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Charlotte City Council Members Balk At Push To Eliminate Single-Family Zoning

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles leads a discussion about the elimination of single-family only zoning Monday night.
City of Charlotte
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles leads a discussion about the elimination of single-family only zoning Monday night.

Charlotte City Council members on Monday hit the brakes on the city’s ambitious 2040 Comprehensive Plan over its call to eliminate single-family-only zoning.

The city has been holding public meetings about the plan for months. But as the deadline approaches to approve it, some council members are hearing concerns from residents who are worried about the changes.

“I hope this is crystal clear to you that there is no path that this can happen in the next 60 days,” said Republican council member Tariq Bokhari to City Manager Marcus Jones on Monday. “We have staff that’s done a lot of hard work. But I think it’s become crystal clear that a lot of work has been focused on things that it should have not been.”

The comprehensive plan encourages sidewalks, saving trees and creating more transit-oriented development. It wants people to be able to work and shop near their homes.

And it calls for different types of housing — specifically more duplexes and triplexes in neighborhoods that have only traditional single-family homes.

“As we grow as a community we need to have more housing options more than just single-family homes and apartments,” said Alysia Osborne, a city of Charlotte project manager for the 2040 plan. “How do we address in this plan the missing middle density or housing options moving forward?”

To do that, Charlotte’s plan calls for the elimination of single-family zoning, as some cities like Minneapolis have done.

That doesn’t mean developers can’t build entire neighborhoods of traditional homes. But it means that, in many cases, a developer could buy a home in a neighborhood, tear it down, and replace it with a duplex or triplex or sometimes a quadplex.

Proponents of scrapping single-family zoning say that, for decades, it was a tool to segregate cities. And they say it’s a move toward free markets, giving property owners more control over how their land is developed.

But Charlie Welch of Myers Park says that’s not good planning.

“Our concern is allowing multi-family housing on any single-family lot without any zoning or regulation, if you will,” he said. “It can negatively impact the character and integrity of our neighborhood and any neighborhood.”

The city of Charlotte says having more density means more units. And more units mean more supply, which will make housing less expensive.

But Welch says that’s not happening in Myers Park when duplexes and triplexes have been built.

“The least-costly lots are the ones most likely to be developed into multi-family,” he said. “And in its place, there will be duplexes and triplexes that sell for market rates. And here in Myers Park, we have plenty of examples of here in Myers park or redevelopments that are expensive.”

Myers Park is one of the city’s wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods.

Across the city is Five Points near Johnson C. Smith University. It’s a historically African American area that’s rapidly gentrifying.

J’Tanya Adams says developers have been allowed to build more townhomes and duplexes and triplexes through rezonings. Has that made the area more affordable?

“Oh no. Oh no, no, no,” Adams said. “They are selling for $500,000, $600,000 per side.”

Adams said she likes the flexibility that the 2040 plan would give property owners, especially the ability to build so-called backyard accessory dwelling units, which are small homes for parents or grandparents. But she said that removing single-family zoning will accelerate the redevelopment of the area, and will likely push prices higher.

“As far as getting rid of single-family and allowing anyone to build anything anywhere, I think that’s a challenge,” she said. “That needs guardrails.”

The zoning change would not impact every piece of residential property. There are individual lots and subdivisions with deed restrictions that would still be in place. And neighborhoods could apply for historic designation, limiting a developer’s ability to tear down single-family homes.

Yonah Freemark is with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. He has studied the impacts of so-called upzoning on retail corridors in Chicago.

He said that allowing the market to produce more housing should lower prices over time. But he said it won’t happen overnight.

“This kind of change — at least according to the evidence that I and others have collected — takes many years to come to fruition,” he said. “You aren’t going to see a major change on affordability anytime soon.”

And he said allowing developers to build more in desirable areas could accelerate gentrification.

“In those neighborhoods, an upzoning may end up producing even more expensive units on the site because you are essentially encouraging developers to redevelop land in a way to that developers didn’t feel like they could make as much as before,” Freemark said.

The City Council was supposed to finish public hearings on the plan in late March. It would then vote to adopt it in April.

But with the deadline approaching, more homeowners associations are pushing back against the zoning change.

At Monday’s meeting, several council members, like Larken Egleston, said they are concerned.

“There’s very little chance come April where I will feel like I’m in a place where I can vote for this,” he said.

Council member Ed Driggs said the city needs to respect that single-family homes have become an American tradition.

A day later, council member Braxton Winston took the completely opposite view. He tweeted that "single-family zoning is a tool of segregation. If you're fighting to maintain single-family zoning, you are advocating for segregation. Stop being racist, Charlotte."

Council members have scheduled another meeting to tackle the single-family zoning questions.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.