Posted on August 7, 2021

A Fight Over Zoning Tests Charlottesville’s Progress on Race

Campbell Robertson, New York Times, August 1, 2021

In early July, crews showed up downtown for 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, expelled by the city’s drive to right its past wrongs.


It has been four years since white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, wreaking bloody havoc in the streets and killing a young woman. The horror of that August weekend sent the city into a deep study of its own racial past and a debate over what to do about its legacy. {snip}

In a city that prides itself on its progressivism, the push for justice has, in general terms, enjoyed broad support. That this push may entail changes to people’s neighborhoods — streets of one- and two-story brick homes, lovely dogwoods and abundant Black Lives Matter signs — is another matter.

Charlottesville’s planning commission is considering a proposal to roll back some of the city’s zoning restrictions in an effort to encourage construction of more affordable housing, a plan that has drawn reaction ranging from fervent opposition to disappointment that it does not go further.

But there has been a particular disquiet, said Lyle Solla-Yates, a member of the planning commission, among a certain part of the population: “smart, educated” white residents who are neither poor nor very wealthy, and who live in charming neighborhoods with a history of discriminating against Black people that they had known nothing about. Now they imagine multi-story apartment buildings going up on their streets.


Propelled by research showing that single-family zoning restrictions have roots in discrimination and consequences in soaring housing prices and more segregated neighborhoods, Charlottesville is joining communities across the country in debating whether to ease these restrictions. Several Democratic presidential candidates in 2020 pledged to encourage the loosening of zoning rules, and President Biden’s infrastructure bill 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 lawyers who were given a speaking slot at the 2020 Republican National Convention after waving their guns at protesters, have accused Democrats of wanting to “abolish the suburbs” by curtailing single-family zoning. The results, Ms. McCloskey said, would be “crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments.”

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, which shows up all over the city and particularly in comfortable neighborhoods like Lewis Mountain and Barracks Rugby, indicating that residences of up to 12 units would be allowed in places where single-family homes now sit — were, to many, alarming.

A “huge social experiment on our city,” said a law professor at one of the hours-long virtual planning commission meetings this summer. “I just don’t understand what is driving this,” another commenter said.


It also became clear that contemporary Charlottesville, population 47,000 and growing, was a place where many poor and working-class people — Black people to a disproportionate degree — could no longer afford to live. While most of the city is reserved for detached single-family homes, a majority of the residents are renters, with many paying more than half their monthly income in rent. This goes a long way toward explaining why the city’s Black population, now around 18 percent, has been steadily shrinking.


In March, the city endorsed a plan that includes $10 million for housing assistance each year as well as protections for renters, along with a rewrite of the zoning ordinance to allow much more multifamily housing to be built, with some portion of new developments required to include affordable units. The zoning rewrite, officials argued, would release pressure from the pricey and competitive housing market while also breaking up the legacy of the city’s exclusionary past.

Roughly half of the hundreds of people who emailed the city about the latest draft of the map expressed support for the plan, and virtually no one is publicly questioning its ultimate goals.

“If we have to ruin half of our block for racial justice, yes, we’ll go for that,” said Leeyanne Moore, a creative writing instructor who lives on a street of small stucco bungalows. {snip}