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 (The Michigan address listed on planning filings for the married couple is out of date, according to Yamin.)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.”
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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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.