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Tempers flare as City Council votes to revisit duplex and triplex rules

 The City Council voted Monday to reconsider development rules making it easier to build duplexes and triplexes in single-family neighborhoods.
City of Charlotte
The City Council voted Monday to reconsider development rules making it easier to build duplexes and triplexes in single-family neighborhoods.

In a contentious session filled with accusations of racism and working in bad faith, the Charlotte City Council voted 6-5 Monday to revisit a controversial rule that will allow duplexes and triplexes to be built in single-family neighborhoods.

The vote comes as the Unified Development Ordinance is set to go into effect next month, and it's the latest example of some of Charlotte's leaders getting cold feet about changing long-standing rules about how the city is built. The UDO overhauls development regulations across the city and would make it easier to build more dense housing in traditional neighborhoods.

The decision to revisit the duplex/triplex issue sparked an intense debate, with Mayor Pro Tem Braxton Winston sharply criticizing the idea.

“This is an attempt to try and re-implement exclusionary zoning to the UDO,” he said. “It is an attempt to preserve the tool, the number one tool, that has been used to segregate communities.”

Winston has long argued that single-family zoning is racist, as Black people were not allowed to buy homes in many single-family neighborhoods in the days of segregation. He said it continues to facilitate racism today, by keeping prices higher in desirable neighborhoods with a low supply of housing.

“I don’t want to use the tools of the oppressor,” he said. “I want to use the equity lens.”

And he tried to shame his colleagues for considering a change.

“The same thing happens everywhere,” he said. “(People say) ‘Oh I’m not against housing affordability. But just don’t put it near me, it’s not that we don’t like those people.’ It is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous this motion was made and you should be ashamed of yourselves if you vote this in.”

Council member Victoria Watlington, who is Black, responded.

“I call BS on everything Mr. Winston just said,” Watlington said. “You’re not going to tell me this is an equity lens when the only people who are affected live in the most vulnerable neighborhoods. This is not about NIMBYism. The people who don’t want you in their neighborhoods have HOAs.”

Watlington was referring to homeowner associations, which can pass their own development rules to prohibit denser housing regardless of what the city does.

Referencing a city map showing which neighborhoods have HOAs, she said the people likely to be most impacted by duplexes and triplexes replacing single-family homes are in lower-income Black neighborhoods.

“So for you to sit here in my face and tell me that you are ashamed because I’m voting for something that is disproportionately impacting black people negatively, too bad,” Watlington said. “Because I’m not stupid.”

Council member Renee Johnson, who is also Black, agreed.

“This is not blatant racism,” Johnson said. “There is a place for single-family subdivisions, period. You can have strategic development and that’s what we are asking for. There are places, there are urban areas where duplexes and triplexes are appropriate. But implanted in single-family subdivisions is not appropriate.”

The city hopes that making it easier for developers to build more dense housing will lead to more housing overall. Officials hope that will eventually lead to lower prices.

City Council member Malcolm Graham, a UDO supporter, said it’s time to move on from an issue the city has already spent years debating.

“We voted on it last year,” Graham said. “We had an election based on it last year. We got the results last year. And now it’s time for us to move forward.”

But the makeup of the new City Council is different than the council that approved the UDO.

Two of the biggest supporters of the development rules are no longer on council. Julie Eiselt didn’t run for re-election and Larken Egleston lost a bid for an at-large seat.

Their replacements both voted to reconsider duplexes and triplexes on Monday.

The six City Council members who did so were Watlington, Johnson, Mitchell, LaWana Mayfield, Ed Driggs and Dante Anderson.

Tariq Bokhari was one of the biggest critics in 2021 and 2022, and spoke against making it easier to build duplexes and triplexes. But on Monday he declined to vote to study the issue further, saying he didn’t want to rehash the matter on the dais in the middle of a meeting.

The issue will go to the city’s transportation, planning and development committee, which is chaired by Driggs. Driggs said he doesn’t want a complete overhaul of the UDO, but said some parts of the plan could be improved.

In addition to having more dense housing, another goal of the UDO is to create a more walkable city, where people are less dependent on cars.

But earlier this month, council members voted 8-2 against new rules to make it more difficult for drive-thru windows to be approved in fast-growing neighborhoods near uptown, like Elizabeth and NoDa.

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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.