Charlotte leaders consider how to undo a ‘legacy’ of housing segregation

Charlotte officials are exploring a controversial policy that could change the makeup of single-family neighborhoods, as part of a move to boost affordable housing and address the city’s history of racial segregation.

The city’s planning staff is looking into ending single-family zoning, with the goal of opening up residential neighborhoods to other housing types like duplexes and triplexes. Such a proposal would then need to be approved by the City Council.

The idea gained national attention in December when Minneapolis implemented it citywide. Minneapolis authorities hoped their policy would reduce racial segregation in a city that, like Charlotte, sees wide inequities between many of its black and white residents.

While there’s no formal proposal for eliminating single-family zoning in Charlotte yet, Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyeoba hopes the city will consider doing something similar to Minneapolis.

If implemented, it would be a major change for city neighborhoods. Around 60% of Charlotte’s land area is zoned for single-family development, according to city data.

Eliminating single-family zoning wouldn’t prevent anyone from building a single-family house. But in Minneapolis, the aim was to create different types of housing in wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods that have been defined by single-family homes for decades.

Charlotte officials, historians and others say the goal is to undo more than 70 years of zoning policies that helped perpetuate segregation.

When Charlotte’s first zoning ordinance was written just after World War II, exclusive, all-white neighborhoods like Myers Park were zoned for single-family houses. But African Americans were barred from purchasing homes in those areas due to policies like deed restrictions. Meanwhile, African American neighborhoods tended to be zoned for industrial uses.

Those zoning designations still largely define where black and white Charlotte residents live today.

“Zoning has been historically used as a way to create inequality,” said City Council member Larken Egleston. “It was the tool that got us at least in part to the place where we are now. It’s got to be one of the tools that we use to try to correct the wrongs of the past.”

Charlotte’s oldest neighborhoods like Myers Park and Elizabeth were built with a mix of housing types. Zoning was developed in the 20th century, and historians say it helped perpetuate racial segregation. More “exclusive” neighborhoods in Charlotte like Myers Park were zoned single-family, while African American neighborhoods were often zoned industrial. These homes are located off South Kings Dr. and Henley Place. Jeff Siner

Proponents of getting rid of single-family zoning say it allows minority communities to access affordable housing in areas with better opportunities. Charlotte ranked last among 50 cities for upward economic mobility in a 2014 study.

“If you want to build a successful, inclusive city, you have to increase your housing supply and give people choice,” Jaiyeoba said. “That’s one way to really reduce racial disparities and allow people to age in their communities.”

Confronting history

When planning officials in Minneapolis set out to define the city’s future, they looked to its past.

Local leaders were working on the “Minneapolis 2040” comprehensive plan, which addresses issues like affordable housing, the environment and racial inequality.

Minneapolis had recently been ranked the nation’s fourth-worst city for black residents in a study from financial news firm 24/7 Wall St. The study, which looked at racial disparities in metro areas, cited the city’s history of restrictive housing covenants and 20th century zoning policies.

Acknowledging the role that zoning played in those disparities was the idea behind the decision to eliminate single-family zoning, said Heather Worthington, director of long-range planning for Minneapolis.

“Things are the way they are for a reason,” she said. “And that is not something that we can ignore. We have to confront that history and we have to work at undoing it. ”

Still, Minneapolis didn’t suddenly allow for apartment buildings with hundreds of units to pop up next to single-family homes. Instead, its plan permits up to three residential units per lot.

‘Living with the legacy’

While race-based zoning was outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1917, cities implemented zoning rules that in practice kept African Americans out of single-family neighborhoods, said Jeff Michael, director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Deed restrictions, red-lining and other policies prevented African Americans from buying homes.

zoning map CLT.jpg
Courtesy of the book "Sorting Out the New South City," by Tom Hanchett.

Charlotte’s first zoning ordinance was written in 1947.

“What the single-family zoning helped do was to designate certain neighborhoods as the good neighborhoods for you to buy your own home,” said local historian Tom Hanchett. “Not everyone was welcome in those neighborhoods in South Charlotte.”

Areas like Myers Park, Dilworth and Eastover were zoned single-family, while African American neighborhoods like Brooklyn were given an industrial designation. That made it easier for the city to bulldoze the Brooklyn neighborhood, according to Hanchett’s book, “Sorting Out the New South City.” African American residents had very little say in new development in industrial areas, while the zoning ordinance protected the white residents in single-family neighborhoods, he said.

“Downtown business leaders looked forward to the day when those areas would be cleared of houses and redeveloped,” Hanchett wrote.

Those zoning categories still divide Charlotte by race and income. Many of the city’s single-family neighborhoods are in the south, an area known as the wedge, where the average income is close to $80,000 and over 60% of residents are white, according to city data.

CLT Zoning_ Land Use (1).jpg
Courtesy of the city of Charlotte

The average income in the crescent, an area encompassing west, north and east of uptown, is around $50,000, and just over 67% of residents are non-white. Most of the city’s industrial zoning is concentrated in that area.

While laws no longer ban African Americans from single-family neighborhoods, the legacy of those policies still impacts the wealth gap between blacks and whites, experts say. The national home ownership rate for African Americans was 43% in the last quarter of 2018, compared to 74% for whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Historic land use policies in Charlotte — like in most cities — were created to segregate whites and blacks and poor from rich,” said Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte, an advocacy group for sustainable growth. “We’re living with the legacy of that.”

A ‘missing middle’

Charlotte is rewriting the rules governing its growth for the first time in more than 20 years, through a policy known as the Unified Development Ordinance. Those rules dictate what can be built where, from high-rises to single-family homes.

The City Council is expected to vote on the first piece of the plan, which deals with development near transit, on Monday.

When the news about Minneapolis broke, Jaiyeoba, the planning director, decided to see if Charlotte had an appetite for the same type of policy. Oregon’s state legislature is considering a similar proposal.

The topic hasn’t come up yet in council discussions, and Jaiyeoba would still have to convince the public and a committee that recommends proposals to the council.

But the affordable housing crisis has been a central focus for the City Council and Charlotte’s planning staff as they draft the ordinance.

Limits on the number of units developers can build in single-family neighborhoods make it difficult to keep prices affordable for buyers, said Joe Padilla, executive director of Charlotte real estate and building industry group REBIC. The average home price in Mecklenburg County was just over $320,000 last year, an increase of around 50 percent from 2011, according to a recent study from UNCC’s Childress Klein Center for Real Estate.

“The reality is, as land values go up, it’s harder and harder to make housing values affordable if you’re limited to one home per lot,” Padilla said.

Under current zoning policies, single-family neighborhoods are split into categories based on density, with R-3 being the lowest, permitting three residential units per acre. Over the years, policies have been adopted to allow exceptions: corner units can have duplexes, for instance.

“I think a lot of people think about the extremes — a single-family neighborhood, or a bunch of apartments everywhere,” said Binns, with Sustain Charlotte. “What we’re missing in Charlotte is referred to as the missing middle. The six unit, the four unit, the duplexes that increase the number of people that can live in the neighborhood.”

‘A hard sell’

The concept of mixed housing types isn’t so new in Charlotte.

Some of Charlotte’s oldest and most exclusive neighborhoods, like Elizabeth, Dilworth and Myers Park, were built before the 1947 zoning ordinance. In those areas, single-family homes, duplexes and apartment buildings sit side-by-side.

Charlotte’s oldest neighborhoods like Elizabeth and Myers Park were built with a mix of housing types. Zoning was developed in the 20th century, and historians say it helped perpetuate racial segregation. More “exclusive” neighborhoods in Charlotte like Elizabeth and Myers Park were zoned single-family, while African American neighborhoods were often zoned industrial. This complex is on Hawthorne Lane. Jeff Siner

“For probably close to 75 years, American cities were developing along those lines: single-family homes next to duplexes next to small scale apartment buildings,” Minneapolis planner Worthington said. “In the 1930s and ‘40s, we started to interrupt that pattern.”

While the measure passed Minneapolis’ City Council with a 12-1 vote, it had vocal opposition — the city received thousands of public comments, and several community groups filed a lawsuit. At one meeting, Worthington was told that she is the “most hated woman in the city,” Minnesota Public Radio reported.

Still, some are skeptical that Charlotte could pull off as sweeping a change as Minneapolis made.

Michael with the Urban Institute said there would likely be a contentious debate if a similar policy was proposed in Charlotte. “I think it would be a hard sell in this community,” he said.

In many cases, city policies actually promote low-density, single-family neighborhoods. Most neighborhoods have area plans, many of which call for high-density development on a few blocks, and maintaining the single-family character of the residential areas elsewhere.

“Those are two opposite priorities: you cannot keep density down and remain competitively affordable,” said Collin Brown, a land use attorney with K&L Gates in Charlotte.

And some neighborhoods still privately restrict development through deed restrictions. On its website, for instance, the Myers Park Homeowners Association explains that its deed restrictions “dictate that property in Myers Park will be used for single-family (or residential) purposes only.”

Even if the City Council allows for duplexes in single-family neighborhoods, Brown said developers could still face litigation from neighborhood groups using deed restrictions. On its website, the Myers Park association states that it has a “substantial” legal fund designated for lawsuits that enforce those restrictions.

Even if an outright elimination of single-family zoning isn’t possible, anything that permits more density will be a step in the right direction, some local leaders say.

“For the public to get on board and for the leaders to get on board,” Egleston said, “I think it’s probably more of a baby step approach.”

Binns, with Sustain Charlotte, praised Minneapolis’ plan, and said doing away with single-family zoning is just one step in addressing racial disparities.

“We have to be just as bold today to undo the damage that was done 100 or so years ago,” he said.

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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.