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By Matthew Leger • June 14, 2021

“I want you to know that lots of us have lived (at Lakewood) our whole lives, like me. We’re all happy here. I have a question: How would you feel if you had to move and it’s a very important part of your life. Me and my family are very sad. I’m begging you not to make these houses where someone already lives,” said fourth-grader Faith Fernandez to the Chapel Hill Town Council about a proposal to redevelop the land housing her mobile home community.
 

The situation faced by Fernandez’s family and her neighbors reveals just one of the ways that disadvantaged, low-income families in America experience housing insecurity. When the Lakewood mobile home community in Chapel Hill, North Carolina faced potential displacement, the Town’s Office of Housing and Community used GIS to support dozens of families.

 

A Chapel Hill Mobile Home Community in Crisis

 

Back in 2017, residents of the Lakeview community, a 33-unit mobile home community in Chapel Hill, received notification from their landlord that they planned to sell the lot to a developer. If the project was approved, residents would have to relocate within one year. With no place to go, the families that lived there rallied together and showed up at a town hall meeting, pleading with the town government for help. Children, their parents, and grandparents, all mostly low-income and primarily Spanish-speaking, took turns sharing their stories with the Town Council about how this new development project was upending their lives. Many had lived for generations in the community and wanted to remain in Chapel Hill, but with limited options they needed support. In response, the Chapel Hill Town Council established a team tasked with helping these families find suitable alternative housing.

 

The challenge for Chapel’s Hill’s Office for Housing and Community was not as simple as picking up the mobile homes and dropping them in a vacant lot elsewhere. The Town’s land use strategy established several decades ago strictly outlined what parts of town were available for development, and which parts were to be preserved. This in turn limited how much housing the town could develop, ultimately bringing down supply and driving up the costs of land and housing. Put simply, finding a suitable plot of land to house 33 mobile home units posed an enormous challenge.

 

A Renewed Focus on Housing Affordability

 

Thankfully, the Town’s Housing and Community team was no stranger to tackling the most difficult housing challenges disadvantaged communities face. Sarah Vinas, Assistant Director of Housing and Community, and her team responded to the Council’s interest in developing an investment plan for affordable housing, the cornerstone of which was a $10 million bond that was approved by voters to begin addressing the needs of low-income, housing insecure families in Chapel Hill.

 

Financial resources were key to this effort, but according to Vinas, having the financial resources was only half of the battle. “This was a real wake up call for us,” she said in an interview. “We have four mobile home communities in Chapel Hill, and they are all at risk of displacement. If they were all to go up for sale, there are really limited options of places for residents to go.” Given that the municipal government has limited control over the sale of private property, the town began exploring a variety of strategies, including finding developable land to create affordable units for these families if they were to face displacement.

 

Using Maps and Data to Engage Residents

 

The Housing and Community team knew that they needed data about the land and communities in Chapel Hill to better understand the housing landscape and needs of housing insecure families. That is when Vinas and her team turned to David Almond, Chapel Hill’s GIS manager, for help. However, they felt it was important to start by gathering data from the families in Lakeview. “We could have easily just found a plot of land somewhere in town and decided for ourselves that the best (and quickest) solution would be to just pick up the mobile home units and relocate them to another plot of land,” said Vinas. “But, we stopped and asked ourselves if that would be the best solution, or even the solution that these families wanted.”

 

To get started, the town’s GIS and Housing and Community teams worked together in GIS to conduct an analysis of all town-owned land parcels and overlaid that data with other criteria like access to amenities and public transit, among other factors. This evaluation helped to streamline the selection process for possible alternative housing locations. Several public meetings were then hosted to engage the Lakeview community in a discussion about what types of housing options they would be open to in the selected land parcels. Vinas and other housing staff even went down to Lakeview to gather feedback from community members who could not attend the public meetings. They also created a survey asking these families about their housing preferences and personal situations. “Many of the residents we engaged with were primarily Spanish speaking, and they all had varying education and literacy levels. We made sure to provide a multitude of options for everyone to provide their feedback, and so we made it interactive and engaging. The maps were critical to the engagement process,” said Vinas.

 

It turns out, they were right to question the quick and easy solution. Through this engagement, Vinas discovered that the last thing these families wanted was to be in a mobile home community again. To them, leaving one mobile home community for another would leave them fighting this same battle several years down the road. “Residents understand that development is likely to happen at some point, and it is extremely stressful to live in a constant state of uncertainty and fear,” said Vinas. What they wanted was more security. Based on their feedback, the housing team was able to recommend three land parcels for affordable housing development to the Town Council for approval.

 

Taking a Proactive, Human-Centered Approach to Support Housing Insecure Families

 

When all was said and done, the developer pulled their application from the site and the Lakeview community was spared displacement for the time being. However, that has not stopped the Housing and Community team from charging forward with developing more affordable housing. Today, all the sites recommended from the engagement process with Lakeview are at different stages of development and there are more housing options on the way for families facing housing insecurity. The town is also working with the other local governments in Orange County to develop a county-wide Manufactured Home Action Plan.

 

The experience working with the Lakeview community transformed Chapel Hill’s approach to supporting families at risk of displacement. For Vinas, four key lessons were learned:

 

  1. Be proactive – Waiting until a community is already facing displacement means it is essentially too late to help them. Be proactive in understanding the threats faced by community members with housing insecurity and identify solutions before a crisis hits.
  2. Coordinate with jurisdictional partners – In the surrounding towns outside of Chapel Hill, there are more mobile home communities that are similarly at risk of displacement and every town faces similar housing and land scarcity challenges. Working with other municipalities and the county government to develop a coordinated strategy will be key to supporting every family that lives in a mobile home.
  3. Take the time to engage residents – Taking the time to do meaningful resident engagement using a human-centered design approach, is essential and pays off no matter how much time and effort it takes. Not only does it help to inform housing strategies, it also helps to build trust and rapport with residents which is key when working with and engaging vulnerable residents.
  4. Maps help to communicate with residents and government leaders alike – Visualizing data and using maps to tell a story transcends language and communication barriers. Maps help to place an individual within the context of a community and using them is vital to creating a shared narrative and understanding of the challenges we all face.

 

Moving forward, the Housing and Community team in Chapel Hill intends to place maps and GIS at the center of community engagement efforts and housing strategy development. The town’s Affordable Housing Dashboard is used to not only inform housing development efforts, but to ensure transparency and demonstrate progress to the public (see below).

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The Office for Housing and Community is looking to use more advanced GIS capabilities when engaging with residents and planning development projects. For example, Almond is working with his team to create 3D visualizations of development projects to help residents see what a project will look and feel like in the community when it is fully constructed. Vinas also wants her team to use maps to monitor and look for opportunities in the affordable housing landscape continuously and proactively.

 

Taking the lessons learned from the Lakeview project, Vinas wants to constantly be thinking about new development opportunities that help to support vulnerable residents, while also increasing the housing supply to drives down costs for everyone. In closing, Vinas noted that “this is an extremely challenging problem to tackle, and we are approaching it from every angle, leveraging every tool at our disposal. There is no one solution that is going to solve this problem, but we are working as fast we can to execute our strategy… The stakes are really high for families facing displacement, and we want to try our best to get it right.”

 

To learn more about the Town of Chapel Hill’s affordable housing work, visit: www.chapelhillaffordablehousing.org