Charlotte city planners working to rewrite outdated zoning codes are exploring a controversial and bold idea of eliminating single-family zoning. Leaders are following cues from other cities like Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, which have taken the step in an effort to undo decades of racial segregation and income inequality in housing.
Charlotte has not formally proposed eliminating single-family zoning, but Charlotte Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyeoba, historian Tom Hanchett and President of Crescent Communities Brian Leary joined WFAE's Charlotte Talks to discuss the idea. They were also joined by Minneapolis Planning Director Heather Worthington.
Minneapolis made national headlines last December when leaders voted 12-1 to eliminate single-family zoning citywide. Worthington said planners took the bold step to address what they see as a "long history of segregated neighborhoods" dating back to the 1930s.
She said the segregation was made worse after World War II, when some communities, most often affluent and white, started to economically prosper.
"We know that the people of color in Minneapolis were left out of that wealth creation," Worthington said.
That exclusion persisted, Worthington said, further widening the racial and economic gaps across the city.
"What we see today," she said, "Is that people of color, particularly African Americans and indigenous people, are at the absolute bottom of every measure."
A recent report by financial news firm 24/7 Wall St. ranked Minneapolis fourth out of five of "the worst cities for black Americans." The report cited housing and zoning policies from the 20th century, like restrictive housing covenants (which prohibited the purchase or lease of land by racial minorities) and exclusionary zoning policies (that required neighborhoods consist of a certain racial or economic group, often white affluent residents).
She said city leaders are "not proud of" that legacy and are working to reverse it because such entrenched segregation is "not an economically sustainable position for Minneapolis in the future."
So, Worthington said, leaders looked to the housing codes, which had not been updated since the 1990s. By eliminating single-family zoning, developers can look in predominantly white and wealthy neighborhoods and open them up to multi-family housing — like duplexes and triplexes.
She said it's not an organic fit, as developers tend to build large-scale projects and single-family homes. But, she said, the ordinance will gradually encourage developers to build small scale multi-family units.
Jaiyeoba, Charlotte's planning director, said the Queen City hit a "breaking point" similar to Minneapolis. A much-cited 2013 study ranked Charlotte 50 out of 50 for upward mobility, meaning those born into poverty had little to no chance of escaping it. Jaiyeoba said the study highlights how historically racist housing practices in Charlotte have led to wealth disparities defined by zip codes.
"If you're born in a particular zip code where you don't have access to full service grocery stores and don't have quality of schools or can't even access a medical facility, or have delayed fire and police response to issues — that was connected to the upward mobility issue for people," Jaiyeoba said.
So city leaders have been studying ways to tackle that issue by expanding the city's affordable housing stock. Eliminating single-family zoning could be a step toward that, Jaiyeoba said.
"As this crisis begins to just combine to really just stifle livability, we have to look at different options to get out of it," he said. "So this is one of the tools in our toolbox."
Historian Tom Hanchett said like Minneapolis, Charlotte's segregation is the product of 20th century housing policies. Like Minneapolis, Charlotte had exclusionary zoning and restrictive housing covenants. It also had red-lining and deed restrictions, two practices that made it exceptionally hard for African Americans to buy homes.
When Charlotte enacted its first zoning policy in 1947, it exacerbated the already widening gaps that had formed along racial and economic lines.
"Single family meant a white neighborhood," he said. "It didn't say that in the zoning, but that was the effect."
Single-family zoning helped to create the predominantly white and wealthy area known as "the wedge," and neighborhoods like Myers Park. It also concentrated poverty in the area known as "the crescent," in the north and western part of the city.
Brian Leary is the president of Crescent Communities, a developer of multi-family and mixed-use developments across Charlotte. He said eliminating single-family zoning and incentivizing developers to build multi-family developments will open up affordable housing options to residents by just plain increasing the number of available units.
He said it will also benefit developers by allowing them to make the most out of Charlotte's increasingly expensive land costs.
"Say with a single lot on a corner, a half acre, many of these neighborhoods would have one home for $750,000 or more," Leary said. "If you have three homes on that same property, maybe you can sell each for $300,000."
Jaiyeoba addressed the fear that eliminating single-family zoning would negatively impact a neighborhood's housing values.
"We know that when you invest in communities, when communities are integrated, they are more sustainable. Values go up, not down," Jaiyeoba said.
He then pointed to communities that have had historically mixed types of housing.
"How many people can say the values have gone down in Plaza Midwood, Dilworth and Elizabeth?" he asked.
But that fear is prevalent in cities that have taken the step. It's one of many criticisms that Minnesota's leadership dealt with when they passed their ordinance last December.
Worthington said city leaders in Minneapolis received about 18,000 comments on the plan and even though not all of those comments were negative, the measure was not popular. There was a lawsuit filed against the city that was dismissed last week, she said.
But, Worthington said, the step to eliminate single-family zoning gave way to a much needed conversation around segregation and housing, and "engaged the city in a way that [Minneapolis leaders] never anticipated."
"Democracy is messy. This is messy work, but it's worthwhile work," Worthington said. "I think it will position us to be a much healthier community for what I like to say is our leading demographics — the five year olds in our community. This is about the legacy we're leaving for them."
For Charlotte, Jaiyeoba said, the process of addressing and changing the city's history of racist housing policies will be a long one.
"It's taken years for us to get to this point (segregated communities)," he said. "It's going to take years to dismantle it."