In late July, when the results of the Charlotte City Council and mayoral races came in, Republicans were understandably disappointed. They had done a great job of creating a slate of young, energized candidates and of coordinating their efforts to gain votes in a blue city. But those efforts fell short, as Democrats won all four at-large seats and the mayor’s race. The only two seats Republicans won were by incumbents in more-favorable districts. One of these Republicans only won by a hair in what had been a safe district.
Wasn’t it supposed to be a red-wave year? What happened? Watching as an outside observer, I couldn’t help but wonder if Republicans were hurt by the appearance of NIMBYism — an acronym for “not-in-my-backyard” used against those who oppose nearby development.
There were good reasons for conservatives to oppose the Charlotte Universal Development Ordinance (UDO) and the larger Charlotte Future 2040 Comprehensive Plan. The main one for me is the number of times the 2040 Plan states that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are the values guiding its way. Government-enforced DEI, especially equity, is a dangerous departure from the traditional American value of equality under the law. But instead of focusing on DEI, rising crime, and other solid conservative ground that may resonate with a broader audience, many Republicans seemed to go all in on opposing the UDO’s changes to single-family zoning.
Single-family zoning is a category in local development regulations that excludes all uses for property in that zone other than the building of single-unit detached housing — generally incentivizing big houses with big yards. Some view this as a way to shield their neighborhood from change, but in a rapidly growing city like Charlotte, it also prevents housing from being built to meet demand. And prices subsequently spike.
Unlike many national issues, the battle between NIMBYs and YIMBYs (those who say yes rather than no to development) is harder to peg politically — with Democrats and Republicans on both sides. But conservative NIMBYs are making a few specific claims to justify their battle to save single-family zoning that don’t seem well grounded on conservative principles.
In the July 11 city council meeting, which had the UDO public-comment period, a large Republican contingent, including many of those running for city council, spoke against the UDO. Repeatedly, this crowd cited “property rights” as a reason to maintain single-family zoning across the city. But this seems like a fundamental twisting of this critical value.
My property rights are violated if someone comes to my house and tells me what I must do or not do with my property. Those rights are not violated if someone the next block over does something I disapprove of with their property. If I were to use government force to block them from pursuing their desired plans, it would be me violating their property rights. And forcing the entire city of Charlotte to remain around 84% single-family zoned, blocking any other use of that land, would make me a property-rights violator on a mass scale.
Another basic principle of American conservatism is supply-side economics. If we were on an island and everyone was fighting over five bananas, the conservative solution would be to immediately incentivize planting more banana trees to create more supply. It wouldn’t be to find more “equitable” ways to distribute those five bananas by force, and it definitely wouldn’t be to prevent anyone from planting more banana trees.
But this is another basic test that NIMBYism fails. A comparison between Houston, Texas (which has no zoning laws) and San Jose, California (which has 94% single-family zoning) is instructive. Houston has consistently been ranked as one of the most affordable cities in the nation, even as it moves ever closer to edging out Chicago as America’s
Even without quite as much single-family zoning as the Bay Area, housing is under increasing strain in Charlotte as well. A report from this week showed that more people are actually leaving Charlotte and Mecklenburg County than arriving. All the much-touted growth of 120-people arriving in the region per day is occurring in the surrounding counties. In Mecklenburg, there’s a net out-migration of six people daily. There is still a slight population growth, but only due to births, no longer from people moving to the Queen City. And with the state and region booming, it’s clear this is due to saturation from a lack of supply. There is simply nowhere for anybody to move, unless you have the money to win a bidding war.
The immediate conservative impulse should be to create more supply. So when the UDO proposed allowing single-family zoned areas — which, again, are 84% of the city — to also include duplexes and triplexes (and quadraplexes if on a main road), conservatives should have said, “Finally, something we can all agree on.” But that wasn’t the path they chose.
I live in a suburban-style neighborhood in Hillsborough, and there are duplexes, triplexes and accessory dwelling units (similar to “tiny houses” but sharing a lot with a larger house) right around the corner. They mix seamlessly with the other buildings, and it’s still a really nice place to live. The residents probably make less than those in the detached homes, but our home values have all shot up over the last year anyway.
A confusing concern many Charlotte Republicans had about adding these housing types to single-family neighborhoods is that it would “gentrify” poorer neighborhoods. Developers are currently flattening run-down homes in poorer neighborhoods and replacing them with larger, nicer ones. This is already gentrification, as I understand it. And it’s not all bad, since often a low-income person can pocket substantial profit compared to their initial investment by selling to developers. It also ups the value of everything around the once-run-down house.
But if the developer — instead of making one large house — made two or three homes with a duplex or triplex, how would that be more likely to gentrify? It seems that more duplexes and triplexes (which are generally much more affordable than a single-family home) would make low-income residents more, not less, able to remain in that neighborhood.
So, I don’t want to kick anyone while they are down, since the Republican slate was very impressive and made a valiant effort. But on this one issue, I was left scratching my head as my instincts pointed in the opposite direction. Shouldn’t conservatives be the ones for deregulation, expanding property rights, and increasing the supply of homes?