Metropolis

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

A row of single-family homes in Charlotte.
Why is it the law to live like this? Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Braxton Winston had his epiphany in the spring of 2017 at Charlotte City Hall, watching the presentation of a city commission called the Economic Opportunity Task Force.

It sounds boring, but the matter at hand had shocked boosters in one of America’s fastest-growing places. A few years earlier, a big study led by Harvard’s Raj Chetty had ranked North Carolina’s largest city dead last in upward mobility among the 50 largest U.S. cities. Charlotte’s task force was supposed to figure out why, and much of its conclusion focused on the city’s racial segregation.

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Winston, who is Black, had been doing some soul-searching of his own since the 2016 death of Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old Black father of seven killed by Charlotte police while waiting to pick his son up from the school bus. Why didn’t Scott live in a place he could walk his kids to school? Why did the police always show up armed and ready for conflict? Why was Charlotte the way it was? Winston described himself as a concerned citizen and started hanging around city government meetings.

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One big problem, Winston concluded after that 2017 presentation, was that single-family zoning restricted apartments—and the people who rent them—to just 16 percent of Charlotte’s residential land. “The task force gave me the language,” he told me. “You could see it, you could feel it, but I didn’t have the vernacular to talk about this.”

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Now he does. Four years later, Winston is a city councilman and one of the most vocal advocates for the policy that Charlotte approved last week: abolishing single-family zoning. Charlotte’s Comprehensive Plan prescribes legalizing duplexes and triplexes citywide, giving more people more access to more types of housing in more neighborhoods, and undoing a policy originally intended to circumvent the Supreme Court’s ban on racial zoning by keeping renters out. “When you learn about land use, what you can put where, you see the way the map has been set up to intentionally suppresses the supply,” Winston said. “Single-family zoning is one of the chief weights put on the scale to ensure the de facto segregated city that we live in.”

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In Charlotte, advocates for the change said making room for more housing choices would diversify neighborhoods, increase access to high-opportunity areas, and offer lower-cost and small-scale housing choices. Those arguments may sound familiar if you follow this issue. Charlotte, which still needs to pass an ordinance to codify what’s in the plan, seems set to join cities like Portland, Minneapolis, and Berkeley on the path to giving renters the option to live citywide.

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But the situation in Charlotte is a little different. In Portland, Minneapolis, and Berkeley, this reform passed, respectively, 3–1, 12–1, and unanimously. In Charlotte the margin was 6–5, and followed a campaign-style fight featuring yard signs, fearmongering, and open disputes between city staff and elected officials. Already, North Carolina Republicans are trying to bring the Comp Plan into the culture war.

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What sets Charlotte apart from those other places—and what might make it the city to watch when it comes to evaluating the potential of land-use reforms in U.S. cities—is that it’s in the South.

That’s important for a few reasons. First, Charlotte is growing much, much faster than Portland, Minneapolis, and Berkeley: Among U.S. cities, only Houston built more new homes per capita between 2008 and 2018. And while many younger residents rent in the midrise apartment buildings that have exploded around the city’s light rail stations, there are few options between a big apartment building and a house on the periphery, where subdivisions continue to munch away at farmland. Infill growth in Charlotte could happen fast, with neighborhoods of detached houses turning urban overnight, similar to what’s happening in Houston. But zoning is in the way.

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Second, the rise of missing-middle housing would represent a much greater leap in density for Charlotte than for a city like Berkeley, which has a rich history of multifamily construction. Like Houston, in spite of the recent downtown construction boom, Charlotte is among the country’s most sprawling and low-density cities.

Third, housing is still pretty cheap in Charlotte. While home prices have doubled in the past decade, the city’s housing appreciation is right in line with the national big-city average—and started from a considerably lower baseline.

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So if Charlotte is, like so many of its Southern peers, a fast-growing, sprawling city with low housing costs, what explains the drive to reform exclusionary zoning? It’s hardly a generational issue: Charlotte’s “majority-millennial” City Council split down the middle on the issue. The council’s two Republicans didn’t back the idea either. The council’s Black members—another feature that sets Charlotte apart from Portland, Minneapolis, and Berkeley is its large Black community—were also divided.

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Opposition to the plan was complex. Some council members were concerned about gentrification; some about “social engineering” and the ruin of “neighborhood character.” And even though liberalizing zoning would seem to benefit their business, some developers were opposed because of the plan’s support for impact fees and other community benefits tied to new construction.

In short, the promise of a more affordable and accessible housing landscape just barely carried the day, spurred by a dynamic city planning director, Taiwo Jaiyeoba. Winston underlined again and again that single-family zoning was a tool of segregation, a point that was front and center throughout the debate, and Mayor Vi Lyles (who is also Black) lent her support. Between the focus on racial justice and the new concerns about affordability, the entire debate would have been inconceivable even a decade ago.

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In California, the movement to repeal apartment bans has met opposition from Black neighborhoods where residents fear gentrification. That’s true in Charlotte, too, where some Black politicians worry about speculation and displacement. Here, though, the politics are a little different, because some of the most outspoken supporters of the upzoning proposal are also Black.

Whether land-use reforms like this can play in cities like Charlotte is of huge importance. It’s not just that Sun Belt cities are fast-growing and sprawling—each of which underlines the urgency of liberalizing land use as soon as possible. It’s also that the region’s reputation for affordability is slipping away. If you’re a minimum-wage worker trying to rent the median one-bedroom apartment, Southern boomtowns like Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, and Orlando are actually some of the country’s least affordable cities.

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Most importantly, Southern cities are huge. Unlike San Francisco or Boston—relatively dense cities surrounded by vast swaths of exclusionary suburbs—cities such as Charlotte, Austin, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Houston actually have a big say in regional land-use destiny. Each is home to more than 30 percent of its metropolitan population. In land area, most are larger than their old-growth counterparts.

Just don’t expect these free-market proposals to get any help from big-city Republicans. “Charlotte will become all the bad parts of living in Atlanta,” Tariq Bokhari, one of the two Republicans on the Charlotte City Council, predicted. Former North Carolina GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, who served as mayor of Charlotte from 1995 to 2009 and is running for a U.S. Senate seat in 2022, sounded off on Twitter: “This is Biden-Harris Nanny State radicalism coming to a North Carolina town near you soon,” he wrote of the plan to allow small apartment buildings citywide.

McCrory sounded an awful lot like Donald Trump, who spent the second half of 2020 trying to rile up suburban women about the threat of affordable housing (read: integration) in their neighborhoods. Those attacks fell flat; Trump got trounced in Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County by a 2-to-1 margin, as in most suburbs.

Then again, the prospect of upzoning the Sun Belt might just have seemed too farfetched for homeowners to worry about. If Braxton Winston gets his way, that won’t be true for long.

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