Lake Norman Magazine

October 3, 2012


Critic says town’s lauded smart-growth strategy is exclusionary

“Davidson, N.C.: Nice place to live if you are rich and white.” That headline, which appeared over a recent story on the website of the conservative North Carolina-based John Locke Foundation, is far from the image that Davidson’s leaders have been trying to create for their town. Davidson has gotten national plaudits for its approach to planning. It has worked to preserve green space, make streets pedestrian friendly and ensure that some of its housing stock is affordable to people of limited means. But Michael Sanera, the Locke Foundation’s director of research and local government studies, contends that Davidson’s widely touted “smart growth” strategy has in some ways backfired, turning the town into a place where few but the wealthy can afford to live. In his article, he laid out statistics that suggest the town is anything but affordable. In 1990, the median value of owner-occupied housing in Davidson was $188,000, adjusted for inflation. But by 2010 it had increased by nearly 123 percent to $420,000. By comparison, North Carolina home values increased by only 24 percent during that same time period. Sanera asserts that there’s a clear reason why Davidson became less affordable: Its smart-growth policies restricted growth at a time of increased demand. This of course proved to be a big financial benefit to longtime Davidson homeowners, but at the same time it made the town unaffordable to low-and middle-income families. Sanera says that in response to such a dramatic spike in home prices—a trend that was brought about by the town’s own smart-growth strategy—officials passed affordable housing policies to promote what former town commissioner Margo Williams called "economic and social justice." But ultimately, these new rules proved to be coercive and have increased costs for developers, Sanera says. Davidson has one of the state’s most restrictive affordable housing ordinances. It requires developers to set aside 12 1/2 percent of their residential units for affordable housing. Along with Chapel Hill, it’s one of just two towns in the state that require developers to ensure that a percentage of their residential units are affordable, according to Tyler Mulligan, an assistant professor at the N.C. School of Government who focuses on affordable housing. While a small number of N.C. towns and cities use voluntary zoning incentives to encourage developers to build affordable housing, the large majority don't, Mulligan says. To comply with Davidson's rules, developers had to mark up their prices, Sanera says. For example, At Davidson's largest residential community, the 750-home River Run subdivision, Davidson's rules haven't hindered development, but they have driven up the cost, says project director Danny Fesperman. "(The cost) is passed on, right down the line," he says. And the affordable housing rules haven’t done anything to make the town more diverse; in fact, it’s just the opposite. Sanera points to census data that show in 1990, the town’s population was 82 percent white; two decades later, it was 88 percent white. That runs contrary to the trend in North Carolina, which has become more racially diverse since 1990. “Davidson has a lot of beautiful things you can see,” Sanera said in an interview with Lake Norman Magazine. “What you don’t see are a lot of minorities and low-income people. And that’s a result of these policies. It’s extremely obvious what’s happening. And it’s extremely frustrating that the liberal elites in these communities can’t see it.” Current and former town officials dispute Sanera’s take on things. Former town commissioner Williams, who was one of the architects of the town’s smart-growth approach, says the rise in property values and decline in diversity began before Davidson put in place its smart-growth rules, which, if anything, helped the town retain some diversity. “I’d be more worried about the trends if we hadn’t been talking about them for the last 15 years – and trying to do something about them,” she says

A quest for greatness For Charlotte’s northern suburbs, the mid-1990s was a time of intense growth pains. Williams, who was serving on the town’s planning board at that time, was among those looking for a way to help Davidson retain its small-town charm. She recalls when Andres Duany, the man who popularized neotraditional development—marked by walkable neighborhoods, a mix of housing options and a town center—visited Davidson in 1995. After walking around town, Duany told local officials that Davidson was a fine example of smart growth, but that it would require a strong political will to retain and improve upon these qualities. Williams says she went home that night determined to help make it happen. She soon ran for town commission and won, beginning her 16-year stint on the board. During her tenure, local officials developed a growth strategy and a collection of rules that drew national attention. They required streets to be narrow, with sidewalks on both sides, to encourage slower driving and more walking. They required developers to set aside 50 percent of their land for green space. They banned big-box retailers, and gave a design review board final say over plans for commercial and multi-family development. Assistant town manager Dawn Blobaum says local officials were simply listening to what citizens wanted: a place with small-town charm. Without such rules, she says, “a lot of downtown would be a parking lot.” “I think it would have been a much less attractive place to live in,” she says. Davidson officials acknowledge that they’ve faced a dilemma: Strategies that make the town more attractive also tend to drive prices up. But they say town fathers have been mindful of that. Davidson is one of the few communities in the region encouraging affordable rentals, Williams says. Davidson has won state and national recognition for The Bungalows, 32 affordable apartments designed to look like traditional, bungalow-style homes. The apartments are available to households with incomes below 50 percent of median income. Despite Davidson’s rising home values, about 18 percent of the town’s housing is in the “affordable range,” Williams says. Davidson officials say they’ve worked hard to encourage diversity. “We’re not an elite community,” said mayor John Woods, a Davidson native. “We’re a community that welcomes all people. We want to retain the ability of all people to live here.” Few dispute that Davidson has retained its sense of community. Woods, 63, remembers that when he was growing up in Davidson, it was the sort of place where neighbors looked after neighbors and adults looked after children who were not their own. It’s still that way, he says. “When you are in Davidson,” he says, “you feel like you are home.”

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