Is new state law changing arguments against public housing?
A new state law makes it illegal to vote against a re-zoning of a project because it's designed for low-income families. That law has never been tested at the Charlotte City Council dais and it likely won't be for awhile. But it did have a bearing on the debate over an apartment complex designed for low-income families in Ballantyne. Developers scrapped the proposal last week after the Charlotte Housing Authority pulled out. If you sent city council member Warren Cooksey an email about subsidized housing planned for the intersection of Providence Road West and Johnston Road, this was pretty much his standard reply. "If you can't make an argument against the petition on a land-use term, then it's going to be difficult to make an argument against the petition period." Over the past two months, Cooksey's inbox has been filled with sharply-worded emails about the project known as Ballancroft. From the get-go there were concerns that it would strain area roads and schools. There were also complaints that it would hurt home values and increase crime. But even if that's true, it doesn't matter. That's because a new state law says city council members can only take into account land-use arguments when making re-zoning decisions. In other words, traffic congestion is a legitimate complaint, so is whether a project fits a neighborhood's plan. Concerns over declining property values are not. State Senator Floyd McKissick represents the Durham area. He sponsored the bill that passed last August. "You kind of think of it as establishing a guide post and you hope that people will conform reasonably to it," explains McKissick. "But that's not to say that somebody could not disguise their motives. You know, that could easily happen." It's hard to say if that's what happened here. Both the developers and the Charlotte Housing Authority anticipated neighborhood opposition, but they were startled by the intensity of it. Cooksey's email about the law was posted at an online forum last month. One post urged residents to write city council members and "act like they're building million dollar houses on the land" since state law doesn't allow city council members to use affordable housing as a reason to vote against a project. It advised people to use: traffic increases, lack of sidewalks, and school overcrowding as arguments against the project. At a meeting with developers last week before the project was scrapped, most of the concerns people raised were based on land-use. Here's a sample: "This is not an argument against people, race, gender, equality or any other issue like that. This is an argument against your zoning classification." "A project like this should be built where there's infrastructure to handle it." "Whether it's low income or high income, I don't really care. It's not an apartment site." City Council member Patrick Cannon attended that meeting and said there were a lot of good points made by residents. "I would like to think it's all about land-use. However, I know I've received some emails that would suggest that it's not all about land-use for some folks." Janet DeShields is more skeptical than Cannon. She's a resident of Druid Hills, an area that has a lot of low-income housing. "I think that's just something they're grabbing hold of to use as an excuse because they don't want to just come out and say we don't want people that don't make the same income as we make in our neighborhood," says DeShields. In the end, the Ballancroft project collapsed before city council had to take the law into account and vote on the re-zoning. But City Attorney Mac McCarley says he doubts the statute will change much about how council judges zoning matters. "The law has always been that zoning decisions need to be based on land-use criteria and if they're not then the agreed party can sue claiming that the decision was arbitrary and capricious," explains McCarley. He says what the new statute does is make it absolutely clear that discriminating against a project based on the income level of the people who will live there is illegal. The only exception is when an area already has a high concentration of affordable housing. That's why the City of Charlotte has put some neighborhoods off-limits for public housing and is looking at areas like Ballantyne.