Expanding Housing Choices Pt 3 - Open Letter from Scott Harmon


I recently had a two-part series on Durham's Expanding Housing Choices (pt 1, and pt 2). Since then, the conversation in Durham has grown. Other than Duke killing the light rail plans, it seems to be the hottest topic around town.

On my neighborhood email listserv, there is a ton of chatter. People are worried about allowing these changes. For the most part, they want more time to discuss the changes that Expanding Housing Choices (EHC) would bring. I can be on board with more public dialogue and making sure that we get this right.

However, I am worried that we aren't prepared to live up to the progressive values that Durham touts. It's one thing to vote for progressive minded officials. It's quite another to allow new housing types in your own neighborhood. If we want to be progressive, we need to not just pay lip service to the idea, but actually walk the walk.

Some of my neighbors (not all) are concerned about the "character" of the neighborhood. Others fear that developers will tear down historic houses and build duplexes or multiple small houses in their place. The economics of that fear don't really make much sense. The changes allow for small, incremental density. We aren't talking about building a 5-story apartment complex on a half acre lot. We are talking about allowing for a garage being converted into an apartment or smaller houses being allowed on smaller lots.

These policies aren't helping the "big, bad developer". The "big, bad developer" doesn't care about putting the time and resources into infill on a single lot. This is about empowering current owners to grow, generate rental income, and provide more supply for more people to enjoy living in our neighborhoods.

With that said, Scott Harmon from Center Studio Architecture spoke at a recent meeting. Below, I have published his written statement as well as the statement he made at to the planning commission.

From Scott Harmon:

An Open Letter to My Fellow White Progressives in Durham
Scott Harmon
Reading time: 3 minutes

Land use policy is the blind spot in white progressive politics. On Tuesday March 12th the Planning Commission begins the public debate on Durham’s Expanding Housing Choices initiative. The Planning Department presented its draft recommendations in November after examining our current policies, seeking best practices from around the world, and bringing its best professional judgement forward. The recommendations were sensible and transformative. I would call them, indeed, progressive.

The version now before the Planning Commission, however, has been gutted by leaders in the white progressive neighborhoods that wield the most power in land use debates. When faced with a choice between progressive policies and neighborhood protection, protection wins every time; power trumps policy. This is the blind spot, and I urge my fellow progressives to pay close attention to some key historic and environmental context as we start this debate.

In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein explains how zoning became the legal foundation of housing discrimination in our country. The first zoning ordinance appeared in 1908 in Los Angeles with the sensible goal of separating residential and industrial properties. In 1910 racial zoning laws sprung up throughout the country as communities used this new legal tool to protect their neighborhoods from blacks and immigrants. In 1917 the Supreme Court ruled that racial zoning is a violation of the 14th amendment, but in 1919 the city of St. Louis finessed the technicalities of that ruling and adopted the first “economic zoning” ordinance; what we call today “exclusionary zoning”. By excluding multi-family housing types from single-family neighborhoods (which most blacks and immigrants could not afford), St. Louis maintained the racial and economic primacy of its white communities. The racial motivations of these laws were obvious and were again challenged at the Supreme Court in 1926. But the court ruled that the 14th Amendment is not violated because the laws contain no explicitly racial language. Exclusionary zoning thereby became the established precedent for protecting our most advantaged neighborhoods from undesirable people by excluding undesirable housing. Add to this legal foundation the policies of the New Deal and the FHA, which required red-lining and racially restricted neighborhood covenants for its mortgage insurance programs. You now have, at the end of World War II, a complete system of local laws and Federal policies that explicitly exclude non-white people from the benefits of the largest housing and economic expansion in the world’s history. While the Federal policies finally met their demise with the Fair Housing Act of 1968, our local exclusionary zoning laws persist.

This history explains two things about today’s affordability crisis. First, it explains why certain people have enjoyed generations of wealth building and others have not. In other words, if more people could afford a home, the housing crisis would be less severe. Second, our zoning laws continue to treat certain kinds of housing (the more affordable kinds) as “undesirable”. This limits the supply of housing in general and limits affordable housing in particular, thereby making all housing more expensive.

The environmental context is easier to explain because the math is unavoidable. The population is growing, globally and locally. Should we house more people per acre of land, or fewer? Should we be more efficient with our land, or less efficient? Which choice protects our watersheds, natural areas, and farmland from outward expansion (aka sprawl)? Which choice supports better transit systems? Which choice promotes walkable, healthy lifestyles? Which choice assures that every roadway, pipe, wire, and infrastructure investment is used most efficiently? Which choice reduces the carbon footprint of each human?

Let’s be clear how “density” became a bad word. This country protected its neighborhoods from undesirable people by restricting density (see the history above). But many other nations enjoy thriving cities with density, beauty, desirability, and diversity. As Mayor Schewel rightly points out: density is not the problem; it’s the solution.

Land use policy is the blind spot in progressive white politics. Our commitment to equity, inclusion, fairness, and affordability is hijacked by our instinct for comfort, power, and advantage. Most of us don’t see it. While we enthusiastically support the right causes with our time, talent, and money, our resistance to change in our neighborhoods is tenacious. Neighborhood protection is a deeply held tradition that, on the surface, looks like a gallant fight against developers, builders, slumlords, students, renters, and traffic. The origins of this tradition, however, are not so noble. Even when we’re not consciously excluding certain types of people, we’re still using a system with intentions and rules of engagement that were established a century ago. Our families and fortunes continue to benefit from that system.

So, here’s my ask of my fellow white progressives in Durham. Resist the temptation to resist change, because preserving the status quo is not progressive. Our white leaders live in the neighborhoods with the most power when it comes to land use debates. How will we use that power? Will we advance our progressive agenda for the benefit of everyone in the community, or will we ask everyone else to advance the agenda for us? Will we support our elected leaders as they navigate a precarious political transaction that may be uncomfortable for us personally, or will we lobby to maintain our privilege? If we’re not prepared to forgo our privilege, we can at least leverage it for the benefit of the entire community. But this can’t happen if we “protect” our own neighborhoods from the policy changes that the rest of the community desperately needs. Because that’s not progressive; that’s NIMBY.

"Acting in a way that prevents everyone else from living in your pretty little city because you already have a place that you like does not make you a progressive. It makes you greedy." - Hamilton Nolan

Scott Harmon is an architect and urban developer with Center Studio Architecture.


And his Planning Commission statement:

Planning Commission Public Hearing Comments 3/11/19
Expanding Housing Choices
Scott Harmon
Reading time: 2 minutes

In 2017 we elected a new city council and asked them to advance a progressive agenda focused on change, equity, and housing affordability.  The national housing crisis is not unique to Durham but Mayor Schewel challenged us to find a Durham solution.

The Planning Department presented its best draft of Expanding Housing Choices in November.  It included meaningful adjustments to allow smaller lots, smaller houses, more ADUs, more duplexes, and more townhouses. They recommended more choices, more housing, more diverse housing types, and more price ranges. That’s the proposal we should be debating tonight.

Instead, we have a version taken over by the leaders of neighborhoods that are averse to change.

The rules for infill housing and ADUs are more restricted than they are in today’s ordinance.  
ADUs would not be allowed in duplexes, townhouses, or small homes. Only in single-family homes.

Our initiative to benefit the entire community has turned into a neighborhood protection ordinance to discourage choices, diversity, density, and affordability. What’s worse is that the ADU - the beloved granny flat, or in-law suite - is not available to anyone in the city, except single family homeowners, and only if it’s not too tall and not too close.

This is what NIMBYism looks like. I face one direction, vote for progressive leaders, write checks to deserving causes, fight for equity and change, and then I face the other direction and protect the status quo in my own neighborhood. That’s not progressive. That’s greedy.

Tonight, I want the Durham Planning Commission to remember that your constituency is not just the home owners in this room. Your constituency includes every citizen: renters, students, service workers, single parents, millennials, retirees, and the 50% of this community that are people of color that have been explicitly harmed by our zoning laws for over a century, and who are notably under-represented here tonight.

I urge the Commission to restore the original version of this initiative, and recommend its approval to our City Council.

Scott Harmon is an architect and urban developer in downtown Durham NC

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