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Coalition Backs Community Benefit Agreements As Part Of Charlotte's 2040 Plan

New construction in Charlotte's South End.  The Community Benefits Coalition wants to use contracts between developers and neighborhoods to ensure that new development in Charlotte benefits existing residents.
David Boraks
Construction is seen in Charlotte's South End area. The Community Benefits Coalition wants to use contracts between developers and neighborhoods to ensure that new development in Charlotte benefits existing residents.

A coalition of neighborhood and community groups is urging Charlotte leaders to strengthen a provision in the city's draft 2040 Comprehensive Plan aimed at ensuring that existing residents benefit from future development.

Community benefits agreements are private contracts between developers and neighborhood groups that spell out how projects will benefit existing residents. The Community Benefits Coalition says agreements like these are needed to protect residents from displacement and gentrification by giving them leverage. For example, residents could agree to support a project in exchange for something the neighborhood wants, like affordable housing, a park, or extra measures to ease traffic.

The 2040 plan suggests studying the idea. But developers have questioned whether they're legal. The city attorney says they are — as long as the city stays out of the process.

Coalition leader Ismaail Qaiyim agrees it may be illegal to require agreements, but thinks they could be required if public money is involved.

"It can be made harder for a developer to reject community benefit agreements. And we also want the city to use its power to require community benefit agreements when city land or city subsidies are at play," Qaiyim said at a virtual press conference Monday.

Local officials nationwide are increasingly considering community benefits and benefit agreements as part of the planning process. The city of Asheville adopted rules in February that make community benefits a part of planning for new hotels there.

Qaiyim said because of misinformation and stalling tactics, "We haven't even been able to have the conversation about how to implement it."

"What we really need is for the city council to champion the inclusion of community benefit agreements in the 2040 plan," Qaiyim said.

Other speakers at Monday's news conference said community benefit agreements are about improving racial equity and giving residents a stronger voice.

"In this moment, where our country struggles with its legacies of racial injustice, the conversation around development and land use must also finally include those neighborhoods that have been excluded from the conversation and the process," said Rickey Hall, a coalition member and west side leader. "The question for Charlotte City Council is whether the council stands for inclusion, equity, and progress, or will it let developers continue to call the shots or to maintain the status quo."

Coalition member Bobby Drakeford said the goal is not to stop developers from making money but to make sure all voices are heard as the city grows.

"This whole community has to be part of this solution, because Charlotte can't just be for rich people," Drakeford said.

City Manager Marcus Jones told the city council in a memo last week that officials are considering revising the proposed 2040 plan to accommodate concerns from residents and developers. The memo warns that the city could face a legal challenge if it tries to formalize community benefits agreements. The city expects to post a revised 2040 plan by May 19.

The Community Benefits Coalition includes about 30 groups in Charlotte's "crescent" of low-income and minority neighborhoods from the west side to the east side. Founding members include the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition, North End Community Coalition and the Housing Justice Coalition, as well as residents.

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.