Council QuickiesNews & Opinion

Council Quickies: Duplexes, Triplexes and the Unified Development Ordinance

The new Charlotte City Council stands behind the dais.
Charlotte City Council is sworn in. From left: New rep Marjorie Molina, incumbent Renee Johnson, incumbent Dimple Ajmera, returning rep James ‘Smuggie’ Mitchell, incumbent Braxton Winston, returning rep LaWana Mayfield, Mayor Vi Lyles, new rep Dante Anderson, incumbent Malcolm Graham, incumbent Tariq Bokhari, incumbent Victoria Watlington, and incumbent Ed Driggs. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Things got a bit heated during Monday night’s Charlotte City Council meeting, as a debate we thought we left in 2022 resurfaced with a vengeance. 

Over the last month, council members have been floating the idea of delaying the implementation of the Unified Development Ordinance — approved by the previous council in August 2022 and set to take effect on June 1, 2023 — and/or rolling back a UDO policy that will allow duplexes and triplexes in areas zoned for single-family homes. 

At Monday night’s meeting, motions were made that could affect how the Unified Development Ordinance is implemented. 

On the Agenda:

  • Public Forum
  • NOAH Project: Charlotte Woods
  • Unified Development Ordinance Discussion
  • Sycamore Station & Other Business Items

Public Forum

Kicking off the public forum, attorney Tim Emry decried the council for continuing to increase the CMPD budget. He asked that the city rein in “racist policing in action” by demanding the department disband the Crime Reduction Unit as well as create policies banning white supremacist behavior by officers on social media and elsewhere.

Community activist Jennifer Vollmer with the Black People’s Community Justice Center spoke about her recent arrest for protesting/soliciting donations for a bail fund outside of Myers Park Baptist Church, stating that the ordinance against amplified noise outside religious institutions should be rescinded. She also asked that Malcolm Graham help provide more support for sex workers in District 2 through pop-ups and other services.

NOAH Project: Charlotte Woods

Assistant city manager Shawn Heath presented council with a new opportunity for a naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH) development called Charlotte Woods that would include 266 units, 80 of which would rent at 30% or less of the average median income.

Cost of the development is around $44 million, including $8 million from the city.

NOAH can mean different things in different cities, but in Charlotte, fundamentally, it means unsubsidized, affordable rental housing, Heath explained.

NOAH projects often involve the adaptive reuse of existing complexes or developments, which allows the city to help address the affordable housing crisis without waiting the approximately three years it often takes for a newly constructed project to reach completion.

The Charlotte Woods complex would be located in south Charlotte’s Collingwood neighborhood near the Park Road Shopping Center.

Ed Driggs said that, while he appreciates NOAH projects like Charlotte Woods, the spend equals out to around $50,000 per unit, “and if you multiply that out times the number of units we think it would take to accommodate all the people who have a need, it’s a billion or a billion and a half.”

Council will vote on whether to move forward with the project on June 12. It will need approval from the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners as well.

Unified Development Ordinance Discussion

Moving on to the Unified Development Ordinance conversation, the new policies that would allow for the construction of duplexes and triplexes in areas currently zoned for single-family housing are meant to help boost the city’s missing middle housing supply.

While opponents say such construction will degrade the “character” of a given neighborhood, proponents point out that lot standards and requirements on things such as height make sure that duplexes and triplexes will still look like the houses that surround them. 

Planning Director Alyson Craig presented data showing that, statewide, rent has remained relatively stable in du-, tri-, and quadplexes as compared to other types of housing over the last 30 years.

(Graph courtesy of Charlotte Planning Department)

According to Craig, it’s estimated that 50-67% of single-family home lots in Charlotte are already under the restrictions of a given homeowners association (HOA), with 95% of HOAs in the city restricting development of multi-family housing on said lots in some way or another.

Rev. Boyd with the Lexington community in northeast Charlotte spoke at a public forum before the Unified Development Ordinance discussion, insisting that the public is not aware of the extent to which the UDO will allow for more density in and around suburban neighborhoods like his.

 Victoria Watlington said neighborhoods without HOAs are the neighborhoods that are already most vulnerable to displacement and will be left more vulnerable by the Unified Development Ordinance. She made a motion to initiate the Neighborhood Character Overlay on neighborhoods already identified by city staff as vulnerable to displacement. 

James ‘Smuggie’ Mitchell made a substitute motion that would ask city staff to recommend “alternative options” including a schedule for potential changes to the UDO policy that allows duplexes, triplexes and “large projects” to be developed by right in residential subdivisions. 

A row of small, ranch-style duplexes like those allowed in more areas by the Unified Development Ordinance and Charlotte Comprehensive Plan
Duplexes like these in the Plaza Shamrock neighborhood would be allowed in all zoning areas under the new Unified Development Ordinance. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Renee Johnson agreed that the policy should be rolled back, but said, “It’s bigger than duplexes and triplexes,” using the Lexington development discussed at last week’s meeting as an example. It would’ve allowed for no more than 45 units before UDO, but will now allow for 116 units, she said. She was told the public forum for that zoning petition was closed last week and could not legally be discussed at Monday’s meeting. 

“We spent three years working on this Comp Plan,” said Malcolm Graham, referencing the city’s Comprehensive Plan that goes hand in hand with the UDO, “with developers, neighborhood associations, trying our best to get public input and feedback.” He feared that tonight the city would move backwards rather than forward after so much work.

“We’re not here to relitigate anything we discussed before. I’m not here as a former opponent of the plan. I’m onboard. It’s adopted,” said Driggs, adding, however, “My intention in seconding the motion [from Mitchell] is this is an occasion where we think about whether we’ve got something going on that we didn’t really intend … I’m a little uneasy about some of the things that can happen that I don’t believe we intended.”

“I don’t know what will be the implications of this motion, what would be the changes, and I don’t feel comfortable modifying policies from the dais,” said Dimple Ajmera. 

She said she would be open to text amendments to help confront realities of density impacts on infrastructure, as had been brought up at Monday’s meeting and the previous zoning meeting on May 15, but she would not support Mitchell’s motion.

“This is clearly an attempt to relitigate the UDO from the dais,” said Braxton Winston. “This is an attempt to guide staff on a wild goose chase. The text is not specific … This is an attempt to limit the places where you can build more and different types of housing.

“I do not want to use the tools of the oppressor. I want to use the equity lens,” Winston continued, stating that data shows housing will never be affordable and people will continue to be displaced if the city’s leaders do not build more housing of different types. 

“It’s simple supply and demand … It is ridiculous that this motion was made and you guys should be ashamed of yourself if you vote this in,” he added. 

Winston made a substitute motion that the council should allow the UDO to take effect on June 1 and not change it until they can assess impact in six months.

“I’m going to say, unabashed and unashamed, I call BS on everything Mr. Winston just said,” responded Watlington, rather upset at the implications made by Winston. She added that it’s not an equity lens when it’s the most vulnerable communities that are affected. “Supply and demand doesn’t work when you haven’t reached a point of saturation.”

Johnson also pushed back against Winston’s statement that council is “blatantly segregating” the city further by rolling back these policies. “That’s not what this is. There is a place for single-family subdivisions, period. There are urban areas where duplexes and triplexes are appropriate.”

“I’m opposed and offended to be called a racist because we’re asking for strategy for development in our city,” continued Johnson.

The mayor suggested that everyone rescind their motions and send it all back to staff to create a clearly worded paper that council can reference for action to vote on. Winston refused, and was the only Yes vote for his motion. 

They then voted on Mitchell’s original motion, which was to ask staff to create “alternative options” regarding the UDO’s duplex and triplex policies during the June 5 Transportation and Development committee meeting, then bring those options back for council to explore. The motion passed, with Mitchell, Watlington, Johnson, LaWana Mayfield, Ed Driggs and Dante Anderson voting in support. 

That brought things back to Watlington’s original motion: to implement Neighborhood Character Overlay on neighborhoods previously deemed vulnerable to displacement by city staff, a motion that failed in a 5-6 vote.

Sycamore Station & Other Business Items

Council was then faced with a vote on whether to approve $1.7 million in Housing Trust Fund (HTF) dollars for Sycamore Station, a 168-unit affordable housing development off Milton Road in east Charlotte that would include 34 units rented at 30% AMI or less.

The development is approximately 99% complete, and over half of the 168 units are already leased/occupied. Without the HTF support, the developer will not provide the units for 30-percent-and-below AMI households.

Some on council were uncomfortable with approving Sycamore Station because it is against precedent to spend HTF dollars on a project that’s nearly complete rather than new construction.

Supporters like Kenneth Robinson, a local housing advocate who addressed council in support of Sycamore Station, said that the same thing that made council members uncomfortable is what makes it enticing, rather than waiting 3-4 years for new construction.

“If we feel like the 20-year history of our [Housing Trust Fund] policy doesn’t support us approving a project like this, perhaps we need to take a look at the policy,” said Dante Anderson.

Braxton Winston said he would vote against Sycamore Station funding because it goes against what the HTF was created for, which was to fund projects that, if not for the HTF, would never get off the ground. He does, however, support sending the policy back to committee for review, he said. 

Renee Johnson said she didn’t understand the opposition to Sycamore Station. “When we have someone handing us 34 units for $403-$559, for us to turn away from that I just think is a failure to represent our constituents.

“We should figure out a way to support that. We have homeless people on the street. We need inventory … To vote this down because of a process, because it hasn’t been done before, I think our voters elect us to find solutions that haven’t been done before,” she added. 

The Sycamore Station project failed, with Johnson, Ajmera and Watlington casting the only Yes votes. 

Before heading to closed session, council approved accepting $5.4 million in NCDOT funds for a project on Dearmon Road between Benfield and Browne roads in north Charlotte that will include road widening, pedestrian and bicycle accommodations, street lighting updates and other improvements.

Council will not meet again until June 12, when they’ll vote on the Fiscal Year 2024 budget adoption. 

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