The Most Important Housing Reform in America Has Come to the South

Braxton Winston experienced an epiphany at Charlotte City Hall in spring 2017, as he viewed the presentation of the Economic Opportunity Task Force, a city commission.Although it sounds dull, the subject matter had stunned boosters in one America's fastest-growing cities. A Harvard study had found that North Carolina's largest city was the most difficult to move up in terms of upward mobility. This was just a few years ago. The task force that was created in Charlotte to investigate the reasons behind this ranking was largely focused on Charlotte's racial segregation.AdvertisementWinston, a Black man, was doing soul-searching after the death of Keith Lamont Scott in 2016. Scott, a father of seven, was killed waiting to collect his son from school bus. Scott didn't live in a location where he could easily walk his children to school. Why was it that the police showed up always armed and ready to fight? Why was Charlotte treated this way? Winston described himself to be a concerned citizen, and began hanging out at city government meetings.AdvertisementAdvertisementWinston stated that the 2017 presentation highlighted one major problem: single-family zoning had restricted apartments and those who rent them to only 16 percent of Charlotte's residential land. He told me that the task force had given me the language. It was there, it was there, you could feel it. I did not have the language to describe it.AdvertisementHe does. Now, four years later, Winston is a councilman and one the most vocal supporters of Charlotte's policy last week to abolish single-family zoning. The Comprehensive Plan of Charlotte allows duplexes to be legalized in the city. This will allow more people to have access to different types of housing in more areas. It also reverses a policy that was originally designed to avoid the Supreme Court's ban on racial zoned by keeping renters out. Winston stated that when you look at land use and what you can place where, you will see how the map was designed to suppress the supply. One-family zoning is one major weight on the scale that ensures the de facto segregated urban environment we live in.AdvertisementSingle-family zoning is an instrument of segregation. You are advocating segregation if you fight for single-family zoning. Charlotte, stop being racist. Braxton Winston (He/Him), (@BraxtonWinston), March 2, 2021AdvertisementAdvocates for the change in Charlotte stated that making more housing choices would increase diversity and access to high-opportunity places, as well as offer smaller-scale and lower-cost housing options. These arguments might sound familiar if they are followed closely. Charlotte, although it still needs an ordinance to codify the plan's contents, appears to be on the same path as cities like Portland and Minneapolis to allow renters to live in their city.AdvertisementHowever, Charlotte's situation is slightly different. This reform was passed in Berkeley, Minneapolis, and Portland. It was also unanimously approved in Berkeley and 121 in Minneapolis. The margin in Charlotte was 65. This result followed a campaign-style battle that featured yard signs, fearmongering and open disputes between elected officials and city staff. North Carolina Republicans have already begun to integrate the Comp Plan into their culture war.Charlotte's left-leaning Mayor and City Council just approved a plan to end single-family zoning. Liberals don't lie...they want to ruin your quality of living, using the false narrative of social justice. Pat McCrory (@PatMcCroryNC June 23, 2021AdvertisementAdvertisementCharlotte is unique among other cities and what makes it a city worth watching when it comes time to evaluate the potential for land-use reforms within U.S. cities.This is important for several reasons. First, Charlotte is growing faster than Portland, Minneapolis and Berkeley. Only Houston, the U.S. city with the highest number of new homes per capita, built more homes between 2008-2018. Many younger people rent apartments in midrise buildings, which are located near the city's light rail stations. However, it is difficult to choose between large apartment buildings and houses on the periphery where there are still subdivisions. Charlotte's infill growth could be rapid, with detached houses becoming urbanized in a matter of hours, much like Houston. However, zoning is a necessary step.AdvertisementThe second is that the rise in missing-middle housing will result in a greater increase of density for Charlotte than Berkeley. Berkeley has a rich history with multifamily construction. Despite the recent boom in downtown construction, Charlotte is one of the most sprawling and low density cities in the country, just like Houston.Charlotte is located in the South, which sets it apart from other cities that have banned single-family zoning.The third reason is that housing in Charlotte is still very affordable. Although home prices have increased by more than 80% in the last decade, Charlotte's housing appreciation is in line with that of big-city national averages. It started at a much lower level.AdvertisementWhat explains exclusionary zoning reform in Charlotte? Charlotte, like many other Southern cities, is a sprawling, fast-growing city with low housing prices. This is not a generational issue. Charlotte's majority-millennial City Council split on the issue. It was also rejected by the two Republicans on the council. Another thing that separates Charlotte from other cities like Portland, Minneapolis and Berkeley is the large Black community.AdvertisementThe opposition to the plan was complicated. There were many reasons for opposition to the plan. Some council members were worried about gentrification, while others were concerned about social engineering and the destruction of neighborhood character.The promise of more affordable housing was just barely realized, thanks to Taiwo Jaiyeoba, a dynamic city planner. Winston repeatedly emphasized that single-family zonating was a tool for segregation. Mayor Vi Lyles, who is also Black, supported her position. The entire debate would have been impossible even ten years ago, given the emphasis on racial justice combined with new concerns about affordability.AdvertisementAdvertisementAdvertisementCalifornia's movement to abolish apartment bans was met with opposition by residents of Black neighborhoods who fear gentrification. Charlotte is another example of this, with some Black politicians worried about displacement and speculation. The politics here are slightly different because many of the most vocal supporters of upzoning are Black.It is crucial to see what role land-use reforms such as this can have in Charlotte. Sun Belt cities are rapidly growing and sprawling, which highlights the need to liberalize land use as quickly as possible. The region's reputation for affordability is also deteriorating. Renting a median one-bedroom apartment in a Southern boomtown like Atlanta, Austin and Charlotte is possible for minimum-wage workers.AdvertisementThe best thing about Southern cities is their size. Contrary to San Francisco and Boston, Southern cities are relatively dense, surrounded by large swathes of exclusionary suburbanities. Cities like Charlotte, Austin, Phoenix, San Antonio and Houston have a significant say in the regional land-use destiny. Each city is home to over 30 percent of its metro population. Most are larger in land area than their older-growth counterparts.These free-market proposals will not get any support from the big-city Republicans. Tariq Bokhari of the Charlotte City Council predicted that Charlotte would become the worst part of Atlanta. Former North Carolina GOP Governor. Former North Carolina GOP Governor Pat McCrory was mayor of Charlotte 1995-2009. He is currently running for a U.S. Senate Seat in 2022.McCrory sounded a lot like Donald Trump. He spent the second half 2020 trying to get suburban women excited about the threat to affordable housing (read integration) in their communities. These attacks failed; Trump was defeated in Charlottes Mecklenburg County with a margin of 2-to-1, just like in most suburbs.However, homeowners might not have considered the possibility of upzoning Sun Belt. Braxton Winston will have his way if he gets his way.