Charlottesville Zoning Plan Prompts Debate Over Racial Justice

Charlottesville Zoning Plan Prompts Debate Over Racial Justice

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia – In early July, crews showed up downtown to conduct some long-delayed evictions. After years of protest, litigation and even violence, the statues of two Confederate Generals Lee and Jackson were finally carted out of city parks by the city's urge to redress its past wrongs.

Now the really hard work is waiting.

It's been four years since white racists invaded Charlottesville, wreaked havoc on the streets, and killed a young woman. The horror of this August weekend prompted the city to scrutinize its own racial past and debate what to do with its heritage. The catalog of the remaining artifacts of this bigoted story is daunting, starting with statues but quickly moving on to the basics of civic life like schools and neighborhoods.

In a city that boasts of its progress, the pursuit of justice has generally found widespread support. That this push can bring about change in people's neighborhoods – streets with one- and two-story brick houses, beautiful dogwoods, and numerous signs of Black Lives Matter – is another matter.

The Charlottesville Planning Commission is considering a proposal to pull back some of the city's zoning restrictions to encourage construction of more affordable housing, a plan that has reacted from fierce opposition to disappointment that it will not go any further.

But there is particular unrest, said Lyle Solla-Yates, member of the planning commission, among a certain segment of the population: “intelligent, educated” white residents who are neither poor nor very wealthy and live in charming neighborhoods with a history of discrimination against Black people they didn't know about. Now they imagine that multi-story apartment buildings are built on their streets.

"There is fear and anger to be targeted," he said. “You don't feel centered in this process. And they are right. "

For months, residents and city officials have been considering a draft land use map that outlines what types of buildings should be allowed where in the coming years.

Driven by research showing that restrictions on single-family homes are rooted in discrimination and consequences in rising property prices and more segregated neighborhoods, Charlottesville is discussing with communities across the country whether to ease those restrictions. Several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have pledged to encourage relaxation of zoning rules, and President Biden's Infrastructure Act includes grants for cities that do so.

On the right, figures from Donald J. Trump to Tucker Carlson to Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis attorneys who were given a place to speak at the 2020 Republican National Convention after waving their guns at protesters, have accused the Democrats of wanting to "abolish the suburbs" by restricting single-family home zones. The results, Ms. McCloskey said, were "crime, lawlessness and poor quality housing".

This kind of fire-breathing partisanship is relatively rare in Charlottesville, a liberal college town. But the colors on the land-use map – especially the gold that can be seen all over town and especially in comfortable neighborhoods like Lewis Mountain and Barracks Rugby – indicated that in places where single-family homes are now, dwellings of up to 12 units are allowed – were alarming for many.

A "huge social experiment in our city," said a law professor at one of the planning committee's hour-long virtual meetings this summer. "I just don't understand what is driving this," said another commenter.

As a sign of how much the political ground has shifted in recent years, the main argument put forward by opponents of the plan that it would actually be bad for the poor is a giveaway for greedy developers. Some have compared the plan to the destruction of black neighborhoods over the past few decades, and comment threads on the Nextdoor app have sparked debate over whether the proposal would simply spawn a city full of high-end housing and whether it really is "terrible injustices" from the The past would really be corrected by "destroying the neighborhoods in the present".

Charlottesville stands out neither for the controversy nor the lazy chapters of its planning history, a record of forced racial segregation it shares with cities across the country. What is different here is the recent past.

Before the white racists fell in August 2017, the housing shortage was a problem for the poor, but not an emergency, at least not for the people who were more likely to come to town planning meetings. After that August everything changed.

It also became clear that contemporary Charlottesville, with a population of 47,000 and a growing population, was a place where many poor people and working class workers – disproportionately black – could no longer afford to live. While most of the city is reserved for detached single-family homes, most residents are renters, with many paying more than half of their monthly income in rent. This largely explains why the city's black population, now around 18 percent, is steadily shrinking.

"Black people are being displaced," said Valerie Washington, 28, who grew up in the city but now lives in surrounding Albemarle County. With young white professionals and runabouts snapping up real estate, few of the black neighbors she knew as a child have stayed in their old neighborhood. "I'm there all the time," she said. "But I can't afford to live there."

In March, the city approved a plan that includes $ 10 million annually in housing aid as well as tenant protections, along with a revision of the Building Code to allow for many more apartment buildings to be built, with some of the new developments being affordable Units include. The zoning reorganization, officials argued, would take pressure off the expensive and competitive housing market while breaking the legacy of the city's marginalized past.

About half of the hundreds of people who emailed the city the latest draft of the map approved the plan, and virtually no one publicly questions its ultimate goals.

"If we have to ruin half of our racial justice block, yes, we will," said Leeyanne Moore, a creative writing teacher who lives on a street of small stucco bungalows. However, she claims the proposal would only result in lots of expensive housing for University of Virginia students. "Reallocating it wouldn't solve the problem," she said.

Her neighbor Diane Miller also has reservations. She has not participated in the public debates, which tend to be dominated by the pros and cons of white professionals and academics. "My opinions mean nothing," said Ms. Miller, who is Black.

But she remembers hearing her parents talk as a young girl about a building contractor who was buying up all of his neighbors, most if not all of them Black. She did not know if her property was being taken over by a major domain; She only remembers that everyone reluctantly left, including her family who left behind a house that belonged to her grandmother.

Ms. Miller distrusts any top-down plan to eradicate racial inequalities; After all, these inequalities came primarily from above.

"They took everything that blacks have, everything," said Ms. Miller, now 65. "There is no trust there."

Carmelita Wood herself knows a lot about this story. She grew up in Vinegar Hill, a busy black-owned neighborhood of homes and businesses that was razed to the ground in the 1960s in the name of "urban renewal." The idea that any policy could make amends does not resonate with her. "Most of these people are dead and gone," she said. "And their children moved away."

But while the story is deep and its tragedies irreversible, Ms. Wood suggested that it is not too late to do the right thing. She is now the president of the neighborhood association in Fifeville, a district that is mostly black, but with a steadily dwindling lead. In letters and comments, she has argued that the vision in the proposed land use map that neighborhoods around the city open up to all sorts of different people was a good first step.

"I think it will work," said Ms. Wood. "I think it will work because people will finally see that they might be listening to us when we get in touch."


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