Single-family zoning is still the crux of Charlotte’s 2040 plan debate

In the months since opposition to Charlotte’s new 2040 Comprehensive Vision Plan started building, staff and City Council have held forums, rehashed the plan in committee meetings, responded to hundreds of public comments and started tinkering with how to modify rules about what can be built where.

But the heart of the matter, and the biggest sticking point, remains the same as it was at the plan’s first release: Should the city’s default policy be allowing duplexes and triplexes on all residential lots (as the draft plan calls for) and quadraplexes on main streets, or should areas zoned for only single-family, detached housing (as most of the city currently is) be kept the same?

On Monday, council members voiced the same objections (allowing denser development by-right could speed gentrification, worsen infrastructure problems and wreck single-family neighborhoods) and arguments in support (single-family-only zoning is exclusionary, rooted in segregation and contributes to Charlotte’s worsening housing shortage).

[Here’s why both sides feel like they’re right in the housing and density debate]

Charlotte Assistant City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba offered the first glimpse at a compromise solution during the Transportation & Planning Committee meeting. Instead of starting with duplexes and triplexes allowed on every lot automatically, the revised plan would say duplexes and triplexes could be allowed in every residential place type (the revised land-use categories replacing zoning). The exact locations for such housing would be determined later, in concert with neighborhoods, during a place-mapping process following the plan’s adoption.

“This is a concession to council to be able to achieve a degree of compromise, rather than say ‘all lots,’” said Jaiyeoba. “There will be a lot of healthy tension, and that’s fine.”

“The objective is not to eliminate single-family housing,” Jaiyeoba reiterated.

Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said the change – with details still to come in future council meetings – is needed because the plan won’t pass as written now.

“I think this is the crux of what this argument is about,” Eiselt said of the single-family-only zoning debate. “We do know that we don’t have the votes to pass this as is.”

Out of the more than 600 comments Charlotte planning staff has received from the public, single-family housing and related topics, like gentrification and equitable development are by far the largest two categories.

Submitted comments range from warnings that duplexes and triplexes “ruin the character of the neighborhood” to arguing that having most land devoted to single-family, suburban-style housing is “not how the great cities of the world have developed.”

A quadraplex in Elizabeth. Photo: Chuck McShane

On City Council, similar divisions were evident in Monday’s sometimes-heated meeting. Those divisions illustrate that the debate over Charlotte’s 2040 plan is as much an argument about the nature of America’s housing system and the legacy of racist housing rules like redlining and deed restrictions meant to enforce segregation.

Council member Braxton Winston said the system we have now supports gentrification and displacement, as well as perpetuating inequalities.

“The tools we have and don’t have literally optimize gentrification,” said Winston. “It was planned that way and the current system creates that…This is not by mistake, this is very intentional.”

Council member Ed Driggs disagreed, and pointed to the primary role of the free market in American housing. He said the city needs to keep a single-family-only zoning category in its new vision and development rules.

“A lot of what we have today was not the product of any government policy,” he said. “People make choices. They want to go certain places and the value goes up.”

Winston countered with “Mr. Driggs is absolutely wrong,” while Driggs said “I think the plan is too extreme.”

Other council members said they’re still worried that allowing denser development will speed up gentrification instead of easing housing shortages, by making it easier for developers to tear down older housing and build more expensive new units. Larken Egleston gave the example of an older, 1,000-square-foot house occupied by a renter that’s replaced with a triplex selling for half-a-million dollars per unit.

“We still are displacing someone who lived in a 1,000 square-foot house at an affordable price point to put three people in at $500,000,” he said. “The people there are maybe the greatest concern for accelerated displacement in my mind are renters.”

Council member Matt Newton said the plan’s single-family provisions are “smoke and mirrors,” adding “it’s illogical, unwise and I don’t think it’s prudent.” Newton said his major concern is allowing more density in areas like parts of east Charlotte, that don’t have the transit, sidewalks and other infrastructure to support such growth.

As council continues arguing about the plan, city staff members are working on revisions and responding to comments. In addition to the single-family zoning controversy, developers have also expressed opposition to the draft plan’s embrace of impact fees, the possibility of mandatory inclusionary zoning and community benefit agreements.

But at Monday’s meeting, there seemed to be increased concern about the need to pass something by the council’s new goal for the end of June. The comprehensive plan – Charlotte’s first since 1975 – has been in the works for almost three years, and the rewrite of Charlotte’s zoning and development rules (a separate but parallel process) has been ongoing in some form for nearly a decade.

Council members don’t want to lose the plan’s other goals, like more walkable neighborhoods, preserving and growing the city’s tree canopy, and simplifying the development regulations that have grown into a confusing and often contradictory thicket of rules over the past few decades.

Eiselt said if council members aren’t happy with the staff’s draft plan, they need to start coming up with ideas that they can agree on instead of “kicking the can down the road.”

“We’re at the point where we’ve all got to come up with solutions,” she said. “If we don’t pass a comprehensive vision plan, the only thing that is certain is we’re going to still be in this…I’m trying to find a polite word I can use online…this mess, for a long time.”

“It will be a total fail on all of our parts.”