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Land-use policies shape schools

Land-use policies shape schools

(September 29, 2010)

Six months of newspaper headlines have confirmed the obvious. A disproportionate number of low- to moderate-income families reside in south and east Wake County.

There is no magic wand to resolve the school-busing-for-diversity debate for the upcoming school year, and any near-term school board effort at neighborhood school attendance districts will tend to be similarly segregated.

Pre-civil rights-era racial housing patterns are the origin of today's problem, but zoning and social funding programs have tended to perpetuate the discrepancies.

Wake's local governments have separated housing stocks into separate zones, each mandating a distinct lot size with minimum yards, leading to common home sizes and standard prices. With standard prices came buyers with similar incomes and capacities to borrow. Apartments and other multi-family housing have been distanced from sacrosanct single-family detached neighborhoods. Segregation by socioeconomic class and often by age has become the norm.

Government sponsorship and/or subsidy of "affordable" housing projects with little regard to their impact, positive or negative, upon neighborhood diversity has also contributed to the busing dilemma.

According to a 2008 study by the Wake County Housing Authority, government-subsidized housing as a percentage of total housing stock ranges from highs of 9.4 percent and 11.66 percent in Wendell and Zebulon to lows of 0.0 percent (that's right, 0.0 percent), 1.0 percent and 1.1 percent in Morrisville, Apex and Cary.

Private developers who profit from affordable housing projects continue to cite lower land cost as the reason they favor southern and eastern Wake County. But what happens to the "lower cost" justification when factoring in the long-term financial and emotional expense of busing schoolchildren from one side of the county to the other due to segregated housing patterns?

Raleigh's new Comprehensive Plan applauds mixed-use neighborhoods containing a variety of housing types and styles in sustainable, walkable, transit-oriented communities. Raleigh's pending zoning ordinance rewrite should provide tools to effectively implement the Comprehensive Plan goals. Still, all local planners can do under current North Carolina law to promote conventional affordable housing is to offer developer incentives such as loan programs or bonus density.

Due to recent appellate court decisions striking down "adequate public facility" ordinances and similar "smart growth" schemes, city attorneys will advise against mandatory inclusionary zoning (with a minimum percentage of new homes in any development designated affordable) until and unless the General Assembly legitimizes the practice. Currently, federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against protected classes in housing, but little specific authority exists for local government to proactively mandate a diversified housing stock in new private developments. In fact, a recent amendment to Raleigh's zoning ordinance (TC-2-10) prohibits developers who seek zoning approval for new projects from voluntarily committing to construct a minimum percentage of affordable housing units in a new community.

Real estate industry groups advise local officials to proceed cautiously if considering inclusionary zoning programs. If government planners force builders to produce dwellings at lower price points, developers argue that this would either drive up the price of other homes, require increased density yields (more apartments and small-lot homes), drive builders to outlying jurisdictions (sprawl) - or all of the above.

Economic theory supports, at least in part, all of these projections, yet, as with government-funded affordable housing, should not the community trauma of busing schoolchildren to promote diversity and the seemingly never-ending debate over public school attendance zones be factored in?

State Senate Bill 900, which took effect this summer, creates a legislative study commission on diversity in the public schools. Hopefully, the commission will recognize the importance of local government "smart growth" planning efforts as an important step in addressing the classroom diversity problem.

This opinion/editorial was published in The News & Observer, as well as The Pilot.

Clyde Holt
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