Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The feel-good story that isn't

If you read the recent Charlotte Observer article, "All signs point to Peachtree Hills on the rebound," you read about much admirable work from the City of Charlotte and nonprofit groups. The city committed almost a half-million dollars to help the foreclosure- and crime-plagued subdivision.

According to reporters Kirstin Valle Pittman and Peter St. Onge, the city improved curbs and sidewalks, helped residents form a strong neighborhood group and helped win a $75,000 grant for a new playground. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have worked hard, too, and report crime down 70 percent over last year; residential break-ins are down 88 percent. And home values are rising. The average selling price this year is $77,300, up from $68,670 last year.  The nonprofit groups Self-Help and Habitat for Humanity are hard at work. Durham-based Self-Help has bought 33 Peachtree Hills homes, to refurbish and sell to buyers whom the group believes can avoid future foreclosures.  Habitat has built seven new homes and bought five foreclosure houses for resale.

It's a nice, feel-good story. Except.

Except that it exposes a huge flaw in the process by which development takes place in Charlotte. It makes you wonder: Why city officials in their right minds would vote to approve the building of mile after mile after mile of rock-bottom-cost subdivisions, right next to each, other across a large arc of west, north and east Charlotte? Having so much low-cost housing in close proximity made the whole area vulnerable to foreclosures and the attendant problems when the national blight of subprime lending, mortgage fraud, financial market misdeeds, and then unemployment hammered Charlotte.

A 2007 Charlotte Observer article ("New suburbs in fast decay") noted that from 1997 to 2007, starter homes (so-called because their low prices attract buyers just starting in home-ownership) accounted for one-half of all single-family homes built in Charlotte between I-85 and the northern city limits. They made up fully a third of all single-family homes in Charlotte built south of I-85. By late 2007 BEFORE the big crash in late 2008 the Observer's analysis found more than 50 neighborhoods with elevated foreclosure rates of 15 percent to 61 percent. Virtually all were new starter-home subdivisions.

Could it happen today? Have Charlotte's leaders from pols to planners learned from what happened during that decade from the late '90s until the crash, when that vast cluster of low-income housing spread  across the city's northern edge?

I fear that, yes, the same thing could happen today. Part of the reason is the way growth is managed (or not) in Charlotte; part of the reason is just the way land prices work. If the market magically revived (not likely for a while, to be sure), dozens more subdivision-building bottom-feeders could probably erect multiple subdivisions of the cheapest materials, in the worst places, all next to one another. In most cases no rezoning is needed, because most undeveloped property in Charlotte years ago was zoned for single-family subdivisions (R-3, R-4, etc.). An estimated 75 percent of the subdivisions built in Charlotte in those boom years needed no rezoning; elected officials had no chance to say yes or no. All the developers needed was to follow the city's subdivision ordinance and meet the standards in the zoning ordinance. Auto-pilot insta-growth.

As it happens, the developer of Peachtree Hills, built starting in 2003, did need a rezoning. Triven Properties got a rezoning from R-4 (four houses per acre) to R-6 (CD), almost exactly 10 years ago. The City Council on Sept. 17, 2001, voted unanimous approval for the rezoning.

So, what should change? It's not an easy question to answer. One reason is that low-cost new development  gravitates toward places where land costs are lower. Putting up more low-end development tends to create more of the same, just as putting up high-end development drives up land values. Should government intervene in this process, and if so, how best to do it?

And the problem isn't low-cost housing per se. It's the large-scale clustering of housing all aimed at the same income levelin typical suburban-sprawl layouts that force every resident to own a car and drive everywhere. In any event, elected officials aren't allowed to – and shouldn't – decide rezonings based on the price level of the proposed housing. And there IS a huge need in Charlotte for dwelling places that more people can afford. (I do keep wondering, though, why this problem isn't also being addressed at the wage-level end, instead of only at the housing-cost end. Low wages are the He Who Shall Not Be Named in Charlotte's whole community housing discussion.)

It seems to me any answer must come from multiple places: revamped subdivision and zoning ordinances, maybe removing the no-rezoning-needed incentive that exists now for sprawl development on greenfield sites and giving more incentive to the infill, mixed-use development that the city prefers but that today must jump though multiple hoops.

I'm not saying I know what the answer ought to be. But this I am sure of: More smart people in this city ought to be trying to find some answers and now, while development is slow and there's time to explore and, yes, while the sector of the development industry that depends on suburban-sprawl subdivisions is in a weakened condition, which levels the playing field with other development players.

It's admirable that so many people, with public and private dollars and unmeasurable volunteer time and energy, have tried to help Peachtree Hills and other such subdivisions, such as Windy Ridge, and that their efforts seem to be succeeding. But the true measure of success ought to be figuring out how to avoid building any more neighborhoods that will simply replicate the problems of Peachtree Hills.

Photo: Windy Ridge, another foreclosure-plagued Charlotte subdivision. (Photo: Keihly Moore / Liz Shockey, UNC Charlotte) 


Mary Newsom said...

To Tarhoosier: Thank you! Blogger somehow ate my finely crafted last paragraph and reverted to what I had written several hours ago (!!). I have repaired it. I appreciate your reading all the way to the end and alerting me to the garbled sentence that was there.

Anonymous said...

Right, Charlotte doesn't have an affordable housing problem. It's a problem of both quality design and locational policies.

Part of the answer is to require good design of all development. North Meck Towns show that there is demand for quality housing, and at a profit for developers.

Plus, Charlotte should only allow increased density of well-placed development. If you ain't near transit or in a walk-friendly environment, don't approve increased density.

In summary, good design for all housing of any density, plus more prudent approval of higher densities.

EuroCat said...

Well, when your entire development philosophy is based on automobile-dependent suburban sprawl, you will invaraibly get bad results. It really doesn't matter whether the sprawl is concentrated low-income or concentrated high income, the result is the same.

Here in Union County, we are "blessed" with some breathtakingly ugly sprawling McMansion subdivisions with original prices in the $500,000 - $1,000,000 range, where foreclosures have been rampant and prices have dropped by half - or more. We suffer from "sprawl on autopilot", too, where county zoning - though generally lower-density than Mecklenburg's default 3 DU/acre - allowed the runaway construction of these monstrosities, also with no rezoning required and no oversight. And because the county's LUO allows for "clustering" to retain development rights of unbuildable land such as floodplain and powerline right-of-way, many of these horrors actually feature 1/2 to 3/4-acre lots, with the 7,000-plus-square-foot houses appearing to be stacked just as sardine-like as the starter homes in Peachtree Hills.

I have always hated the spinmaster developers who have co-opted terms like "smart growth" and "new urbanism" and falsely applied them to development fiascos that are anything but. Spurred on by the acceptance of the jargon, they produce houses with a few "arts and crafts" touches, such as front porches and shingle-look siding, then pack them into the same formulaic single-entrance-subdivision-far-from-any-urban-core design that has failed so miserably. If they could buy a 100-acre cornfield in the middle of nowhere on the cheap - which all too often they could - they'd pack it as tightly as they could with houses, even if it was located nowhere near a city or town center, and move on to the next "cornfield conversion". Not only are these "cornfield conversions" not walkably connected to any urban amenities, they aren't even walkably connected to each other.

So, really, it doesn't matter what the houses themselves look like, or how much they cost: bad design is bad design, and no amount of lipstick will enable any of these pigs to make the cut in the beauty contest.

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