Expanding the fight for more affordable housing

It's easy to find people and groups pushing to expand the amount of affordable housing in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. That concern has rightly been atop civic to-do lists for years.

A new grassroots group is taking on a challenge that may be even tougher. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Mixed Income Housing Coalition wants to look at – and change – policies that result in housing for lower-income families clustering in some neighborhoods and being scarce in others.

It's an open secret: There's a pie-slice-shaped wedge of Charlotte that starts uptown and heads south in which there's not much affordable housing or Section 8 housing (available to tenants with federal housing vouchers) or new developments targeting lower-income residents. Yes, of course there are some. But compared with the rest of the city, the south Charlotte wedge is notably thin on affordable housing options.

The coalition aims to change that. They say they worry about a city in which people face inequitable access to such things as schools, banks, jobs, even good grocery stores, based on where they live.

They are looking at options such as inclusionary zoning, in which a percentage of affordable housing is required of all developments over a certain size. It's a tool used by local governments in many places, including the north Mecklenburg town of Davidson, as well as cities such as Denver, Sacramento, San Diego and Boston.

Housing policy is hugely complex and affected by many forces, many of them – such as the ongoing foreclosure crisis – uncontrollable by local government ordinance. But the coalition is right to worry about housing patterns that create upper- or lower-income enclaves. They think that's socially unhealthy, and they note that Charlotte history shows those patterns didn't always exist.

Indeed, even the affluent neighborhood of Myers Park, when designed early in the 20th century, had provisions in its deed restrictions to ensure that it offered moderately priced housing as well as grand mansions. But since then, things have changed.

The city is working to help add affordable housing. But it can do more.

It could relax zoning rules, so that garage apartments, granny flats and other lower-priced accessory units are legal in more cases. It should look at the toll that the continued demolition of small homes in order to build huge ones takes on the city's stock of modestly priced housing.

And it should seriously study inclusionary zoning. It's a tool that has worked well in other places. Why not here?