Developers could build taller buildings if they add affordable housing under proposal

Charlotte spent millions on low-income housing, but poor people can’t afford it

Over the last 16 years, the city of Charlotte has spent or committed $124 million to affordable housing. Next month, city leaders will ask voters for $50 million more. But the money hasn’t helped people like Curtis Simpson.
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Over the last 16 years, the city of Charlotte has spent or committed $124 million to affordable housing. Next month, city leaders will ask voters for $50 million more. But the money hasn’t helped people like Curtis Simpson.

Proposed city rules would allow developers to exceed new limits on the height of buildings near transit stations in exchange for providing affordable housing or meeting another public goal. But some developers say the height restrictions could hurt economic development.

City planners presented a draft of new guidelines for Transit-Oriented Development in a public hearing at Monday’s zoning meeting. The regulations lay out requirements for development alongside transit stations, and are the initial piece of an overhaul of the city’s zoning ordinance, which was written over 20 years ago.

The proposed regulations would put a limit on a building’s height, and allow for a “height bonus” up to a certain amount if the projects meet a number of public goals, including affordable housing, environmental sustainability or transportation improvements.

The height maximum is different for each of the four Transit-Oriented Development districts. For example, a building in a Transit Urban Center district — the category that allows for the greatest height — could be up to 130 feet by right. Through the bonus system, buildings can be up to 300 feet tall, unless the site is within a quarter of a mile walking distance from a rapid transit station, in which case height is unlimited.

For each additional floor above the height limit, developers must devote at least 10 percent of units to affordable housing. On average, those units must be set aside for households earning 80 percent of area median income.

Developers can also pay a per-square-foot fee in lieu of building affordable housing, which would go into the city’s Housing Trust Fund.

The other bonuses are awarded on a points system, based on what type of district the development is in and the type of public goal. Each point would allow a developer to build one foot higher.

Here are a few other examples of the environmental and transportation improvements developers can make to gain additional height:

  • Building additional open space earns 15 points in an urban center district.
  • A new street connection in an urban center earns 120 points.
  • Developers could also get 15 points or more for participating in the Business Inclusion Program, which would require a certain percentage of contractors to be minority- or women-owned businesses.

But some developers want another option to build taller without having to go through the bonus process.

In a letter to officials, the Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition said it was concerned that limits on building height could hurt economic development.

“We believe City Council should do everything possible to encourage density in its transit corridors, and not restrict itself from considering economic development opportunities that would otherwise be limited by the building height caps in each TOD district,” the letter read.

The proposal would allow developers to request an exception to some of the other requirements for a particular project, such as the amount of parking, but not for the height restrictions and bonus program.

Developers can already request exemptions to the height limits in current zoning rules, which are based on a project’s distance from single-family housing, by appealing to the City Council. The proposal would eliminate that ability, but developers want that option to stay.

Since the first Transit-Oriented zoning districts were adopted in 2003, more than 12,000 new housing units, over 3 three million square feet of office and commercial space and more than $2 billion in private investment have been added, according to a city economic analysis.

And the light rail has spurred development at a rapid pace — in just a year since the Blue Line extension has been open, more than $800 million worth of new projects have been recently completed or are underway.

But that development has also led to displacement, as higher land prices push up rents and property values. City leaders want to mitigate that, but the state does not grant municipalities the authority to mandate affordable housing in new development.

The city is looking at the bonus system as one way the city can help encourage developers to build affordable housing. Charlotte ranked last among 50 major cities for economic mobility in a 2014 study, a finding local officials formed a task force to address.

“You can’t talk about upward mobility without talking about economic development,” said city planning director Taiwo Jaiyeoba. “We’re at that tipping point where every single ordinance we look at has to look at these regulations through affordable housing needs.”

Todd Mansfield, CEO of developer Crescent Communities, also sent a letter to officials, supporting the policy but suggesting it include ways for developers to appeal directly to the City Council to increase the height of a project.

“It seemed to us, to limit or to cap density in an ordinance maybe wasn’t the best solution,” Mansfield said in an interview. “That’s really how the community gets a payback on the very large, appropriate transit investment. As a general statement, the more, the better, because it creates more tax base.”

But the letters sparked a backlash on Twitter and at the public hearing for the new guidelines Monday night. Community members encouraged the City Council to vote on the proposed rules without the changes developers suggested.

“This document is in fact a result of a heavily engaged process with both developers and community members that was purposefully a compromise,” said Pete Kelly, a member of the Housing Justice Coalition, a housing advocacy group that tweeted out pictures of the letters. “To come in at the end and ask for exceptions seems to be disingenuous.”

Jaiyeoba said if the policy is going to set height requirements, a developer shouldn’t be able to negotiate to get around them.

“If at the end of the day, you’re still able to do that, then what’s the point of having gone through all of this?”

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Danielle Chemtob covers economic growth and development for the Observer. She’s a 2018 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and a California transplant.