Taiwo Jaiyeoba can’t help himself. Sometimes he still tunes into Charlotte City Council meetings. Call it an old habit the city’s former planning director can’t break.
And he’s bothered by what he sees.
Take a May meeting where the council was, once again, fighting about the city’s zoning rules. Last year, it narrowly approved a new Unified Development Ordinance, or UDO, that eliminated single-family, detached housing as an exclusive category in the rulebook, a controversial reform meant to ease a severe housing crunch. But at the May meeting, a bloc of the council was suddenly pushing for a motion to explore restricting the kinds of dense housing advocates of the new rules wanted to encourage. This came at the eleventh hour; the new zoning rules were just ten days from taking effect.
Braxton Winston, the reform’s staunchest supporter on the council, was furious. “It is ridiculous, ridiculous!” he thundered, “that this motion was made and you guys should be ashamed of yourselves if you vote this in.”
“I call B.S. on everything that Mr. Winston just said,” said Victoria Watlington, a council member who voted against the zoning changes, to scattered cheers from the audience, some of whom attended to denounce those changes. The motion passed.
The zoning rules at the heart of the debate were Jaiyeoba’s brainchild, the culmination of a collective moment of shame that united Charlotte’s leadership class behind a vision to reshape the city through denser housing. And yet opponents, backed by some angry residents, contend the movement to densify Charlotte is little more than a capitulation to profit-thirsty developers disguised as equity-minded policy, another slap in the face of the city’s poor neighborhoods. They stand ready to further unwind the city’s bold step on single-family zoning.
Looking on from afar, Jaiyeoba was frustrated to see old debates play out on the dais. They are a signal that Charlotte’s future is unwritten. Ongoing political disputes, growing ire from residents, and limited policy options suggest the city’s progressive new order may be a fragile one—if it ever existed at all.
Making It In Charlotte
In America, the thinking goes, people born poor can become rich through grit and determination. Every generation has its real-life Horatio Alger stories. But with the right data, the notion that America is the “land of opportunity” can be tested.
A team of researchers led by Harvard University economist Raj Chetty did just that in 2014 and found that the percentage of Americans born poor who became rich adults was vanishingly small. The odds that a person born around 1980 into a household in the lowest income quintile had ascended to the top quintile by the 2010s was a mere 7.5 percent. Canada and Denmark score higher, with rates in the low teens.
But it wasn’t all bad news. Some parts of America did exhibit levels of socioeconomic mobility on par with the Denmarks of the world. In San Jose, for instance, the probability was 13 percent.
Other parts of the country dragged down the average. Among the 50 most populous metro areas, the very worst was Charlotte, where a poor child had only a 4.4 percent chance of becoming a rich adult.
The finding was a shock to white-collar Charlotte, who relished a self-image as a booming metropolis with all the charms of the South and none of the shame. It was “a big wake-up call,” said Tom Hanchett, a Charlotte historian. “This is a city that is visibly very wealthy: brand new skyline, big airport, lots of new shopping, tree lined streets. If any city was going to have what it takes to be a good place for folks on all levels of economic ladder, Charlotte seemed like, ‘hey, it’s us.’”
The revelation prompted soul-searching among Charlotte’s leaders. The chair of the Mecklenburg County’s Board of Commissioners called for the creation of a task force to make recommendations. The Foundation for the Carolinas, a prominent, Charlotte-based philanthropic organization, stepped in to help fund it.
One reality from Chetty’s study loomed large: High racial and economic segregation strongly correlated with less mobility. Charlotte, as it happens, is very segregated. How it came to be that way is no mystery. Hanchett’s 1998 book, Sorting Out the New South City, documented in painstaking detail how and why Charlotte went from integrated to segregated.
After the Civil War, white and Black people of all incomes lived next to each other in what is now uptown Charlotte. But after a biracial coalition of frustrated tenant farmers and angry factory workers banded together to take power in the late 19th century, North Carolina Democrats enacted a white supremacist campaign to divide the movement. After they regained power, leaders laid the cornerstones of a segregated city: Jim Crow voting laws, Hanchett writes.
A partnership between political and commercial interests sprung into motion that divided the city by race and income over the ensuing century, placing white mill workers, Black laborers, and wealthy white families in separate neighborhoods. Red-lining and urban renewal supercharged the stratified society, decimating the Black neighborhoods while allowing white ones to flourish. Efforts to reverse the pattern, such as the county’s three-decade experiment with busing to desegregate the public schools, proved temporary.
Relying in part on Hanchett’s history, the task force issued a report in 2017 that identified segregation as a key factor in hampering mobility in Charlotte.
The city’s divisions became evident in the process of assembling the report, said Brian Collier, who supervised the effort as the Foundation for the Carolinas’ executive vice president. He recalled one task force listening session in east Charlotte—part of the predominantly nonwhite, poorer “Crescent” that hovers west, north, and east of uptown—where over 200 residents showed up to talk about their community. The next night, they hosted a meeting in Ballantyne—deep in the “Wedge,” white, affluent south Charlotte—and only a handful of people came, most of them the friends and family of task force members.
For Collier, that disparity reflected the yawning gap in awareness of the city’s inequities between the Crescent and the Wedge. For people from the Crescent, like Ismaail Qaiyim, a community organizer and attorney who grew up in West Charlotte, the city’s neglect was evident in the lack of infrastructure and the absence of well-paying jobs for his neighbors. The Chetty study told him something he already knew. “To me,” he said, “it wasn’t surprising at all.”
But Collier heard from some south Charlotte residents who said they didn’t believe Chetty’s study. He was taken aback, but he understood why. In a segregated, car-centric city, wealthy residents rarely have to see poor areas. For them, “everything sort of leads you to believe that this city doesn’t have a poverty issue,” Collier said. “And in fact we had a lot of people who said, well, if you can’t make it in Charlotte you must just be lazy.”
Right Place, Right Time
In 2015, Jaiyeoba, then a consultant who specialized in transit for an engineering and architecture firm, was transferred from Atlanta to his company’s Charlotte office. Hoping to position himself to win a future contract with the city, he began studying.
Early in the morning Jaiyeoba would drive his Dodge Durango from his home in the suburb of Matthews into different parts of the city. In south Charlotte, he took note of the ample streetlights and sidewalks. In west Charlotte, he found that some neighborhoods had neither. South Charlotte had lush treelines, but in east and west Charlotte, all he saw was sky. “That pretty much told me a lot that I needed to know,” he said.
The stark disparities made more sense when he discovered that Charlotte hadn’t had a comprehensive plan in over 40 years. Planning, as a whole, had taken a back seat to a culture of backroom dealing that had put the privileged first.
There was work to be done, and Jaiyeoba wanted to do it. He set up a meeting with an assistant city manager, hoping to position himself for a consulting contract. She told him the planning director post was actually open, if he was interested. He applied and got the job in late 2017.
Jaiyeoba wasted no time in pushing for a comprehensive plan, which would then inform a new UDO. Political winds happened to be at his back; the city was still talking about the Chetty study—and about another crisis that had rattled its identity.
On September 20, 2016 a police officer shot and killed a Black man named Keith Lamont Scott in northeast Charlotte. The shooting led to a protest that night.
At the time, a 33-year-old Winston was leaving a job coaching middle-school football for a gig unloading concert equipment downtown when he saw the news in a group chat. That night he joined the protests, and a photographer from The Charlotte Observer snapped an image of him facing police with his fist raised.
The protests quickly became about more than police violence. Marchers shared complaints of segregation and inequality. It was a political awakening for Winston, who quickly emerged as one of the city’s most recognizable activists. The next spring, as he considered how to stay involved in civic life, a friend advised him to attend the unveiling of the Foundation for the Carolinas report.
For Winston, seeing the city’s inequities laid out in black and white was an “aha moment.”
“All of a sudden I had actual data and actual verbiage to some of the issues and emotions and feeling and energy that we were wrestling with on the street,” he said. “There was policy guidance and policy language and it was like, look, we’re not bugging about these inequities that we were talking about.”
Winston decided to run for an at-large council seat in the 2017 election. He won, part of an electoral wave that replaced five of the 11 members. The report and the Chetty study were “kind of gospel, really,” for the whole community, Winston said, and the Scott shooting lingered in the air. This new council was poised to embrace the kind of comprehensive plan that Jaiyeoba had in mind: one that sought to explicitly address the city’s inequities.
The centerpiece of the plan, unveiled in 2020, was the elimination of the single-family zoning category that governed the vast majority of Charlotte’s residential land. Most of the residential land in many urban centers across America is zoned single-family, and racial segregation is baked into its origins.
By allowing duplexes, triplexes, and quadraplexes on plots previously reserved for detached homes, Charlotte’s comprehensive plan aimed to increase housing supply and make it more affordable—and start to break down the segregation that the data made so clear. And with more economically and racially diverse neighborhoods, social capital would be more broadly shared, and poorer children might more easily climb the ladder.
Opponents of the plan said that utopian vision was oversimplified. More building in neighborhoods that had previously seen very little development would just accelerate gentrification while creating new housing that still wasn’t affordable, they argued.
The debate grew heated. Council members who opposed the plan accused the city’s staff of not listening to them. Winston Tweeted that anyone who supported single-family zoning was “advocating for segregation.” One of the Council’s two Republicans, Tariq Bokhari, called for Jaiyeoba to be fired. “Fuck that guy,” he told Axios Charlotte. (Bokhari didn’t return a request for an interview. Jaiyeoba, who left Charlotte to become Greensboro’s city manager in 2022, said the two are friendly.)
In June 2021, after nearly eight months of debate, the council passed the plan 6-5. Fourteen months later, it approved the new zoning rulebook that formalized some of the plan’s ideas by a similarly close vote: 6-4. It was set to take effect June 1, 2023.
It seemed the tides were turning for Charlotte. “The Most Important Housing Reform in America Has Come to the South,” Slate declared.
North Charlotte resident Jordan Boyd knew that the city had been working on a comprehensive plan, but he hadn’t been paying close attention. The public debate had played out during the height of the pandemic, and many of the events to provide feedback were virtual.
That is, until Boyd and his neighbors in the Lexington neighborhood learned about a proposed 186-unit townhome development down the street in early 2023. Worried by the prospect of clogged roads and overburdened police, the residents mobilized to kill the project, which required a rezoning petition to be granted by the council.
But as they familiarized themselves with the zoning process, the implications of the new rules came into focus. Single-family zoning had long given residents of those neighborhoods the power to contest developments through the rezoning process. But starting June 1—just days after a scheduled public hearing about the project—duplex and triplex developments could be built by right, with no hearings.
Urban planning experts have long decried the effective veto that homeowners can wield on nearby development through public hearings. The Lexington residents’ appearance before the City Council certainly carried some hallmarks of Not In My Backyard, or NIMBY, politics. One homeowner spoke of rats and vermin flocking to hypothetical dumpsters: “Would you want that up to your backyard?” One council member, Dimple Ajmera, said: “I would not want that in my neighborhood.”
But Boyd says he’s no NIMBY. What he really resents is what he described as the arrogance of the developer. “We’re not against affordable housing,” he said. “We’re against this attitude by builders that, ‘We can come in and do whatever we want to do.’”
The proposed development was denser than what is allowed for that area under the new zoning rules, so the city staff opposed it. As did the council, which voted to reject it even after the developer withdrew its petition.
But the residents’ outrage triggered renewed council anxiety about the UDO, and some members called a motion to direct staff to propose ways that the new rules—now several years in the making and on the eve of taking effect—could be changed again.
To Winston, it looked like a backslide. “This is an attempt to try to reimplement exclusionary zoning,” he said, adding that simple supply and demand dictated that more supply was the simplest way to lower prices and desegregate the city.
Watlington countered that homeowner associations lorded over anywhere from half to two-thirds of the formerly single-family plots in Charlotte, and restrictive covenants they enforced would confine growth to neighborhoods already at risk of displacement. (A December ruling by the state’s Supreme Court may complicate that picture.) Even with the zoning changes, the ability to boost supply was severely constrained. “We cannot build our way out of an affordable housing crisis,” she said.
Under the city’s current policies, that may be true. To understand why, look to Minneapolis, whose comprehensive plan inspired Charlotte’s, and which has won plaudits for the early returns on that effort. (Just this month, however, a legal challenge resulted in the suspension of Minneapolis’s four-year-old plan, throwing its long-term survival into doubt).
Minneapolis did more than eliminate single-family zoning. It also got rid of all parking minimums, or rules that require a certain number of parking spaces to be built alongside new developments. Minimums are meant to preserve street parking, but they also make units more expensive. Charlotte, a notoriously car-centric city, hasn’t eliminated minimums despite calls from advocates to do so.
Perhaps most importantly, Minneapolis requires that developers in certain projects make a certain percentage of units affordable—a practice known as inclusionary zoning. But Charlotte can’t enact such mandates without approval from the state legislature, which is unlikely to do so as long as Republicans are in charge. (The comprehensive plan calls for Charlotte to “create a culture” of community-benefit agreements in which developers would voluntarily agree to, say, make a certain percentage of units affordable. It also calls for the city to “lead the charge” to get the legislature to pass a law allowing for inclusionary zoning, but a city spokesman said no progress has been made on that effort.)
“Not being able to do inclusionary zoning is probably the largest hindrance out there for any municipality that is trying to improve affordability or increase density,” said Justin Harlow, a former council member. Harlow co-chairs the city’s anti-displacement commission, a team created by the comprehensive plan to address fears that more building would further fuel gentrification.
With the ability to increase affordable housing supply limited by homeowners associations, parking minimums, and a lack of inclusionary zoning, it is unclear whether enough building would drive down prices into an affordable range.
And even if it could, some worry that changes would disproportionately affect poor neighborhoods while leaving rich ones untouched—a bleak repeat of Charlotte’s history. “If we were allowing duplexes and triplexes throughout the city and this density would impact all areas equally, then I wouldn’t have had such an opposition to it,” said Reneé Johnson, who represents Lexington and who voted against the comprehensive plan. She added that many of the controversial duplexes and triplexes are just “more non-affordable housing.”
The median price of a single-family house in the Charlotte area was $415,000 in September 2023, up sharply from around $300,000 three years ago, according to the Childress Klein Center for Real Estate’s 2023 State of Housing Report. Denser units like condos and townhouses have also surged to $365,000 — a 10 percent jump from last year. “Home prices and rents will not moderate until the region begins to produce more new housing units,” the report warns. (City data shows Charlotte is short of affordable rental housing by about 30,000 units, and the report found the area underbuilt new housing by 10,000 units just last year.)
Lori Thomas, executive director of UNC-Charlotte’s Urban Institute, said research supports the idea that the price of new housing can “filter” downward, even if it starts high. But that takes decades.
“If you can’t find a place to live now,” she said, “filtering does not help you.”
Can’t Have It Two Ways
The city has estimated that relaxing restrictions on duplexes and triplexes could lead to the creation of as many as 18,000 new units in the next 10 years, compared to merely hundreds in recent decades.
But it’s not clear that developers are embracing the call for middle-density housing. Axios Charlotte reported in August that only seven permits for duplexes had been filed in June and July, down from 20 the year before and 29 in 2021. The city said it was reviewing 21 preliminary plans for developments involving duplexes and triplexes at the time.
Meanwhile, city policy is still in flux. After the heated exchange between Winston and Watlington, the council members approved the contentious motion, instructing city staff to look for ways to modify large duplex and triplex developments to make them less disruptive to surrounding homes.
In August, Planning Director Alyson Craig—who succeeded Jaiyeoba—presented one such way to a council committee: requiring that 30 percent of a development with duplexes and triplexes be single-family homes. It would be another limit imposed on an already limited slate of options for boosting housing supply.
The City Council that oversees the zoning rules is far from the same one that approved them. Only three members of the six-person majority that passed it are still in office, and Winston is stepping down to run for statewide office as labor commissioner.
That leaves Mayor Vi Lyles as the remaining political champion of the zoning reforms. (A spokesperson for Lyles declined an interview request.) The mayor, who breezed to reelection last week, made waves by attempting to unseat Johnson—who says the zoning rules are too friendly to developers—by endorsing a primary challenger. But Johnson prevailed by about 450 votes, and Boyd credited her victory to the stand she took against the townhouse development in his neighborhood.
Winston worries that Johnson’s bloc on the council will make it even harder to densify Charlotte. “You can’t have it two ways,” he said. “You can’t say you want to limit the ability for housing to be created and then say that you want to make a city more affordable to live.”
Andy Thomason is assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of Discredited: The UNC Scandal and College Athletics’ Amateur Ideal.