Charlotte is missing the big picture on tiny houses

Developer Kevin Young in front of a model tiny house at his tiny house development in northwest Charlotte. Keyo Park West won’t move forward with construction, an attorney for the project said.
Developer Kevin Young in front of a model tiny house at his tiny house development in northwest Charlotte. Keyo Park West won’t move forward with construction, an attorney for the project said. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

I was born and raised in Charlotte. While there’s a lot about the town I grew up in that I miss, on balance, I wouldn’t trade it for the city I live in today. The most recent commotion caused by change involves construction of “tiny houses” on tiny lots. Charlotte’s City Council is considering “Neighborhood Character Overlay Districts” in an effort to prevent the houses in west Charlotte and other communities. This “not in my back yard” behavior could have significant consequences, given that Charlotte faces a true crisis with its lack of affordable, workforce housing.

What often screws us up in life is that picture in our heads of how things are supposed to be. For a lot of us those pictures are black and white Polaroids and not digital 1080p. Ultimately this is less about pictures and more about math. And whatever it is, it’s not about neighborhood character. It’s about what happens when we meet at the corner of Then Street and Now Avenue.

Of course, people have been tearing down early and mid-century houses for decades to build “McMansions” on the valuable dirt they occupy. There’s been grumbling for sure. But nothing about preserving (or regulating) neighborhood character ever got mentioned. Because as much as we complain about the size of those monsters, deep down inside we kind of like seeing rich folks move in next door. If nothing else, it validates how savvy we were many years ago when we bought for a lot less than they paid. Worse, we pretend those giant homes will show up as comparables when we go to sell our bungalows. Hell hath no fury like a vested interest masquerading as a moral imperative.

Billy Maddalon

The math we do in our heads often gets skewed by irrational assumptions. Euclid’s first common notion in his ancient book of mechanical law says, “Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.” In other words, if A = B and B = C then A = C. For purposes of this conversation, if small houses = small incomes and small incomes = undesirables, then small houses = undesirables.

Who said math doesn’t lie?

Speaking of math, Charlotte’s own analysis reveals a shortage of almost 40,000 affordable housing units. City Hall clearly can’t build or buy itself out of that hole. Momentum will only be created when government harnesses the wealth, creativity and energy of the private sector. When it’s profitable and efficient, builders and developers will partner with government efforts to solve the problem.

We should start today. Housing costs are devastating lower and middle income people. I’m a progressive, so I’m not afraid of regulation. But I love me some affordable housing even more. And this is a case where we really need to make choices. We just can’t solve the affordable housing equation and protect popular notions from the 1940s at the same time. First, they’re not making any more dirt, meaning the price of land will continue to go up. Second, every time we tighten the regulatory environment to build, even when it’s for a really good reason, it makes it more expensive to do. Industry then passes costs on to consumers or abandons markets altogether for better investments … or in this case, more expensive houses on bigger lots. Just what we don’t need.

Affordable housing has never been an easy ask and it never will be. Few communities want it located nearby because of the people they think it attracts. Here we have private industry trying to profitably build affordable houses. Our city should be working to clear barriers to build affordably, making it easier, not harder. If used to prevent small houses, Neighborhood Character Overlay Districts will be more aptly called Neighborhood Inertia Overlay Districts. And you don’t need to be a mathematical genius to figure that out.

Email: billy@billymaddalon.com