Eric Frazier

Commentary: Can city zone out racial isolation?

Charlotte’s mayoral candidates talk a lot about attacking income inequality, the resegregation of local schools and barriers to upward mobility.

Often, as in Wednesday night’s mayoral debate, they end up talking about what the school board should do.

It seems fair to ask: Why aren’t they talking more about desegregation levers the city actually could pull? And if the problems are as dire as they say, why aren’t they talking more about inclusionary zoning?

That’s the notion that government should force developers to include affordable housing in new communities. It’s controversial. But advocates for the poor have been calling for it for years. City Council members have sniffed around the edges, but always backed away from its most forceful variants.

Now, with city and civic leaders applauding the school board for reconsidering student attendance zones, I wondered why the City Council isn’t reconsidering inclusionary zoning.

When they weighed the idea in 2010, the city attorney warned that even a voluntary inclusionary zoning program could fall if challenged in court.

Council opted for a voluntary variant allowing developers to build denser projects in affluent areas if they include affordable housing.

But private developers have long contended that it’s too hard to make affordable housing deals work. None has used the city’s program in its two-plus years on the books.

Should they try dialing up the pressure somehow, real estate development interests stand ready to fight. The Charlotte-based Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition (REBIC), a group whose members include homebuilders and Realtors, contends that mandatory inclusionary zoning is illegal under North Carolina law.

REBIC, in a recent blog post, says it knows of only two N.C. towns with mandatory ordinances: Chapel Hill and Davidson. Davidson’s rule, in place since 2001, requires developers to set aside 12.5 percent of new homes for affordable housing.

This year, two developers sued Davidson over it, town attorney Cindy Reid said. The town settled out of court, but still believes its statutory zoning power gives it implied authority for the program.

It tinkered with the rules in the wake of the legal challenge to give developers more leeway to make payments to the town’s affordable housing trust fund instead of building the affordable units.

The legality of such mandatory rules has not been settled by the state’s high courts, Reid said. That’s why the city attorney’s office in Charlotte has warned City Council away.

Still, Davidson officials believe it is worth fighting for. They say it has spurred the building of 62 affordable housing units, and has helped keep the town’s character from going too upscale and homogenous.

They say rather than boosting crime and lowering property values, their affordable housing has helped people like Bea Cornett, a 29-year-old international student adviser for Davidson College.

Her townhome, about a mile from the college, looks no different than its market-rate cousins. The only difference: She paid less.

To suburbanites turned off by negative stereotypes associated with the words “affordable housing,” she says this: “Consider the people who are well-educated and hard-working, but don’t work in fields that pay $100,000 a year.”

Could such a program work in Charlotte?

“Yes, as long as there is political courage among community leaders ... and understanding and acceptance of it among citizens,” Davidson Mayor John Woods said. “It’s really a question of leadership.”

Are you listening, candidates? Yes, we face complex times and uncertain solutions. We want our mayor to help us confront them, not offer platitudes about what other politicians should do.

Eric: 704-358-5145; @Ericfraz on Twitter.