Local & State Voices

The racist roots of single-family zoning

20th century zoning perpetuated racial segregation

Zoning was developed in the 20th century and historians say it helped perpetuate racial segregation. More "exclusive" neighborhoods in Charlotte were zoned single-family, while African-American neighborhoods were often zoned industrial.
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Zoning was developed in the 20th century and historians say it helped perpetuate racial segregation. More "exclusive" neighborhoods in Charlotte were zoned single-family, while African-American neighborhoods were often zoned industrial.

Maybe you’ve heard this: Charlotte’s thinking about banning single-family zoning. And you’re wondering, why in the world do that? But in fact, Charlotte is not thinking about banning single-family zoning.

Instead, there’s an idea worth considering: Get more flexible. In neighborhoods where only single-family houses are allowed today, allow duplexes, triplexes, maybe even quadraplexes.

The talk is arising as the city works on its 2040 comprehensive plan. And this change is overdue. It’s better for the environment. It could dial back sprawl, make walking and biking more attractive and transit easier to provide. More housing supply will help with the city’s affordable housing problem, though it’s no silver bullet solution for that complex issue.

Why do this? One major reason: Charlotte’s population is zooming. “As long as we have jobs,” Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyeoba told a City Council committee Monday, “people are going to continue to move here.” By 2040, Jaiyeoba says, the city will see some 400,000 more people who’ll need housing.

Many Charlotte residents are already having trouble affording housing. Jaiyeoba’s data shows home prices in the region grew 62 percent from 2000 to 2017; rents rose 74 percent; median household income rose only 30 percent. Almost half of local renters pay more than a third of their income on housing.

And though I don’t think we can build our way out of this problem without also looking at other factors – lagging incomes, loss of older, affordable buildings – we can’t ignore housing supply.

The idea is sure to be politically tricky. Some 60 percent of Charlotte’s land is zoned for single-family housing, and many voters will protest.

They’ll cite traffic. Yet, since traffic comes with population growth, the only real questions are whose area gets it, how to better manage it, and how to encourage less driving. Pushing housing farther out, to counties with no mass transit, simply funnels more vehicles onto I-77, Providence Road and other rush-hour-nightmares.

They’ll cite lower property values. But evidence from sought-after, older neighborhoods like Dilworth, Wesley Heights and Myers Park – sprinkled with duplexes and small apartments – disproves that.

They’ll cite “neighborhood character,” because no one likes change, and “density” conjures images of … it’s not entirely clear what.

But as you ponder “neighborhood character,” it’s worth knowing that single-family zoning arose a century ago in a clearly racist context.

In The Color of Law, author Richard Rothstein tells how early zoning ordinances specifically banned blacks from certain zones. The Supreme Court outlawed that in 1917, but in many cities, Rothstein writes, “To prevent lower-income African Americans from living in neighborhoods where middle-class whites resided, local and federal officials began … to promote zoning ordinances to reserve middle-class neighborhoods for single-family homes that lower-income families of all races could not afford.”

Meanwhile, federal rules and redlining kept black families from getting mortgages, and housing developers couldn’t get financing without whites-only covenants in the deeds.

Learning that, I’m now losing any earlier, warm-fuzzy feelings for any “neighborhood character” created by zoning rooted in racial segregation.

Are Charlotte City Council members brave enough to make the change? Their meetings don’t inspire confidence; even marginal density increases draw often-successful protests.

But this council also appears deeply committed to promoting economic and social equity. A change like this one could be a big step in that direction.

Mary Newsom is a freelance writer and editor.

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