With One Bold Step, a City (Not Charlotte) Goes Big on Affordable Housing

Can Charlotte take a similar leap?
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership
Charlotte City Council members and partners break ground Tuesday on The Mezzanine at Freedom, a planned 185-unit affordable housing complex in west Charlotte.

The Minneapolis City Council just did something extraordinary, although you can be excused for not immediately thinking so. In basic, here’s-what-your-elected-officials-voted-on terms, the council approved a long-range comprehensive plan, Minneapolis 2040, after months and years of drafting and community workshops and redrafting—the same kind of process Charlotte’s working on now and the kind of document the city expects to adopt in 2021.

The plan contains a truly revolutionary set of altered rules for how landowners are allowed to use their land, and though it predictably came close to setting the chamber on fire during public hearings, the council approved the plan Friday by a 12-1 vote. Slate tidily summarized its significance:

Minneapolis will become the first major U.S. city to end single-family home zoning, a policy that has done as much as any to entrench segregation, high housing costs, and sprawl as the American urban paradigm over the past century.

On Friday, the City Council passed Minneapolis 2040, a comprehensive plan to permit three-family homes in the city’s residential neighborhoods, abolish parking minimums for all new construction, and allow high-density buildings along transit corridors.

“Large swaths of our city are exclusively zoned for single-family homes, so unless you have the ability to build a very large home on a very large lot, you can’t live in the neighborhood,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told me this week. Single-family home zoning was devised as a legal way to keep black Americans and other minorities from moving into certain neighborhoods, and it still functions as an effective barrier today. Abolishing restrictive zoning, the mayor said, was part of a general consensus that the city ought to begin to mend the damage wrought in pursuit of segregation. Human diversity—which nearly everyone in this staunchly liberal city would say is a good thing—only goes as far as the housing stock.

This could be, no lie, one of the most important decisions any American city has made in the last century or so. To a large degree, U.S. cities developed as they did because they—along with state and federal governments—isolated and marginalized racial minorities through policies that devalued them and the land they occupied: Jim Crow, Urban Renewal, highway construction and, especially, redlining. Charlotte stands as an excellent example of all of the above; its current affordable housing crisis is in most ways a direct consequence of land-use patterns established in the 1930s.

That’s what makes Minneapolis’ reconstruction of its zoning ordinance such a huge deal. It’s the most comprehensive, deliberate effort to undo that legacy I’ve heard of from a major American city. Boiled down to its essence, dense housing is affordable housing, and allowing low-wage and minority workers to live close to where they work and play means, simply, more people with more access to more opportunity.

Which leads us, of course, to the obvious question: Why haven’t other cities done it, and why don’t we do it in Charlotte? Can the new comprehensive plan follow Minneapolis’ lead?

“The honest answer, in 2019, would be ‘no,’” says Charlotte Planning Director Taiwo Jaiyeoba, who blames the assorted “political implications.” For one thing, the wide Minneapolis council vote margin didn’t reflect how contentious the debate was beforehand, with opponents accusing the city of an authoritarian power snatch—and this was in liberal Minneapolis. Council members there serve four-year terms, insulating them a bit better from the wrath of furious voters than in Charlotte.

There’s an even bigger structural impediment. The city and its partners are making some progress in trying to solve the affordable housing problem, from expansion of the city’s Housing Trust Fund to a 185-unit complex on Freedom Drive in west Charlotte that broke ground Tuesday.

But in trying to develop more affordable housing, city officials have had to navigate around a gigantic rock in the middle of the road: the slim-to-none chance that the North Carolina legislature would allow any city to require developers to build affordable units along with their more expensive ones.

Charlotte ran into this problem back during the HB2 days of 2016, too. North Carolina, like most American states, is what’s called a “Dillon’s Rule” state, referring to a pair of 19th-century court decisions that established local governments as subdivisions of, and subservient to, their state governments. Some states, including North Carolina, have wriggled a little more room under the Dillon’s Rule straitjacket. But as a rule, if Charlotte or Raleigh or Greensboro passes an ordinance that the General Assembly doesn’t approve of, the legislature can smack it down—as it did with HB2 until the material costs grew too large.

That’s not the case in Minnesota, which technically operates under Dillon’s Rule but has a lot more leeway than we do. The Minnesota legislature has granted cities the power to adopt “home rule charters,” which the legislature itself describes as “the first significant mechanism in diminishing the practical effect of Dillon’s Rule.” While the charters still have to conform to the state constitution, and state law can overrule a charter, local governments in Minnesota can legislate for the general welfare, meaning any local ordinance “that contributes to the protection of the health, morals, peace, and good order of the community; promotes its welfare in trade, commerce, and manufacture; or aids in carrying out all appropriate objects contemplated in the creation of a city.”

It’s easy to make a strong case that reversing decades of discriminatory housing policy falls under the category of “general welfare.” But no such provision exists in North Carolina, and it’s far from clear whether the General Assembly would consider such a loosening of its authority even with urban Democrats rather than rural Republicans in power. Absent that, Charlotte officials have understandably declined to poke that bear—for now, anyway.

Jaiyeoba says he and the planning staff intend to float the idea of banning, or at least restricting, single-family exclusive zones past citizens in the spring, when the city moves into the next phase of preparing its comprehensive plan. “We will not shy away from asking questions about whether they’re interested in this as a solution to the affordable housing crisis,” he says, adding that he’s not sure whether Charlotte council members would be willing to extend such a ban citywide. “I don’t know if we’re there,” Jaiyeoba says. “But we need to have that conversation.”

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