Home > Essays > Now for the Hard Part: Charlottesville Contemplating Change in Zoning Laws After Change Statues of Confederate Soldiers

Now for the Hard Part: Charlottesville Contemplating Change in Zoning Laws After Change Statues of Confederate Soldiers

August 2, 2021

A NYTimes article by Campbell Robertson describes the uphill battle Charlottesville VA is facing in its efforts to change its zoning ordinances, ordinances that created and reinforced housing patterns that result in segregated neighborhoods and segregated schools. The change brings to light an underlying question about change itself: does a community use policy to make changes that result if fairness and equity or does it wait for the hearts of community members to change before changing the policy? 

In Charlottesville, the town leaders recognized the segregation in their community and schools was rooted in zoning laws and in an effort to eliminate systemic racism in their community decided to make wholesale changes to those ordinances. As seems to be the case when elected officials try to remedy systemic racism, the pushback is fierce and vitriolic. The source of the greatest anger, though, is somewhat surprising:

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.

“There’s fear and anger at being targeted,” he said. “They don’t feel centered in this process. And they are correct.”

It is one thing to put a Black Lives Matter sign on ones lawn. It is quite another thing to imagine that the zoning in your neighborhood might result in blacks living down the street. It is easy to advocate for fair housing in the abstract, but when maps showing doors opening for multi-family housing on your street or in your neighborhood fear can grip people and motivate them to oppose in practice what they support in principle. 

But it isn’t just “smart, educated” white residents who are neither poor nor very wealthy who are suspicious of the government’s motives: 

…Diane Miller, also has reservations. She has not joined in the public debates, which tend to be dominated by the opinions, pro and con, of white professionals and academics. “My opinions don’t mean nothing,” said Ms. Miller, who is Black.

But she remembers, as a young girl, hearing her parents talk about a developer who was buying out all the neighbors, most if not all of them Black. She did not know whether their property was taken by eminent domain; all she remembers is that everyone left reluctantly, including her family, which left behind a house that had belonged to her grandmother.

Ms. Miller distrusts any top-down plans to address racial inequities; after all, those inequities came from the top in the first place.

“They took everything that Black people own, everything,” said Ms. Miller, now 65. “Ain’t no trust there.”

The optimal answer to integration, so far, has been gentrification where young, affluent and open-minded first time homeowners voluntarily move into urban neighborhoods where structurally sound houses fell into disrepair as a result of them being subdivided into apartments by greedy landlords attempting to maximize profits. Once these urban homesteaders establish a beachhead, closed storefronts become coffee shops and investors begin to see opportunities to build higher end dwellings and wealthier individuals begin to spend tens of thousands of dollars renovating houses or tearing them down to build urban version of McMansions. But, as many Charlottesville residents realize, gentrification ultimately has a dark side: 

In a sign of just how much the political ground has shifted in recent years, the chief argument of the plan’s opponents is that it would actually be bad for the poor, a giveaway to greedy developers. Some have compared the plan to the razing of Black neighborhoods in decades past, and comment threads on the Nextdoor app have crackled with debates about whether the proposal would simply yield a city full of high-end apartments and whether genuinely “horrible injustices” from the past would really be rectified by “destroying neighborhoods in the present.”

These arguments against gentrification have a subtle thread of racism, but are rooted more in the fear that the value of their homes will depreciate should “greedy developers” move in to the marketplace. 

Will policy change result in a change of heart? One community activist, Carmelita Wood believes so: 

But while history runs deep and its tragedies are irreversible, Ms. Wood suggested that it was not too late to start doing the right thing. She is now the president of the neighborhood association in Fifeville, a part of town that is majority Black, but by a steadily dwindling margin. In letters and op-eds, she has made the case that the vision in the proposed land use map, of neighborhoods around the city opening up to all kinds of different people, was a good first step.

“I think it will work,” Ms. Wood said. “I think it’ll work because folks will finally see that if we speak up, then maybe they will listen to us.”

Ms. Wood is placing her faith in democracy… and I hope that faith is rewarded. For if we cannot use the tools of democracy to overcome the policies that result in segregating, then our animal instincts will lead us down the road to totalitarianism. 

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