More houses equals lower rent

by | Apr 21, 2023 | Editor's Blog, Politics | 11 comments

For years, I spent several weeks every summer in Minneapolis. In 2019, the city was in the midst of the divisive 2040 campaign. Housing advocates proposed a plan to eliminate single-family zoning in the city as rent and housing prices were driving people further and further from downtown. Many of the old neighborhood organizations put up fierce resistance. In the tonier neighborhoods around the lakes, signs reading “Developers win! Neighborhoods lose! Stop MPLS 2040” popped up at houses sporting Black Lives Matter signs and rainbow flags. In a very Democratic city, it was a liberal verses liberal fight.

Today, I feel a sense of déja vu riding around Chapel Hill. Driving through upscale neighborhoods surrounding the University, many, if not most, yards have signs reading, “No rezoning! Protect Our Neighborhoods.” The same fight that played out in Minneapolis is playing here and the sides are essentially the same, the limo liberals versus the working class liberals. 

In Minneapolis, as in Chapel Hill, residents in neighborhoods that watched their values skyrocket over the years are worried about the impact on their investments and their quality to life. Zoning, they believe, keeps greedy developers, as well as less desirable people, out of their backyards. They worry that eliminating their single-family status will replace grand homes with mini-apartment complexes, ushering in less well-maintained rental properties, increased traffic, and more people. 

It’s too early to know if some of their fears will be realized or not, but Minneapolis passed their 2040 plan in October 2019. Since then, rents have stayed flat so the plan appears to be working. Pew released a study showing that from 2017 to 2023, rents in Minneapolis rose just 1% while they increased 31% nationally. Other jurisdictions that reformed their zoning policies to allow more housing also saw their rents rise at substantially lower rates. And all of them had populations that grew faster than the nation as a whole. 

Pew writes, “The evidence indicates that more flexible zoning helped these places add new housing faster than new households formed or moved in to fill the homes. And that helped slow rent growth.” In other words, what Chapel Hill housing advocates want is working in other cities. It will almost certainly work here.

The question is really one of community values. If Chapel Hill residents really want to be a more welcoming and accepting place, as they’ve indicated with their Black Lives Matter and other yard signs, then they need to make it more affordable for the people who work here. If they want to protect the environment for future generations, then they need to embrace density to make more services and amenities accessible to people who walk, bike, and use public transportation. 

I haven’t been to Minneapolis since last summer, but all those high-end neighborhoods were still intact. No dramatic transformation had taken place. Any changes will be slow. The most likely impact will be a mix of the large single-family homes that now exist with intermittent duplexes and triplexes providing housing for people who can’t afford million dollar homes but still want easy access to the lakes, greenways, and public transportation that keeps downtown, midtown, and uptown jobs available without long commutes. 

In Chapel Hill, the fights used to be over student rentals moving into neighborhoods. Now, as the town has developed, they’re about housing for people who make the urban village functional and special—the police officers, the hospital workers, the university employees, the restaurant workers, and the creative types who fill the galleries and music venues. As I wrote earlier, the Save Chapel Hill crowd wants to keep the town for themselves while excluding people who make it interesting. It won’t work. They’ve either got to accept changes and help the town evolve or continue using zoning to keep people out. 


  1. Ellie Kinnaird

    I always enjoy Politics NC. But is that picture of you accurate? Looks like you’re not the slim and trim Thomas I have known. P.S. thanks for the report on housing changes in Minneapolis. But Chapel Hill is lots smaller and more elite.

    • ringlet86

      People grow old.

      He sorta looks like Mitch McConnel in that picture.

  2. Kayman

    Thomas, Charlotte already experienced this in 2021-2022 with the Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan, Unified Development Ordinance, and 2040 Policy Map passage. Also, Charlotte is the best example of a major US city within the North Carolina state borders that you can look at the benefits of allowing more nimble and flexible zoning and development regulations allows more affordable house choices. We are aggressively adding more duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes along with adding accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to single-family residential zoned properties.

  3. Allen Walton

    Perhaps a more creative solution would work. To attract people to the neighborhood who contribute to the quality of life of the city, government should carve out a zoning exemption for the single family dwelling on the lot to include a small rental house in the back yard. Target it to people who can prove they work in Chapel Hill. The neighborhood remains the same, apartments won’t be replacing the stand alone house, and the population density of those areas near the city center will be increased. It’s a win-win solution.

    • ringlet86

      Except you’ve now ruined what people who moved there wanted originally.

  4. ringlet86

    Affordable housing is nice catch phrase, It does not exist in any city that I’ve ever seen. Unless its a slum, or public housing. or far away from the tony desirable areas. You can force affordable housing, but to do so you have to strangle market forces and prices. This is normally done with government intervention in the marketplace. Do that and you’ve a shot. But never turns out well for anyone.

    So what is the price point for affordable in Chapel Hill? What kind of housing are we talking about? Its well known that everything in Chapel Hill/orange County has amped up prices to keep out undesirables. ( Like carpenters, cleaners plumbers, etc.)Its not like Chapel Hill and Orange county hide that fact. Students are tolerated, because they leave and are kept to a distinct area. Everyone else can live in anywhere else.

  5. Paul Shannon

    I used to think like you on this issue. I still don’t have a problem with eliminating SFZ. But your belief that it will contribute to affordable housing is misplaced. My experience in SE Raleigh has been that in most cases an affordable housing unit is replaced with more expensive rental units, townhomes, or a McMansion.

  6. Paul

    Here in Wilmington we have a variation of this problem. Planners are pushing the community to rezone undeveloped property from single detached homes to multi-family (apartments.) The public readily understands the negative of converting a bit of grass or trees into an apartment instead of the homes they’re used to seeing. And the reaction to that negative is not supportive of denser development. Folks also experience the increased congestion on our roads. What’s harder to appreciate is that there may be more congestion because all those people who could have been in the apartments but are now in Brunswick County or even Whiteville are driving into town and putting more miles on our roads and creating more congestion. And what’s also hard to appreciate is that only the better incomed people are living here and the more modest waged folks are the ones driving in. It’s a disparity between what we can see and understand vs. what we can’t really see. Chapel Hill, Wilmington, Atherton, New York and every other successful place is facing this challenge.

  7. gordon whitaker

    Thomas, I’m sorry but you are wrong about the housing market in Chapel Hill. More houses will NOT equal lower rent in Chapel Hill because the demand for housing in Chapel Hill is such that new housing there goes for higher prices. The town’s housing policy had added thousands of housing units over the last several years and yet both rents and sales prices continue to rise. Older, lower priced apartments have been torn down to build new, more upscale housing. The Northside neighborhood was being turned into higher priced housing until folks there got the town to declare it a Neighborhood Conservation District to limit the gentrification. People want to live and Chapel Hill and are willing to pay more to do so. A big part of that demand is students, of course. UNC’s policy of reducing the number of housing units it provides greatly increases the upward pressure on housing prices in Chapel Hill.

  8. Shel Anderson

    Any perspective on the current Durham zoning codes up for change? A big fear is that it’s a developer give-away.

    • ringlet86

      Yes Durham wants money. They want wealthy people to move there. So they get more money.


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