Should City Council try to get affordable units in new apartment buildings?

A rendering of the planned 360-unit apartment building at Pfeiffer University’s Park Road campus. Filed as part of a rezoning request with the city of Charlotte.
A rendering of the planned 360-unit apartment building at Pfeiffer University’s Park Road campus. Filed as part of a rezoning request with the city of Charlotte.

Charlotte City Council members disagreed this week on how they should approach the question of including affordable housing units in new apartment buildings, with some musing about a more muscular approach and others saying a rezoning meeting isn’t the right forum for such a discussion.

The issue came up during a Monday hearing about Spartanburg-based Johnson Development Associates’ plan to redevelop Pfeiffer University’s Charlotte campus with up to 360 apartments.

In addition to the apartments, the new building would include up to 17,000 square feet of shops, restaurants or office space, according to the rezoning plan. The building would wrap around a parking deck with about 600 spaces, and would include a swimming pool and fitness center. The college is seeking to lease new space nearby to hold classes.

Democrat LaWana Mayfield, who chairs the council’s Housing & Neighborhood Development Committee, asked if the plans include any apartments set aside for affordable units, “just in case we happen to have a teacher who might want to live there.”

The developer’s representatives said the planned apartments don’t include units set aside for lower-income workers.

That didn’t sit well with some council members. Although state law doesn’t allow cities to require low-income units in new buildings (a policy known as “mandatory inclusionary zoning”), council members have been raising the issue more frequently. The average rent in Charlotte is $1,011, according to Real Data, up 7.7 percent from a year ago.

Claire Fallon, a Democrat, said she is worried about the “apartmenting” of Charlotte.

“Something has to come back for regular people who cannot afford $1,600 a month rent,” she said. “We cannot be a city of only rich people or people that can afford high rents.”

Fallon said adding five units of affordable housing would make the new development “more palatable” for her. Synco Properties, which is redeveloping the Colony apartments in SouthPark with 990 new units, recently agreed to include 55 affordable units restricted to lower-income tenants.

But Ed Driggs, a Republican council member, cautioned that since City Council can’t legally require affordable units, members should be careful about the appearance of “horse trading” affordable units in exchange for City Council approval.

“I don’t know at what point it starts to sound like illegal mandatory inclusionary zoning,” said Driggs.

Kenny Smith, another Republican council member, called the topic “a worthy policy discussion,” but said bringing the issue up piecemeal at zoning meetings isn’t the right approach.

“We take a land use issue and infuse a policy issue in it,” said Smith.

Fallon said she thinks the discussion should be part of rezoning requests, though she said her vote isn’t dependent on a developer’s inclusion of affordable housing.

“You’re asking us for something,” she said. “I don’t see why there can’t be some kind of a giveback.”

“You’re asking the city to approve you ... making a lot of money,” she said. “This is our city, it’s your city, and there’s some give and take that has to be.”

Mayfield also said her vote isn’t dependent on including affordable housing, but said she plans to keep asking developers about the topic during rezoning meetings.

“I am going to consistently ask you that question,” she said. “It would be helpful for you to come with an answer that falls in line with some of the goals that we have as a city... but that does not mean your petition is going to be approved or denied.”

The Pfeiffer redevelopment is just one part of a massive surge of apartments coming to the Park Road corridor. Next door, at Park Road and Mockingbird Lane, Grubb Properties is planning to build 450 more apartments at its headquarters. Across the Street, Spectrum Properties is building 260 units at Park Road and Abbey Place. And just down Park Road, Pollack Shores is putting the finishing touches on 5115 Park Place, a 273-unit project.

In total, the four projects would bring 1,343 new apartments to a half-mile stretch of Park Road.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo