would like to see my house value go back to the level it was when I bought it, this proposal will not do anything to further that goal.

Tina

Is there Bus service on that part of Barbee? If not how far away are the bus stops and will the developer build safe sidewalks to and from the bus stops to the complex. Seems like a no brainer when you are talking about helping low incoming housing folks.

Erik Landfried

@David - I don't live anywhere near this proposed project, but I too would like my housing value to increase. This proposal will also not do anything to further that goal.

What's your point?

Khalid

@ Matt - I've heard the property rights defense before but an abandoned property is infringing on the property rights of ALL the surrounding property owners. That's not fair. Plus as Rob questioned (or stated) :) a property that has been boarded for 6 months is essentially abandoned. I would add stipulations as far as securing, stabilizing and marketing the house for rent/sale to avoid being classified as abandoned.

As far as this development is concerned, I hate that most LIHTC properties seem to have to be 100% low-income (<60%) housing. I still condone requiring ALL new developments to have an affordable housing component (around 15 -20%). That's roughly 12 units for this particular development but once the economy improves you would have well over 50 affordable units/ built across the city per year by private developers. All without concentrating; pigeon-holing; designating where THOSE people should live.

Tar Heelz

Sounds like the applicant, opponents, and the City Council need to read up on NC's laws prohibiting discrimination against affordable housing in land use decisions...

http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/Sessions/2009/Bills/Senate/PDF/S810v7.pdf

Natalie

The developer withdrew their petition so the point is moot for now.

John Martin

@Tar Heelz
You might read it as well: "It is not a violation of this Chapter if land-use decisions or permitting of development is based on considerations of limiting high concentrations of affordable housing."

Khalid

@ John

The intent is probably on a census-block level versus an individual project level. The language does leave it up to interpretation I guess though.

Kevin Davis

@John M.: To me, "concentrating" LIH in an area applies more to places like Cleveland-Holloway that have disproportionately high levels of such housing as a percentage of units, than to bringing initial affordable housing to an area.

As Natalie notes, with the withdrawal this seems moot for now.

John Martin

@BCR

I was not weighing in on the merits of this issue. I was simply making the point that the particular law cited by Tar Heelz wouldn't resolve this dispute. Maggie Constantine, quoted in the article as opposed to the project, argued that it represented "concentrations of low-income housing. . ." She may be right or wrong, but if the Planning Commission or the City Council decides she's right, they could deny the permits without violating the statute.

Tar Heelz

@John,

The Council can of course, cite whatever justification they like. Simply saying magic words may not be enough. Rather, the courts will decide the issue in light of the remainder of the statute and its guidance upon what acts of a council are inferred to be discriminatory against affordable housing.

Keep in mind that a court's consideration of this provision will be set in the context of well-established housing discrimination law.

Rob Gillespie

@Tar Heelz-
It's my understanding that income is not a protected class (things like race, sex, ethnicity, and age are), so most housing discrimination laws and past rulings don't offer insight into how courts will rule on NC's relatively new statute.

I'm not a lawyer, though, and I can't even pretend to play one on TV.

Tar Heelz

@Rob,

Rather than a constitutional class protection, it is a protection afforded by statute. In adopting the protection of affordable housing, the NC General Assembly added discrimination affordable housing to the list of prohibitions.

"It is an unlawful discriminatory housing practice to discriminate in land-use decisions or in the permitting of development based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicapping condition, familial status, or, except as otherwise provided by law, the fact that a development or proposed development contains affordable housing units for families or individuals with incomes below eighty percent (80%) of area median income."

John Martin

@Tar Heelz

Rob means to say that race, national origin and religion are "suspect classes" (not "protected classes") and therefore government actions that affect these "suspect classes" have to withstand "strict scrutiny." Translated, that means the government has to have some compelling state interest in order to take an action that would adversely affect these "suspect classes." Almost nothing has ever survived "strict scrutiny."

The state statute cited by Tar Heelz protects "affordable housing" but since that's not a "suspect class," it is only subject to "rational basis review" not "strict scrutiny." In other words, did the governmental body have a "rational basis" for what they did? Since the statute itself specifically allows "limiting high concentrations of affordable housing," it would be easy to find that the Planning Commission or the City Council had a "rational basis" for rejecting the rezoning. Remember, in judicial review, the question is not whether the judge would have voted the same way had she been on the Council, but only whether or not there is a statutory or constitutional violation.

I find myself irritated with Tar Heelz continuing to argue this point because he seems to imagine that state law or judge's decisions can be a substitute for the City of Durham developing a sensible policy on affordable housing. The City simply seems to blow in the political wind, talking a good game, but not actually figuring out how it's going to achieve its affordable housing goals. The result is that neighborhoods like Auburn have a comparatively easy time blocking affordable housing initiatives, and most affordable housing then ends up being built in neighborhoods that already relatively poor.

No one-page state statute or judge's decision will solve that problem.

Frank Hyman

@ John Martin

"The result is that neighborhoods like Auburn have a comparatively easy time blocking affordable housing initiatives, and most affordable housing then ends up being built in neighborhoods that already relatively poor."

You got that right.

Dwayne

@Frank:

Thank you for stating what is REALLY the problem.

I seriously doubt she'd be opposed to luxury condo's being built by her home.

Low income doesn't mean "Low Life". If you want to gauge what type of community you live in, look at how it views the most unfortunate.

KM

I wish the money would be spent on fixing up or rebuilding the current low income housing. The apartments along Liberty and Elizabeth are horrendous!

Tar Heelz

JM wrote, "I find myself irritated with Tar Heelz continuing to argue this point because he seems to imagine that state law or judge's decisions can be a substitute for the City of Durham developing a sensible policy on affordable housing."

1) I need not imagine it. Such is patent reality. The City Council derives its existence and all power from the General Assembly. Durham is a municipal corporation chartered by the legislature. The Council has not a single right without the State's say-so. Here the State has announced that discrimination in land use based on the designated/projected income of the residents is not permitted (with the noted safety valve of avoiding undue concentration (ie "packing") of affordable housing in certain areas. Heck, without Article 19 of Chapter 160A, Durham could have no zoning regulation whatsoever.

2) Thank you for the primer on Constitutional Law. While accurate insofar as your lecture goes, it is entirely misplaced here. This prohibition on discrimination is state statute-based -- not constititionally grounded. There will be no "rational basis test" applied to a consideration by NC's courts to whether the City may have violated this state statute..

3) I did not intend in my original post to argue anything. I merely hoped to add to the discussion the recently enacted legislation intended to broaden opportunities for affordable housing.

Journalist

The article says, "Mayor Bill Bell said he had been receiving messages from the public about Crowne Pointe. He declined to disclose what they said." If those articles are written, they are public record.

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