With the implementation of the Wake Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system well underway, Raleigh’s city council has begun to approve and finalize a new zoning district to address development and affordability across the city’s public transit corridors.

City officials hope the new Transit Overlay District (TOD) will create walkable, vibrant districts with retail and affordable housing centered around the city’s upcoming BRT stations in Raleigh’s New Bern Avenue, Western Boulevard, Southern, and Northern transit corridors by allowing developers to build taller structures in exchange for including needed amenities such as affordable housing.

But many Raleigh residents are afraid the new TOD won’t do enough in certain areas of the city, with some saying it will hasten gentrification and make the potential for displacement of residents worse—especially in the Western Boulevard corridor.

The debate came to a head at a July 5 public hearing, when around two dozen residents showed up to the council chambers to oppose the proposed TOD for new BRT planned for Western Boulevard and the Southern corridors. But, these residents insist, they’re not against public transit and growth in Raleigh—they just have concerns.

“When we were talking about the Western BRT the other night [during the public hearing], I can’t tell you how many times people were saying, ‘Oh, you’re anti-transit. What, you hate buses? You hate seeing Raleigh grow?’” says Reeves Peeler, a member of the Wake County Housing Justice Coalition, a group of activists who seek to address gentrification and advocate for affordable, equitable housing through grassroots organizing. “It’s like, no, that’s absolutely not the point of this.”

The July 5 hearing focused on proposals to rezone parts of the existing area around the confirmed BRT routes on Western Boulevard and along the Southern BRT corridor. On Western Boulevard, that’s about 666 acres between downtown Raleigh and downtown Cary, and in the Southern corridor, it’s about 517 acres connecting downtown Raleigh to stations in Garner along the largely industrial South Wilmington Street.

Despite the backlash the council received from a handful of public commenters, who were allotted eight minutes to speak, the council unanimously approved the TOD for the Southern corridor. The Western Boulevard corridor vote was pushed back to the August 16 city council meeting.

Matthew Klem, a senior planner for the Raleigh Planning and Development department, told the council that the TOD is designed to regulate development along the BRT corridors on Western Boulevard and the Southern corridor and to address potential gentrification the area might face by building more affordable housing. Klem said the TOD includes “another piece of the affordable housing puzzle” with the implementation of a density bonus along rezoned property.

According to the TOD guidelines, rent-controlled units will receive a 50 percent height bonus if 20 percent of additional units are affordable for people with an income of less than 60 percent of the average median income (AMI) and will remain affordable for 30 years. Developers can receive a 30 percent height bonus for small-scale commercial uses. Overall, new construction can be taller and closer together.

“I don’t think it’s enough,” said Josh Bradley, a commenter at the public hearing and a candidate running at-large for a city council seat this fall. “Right now, with the way the city’s growing, we’ve got a lot of people that are living here under bridges …. It’s potentially good that we’re getting all this business coming in—Apple’s coming in, a lot of people are coming here—but there’s a whole lot of people that have lived here for a long time that are in situations where they can’t afford to anymore.”

With Raleigh one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, Wake County Housing Justice Coalition advocates say they are not against the council doing more to increase access to public transit, but they were clear that they have concerns.

Haley Kinsler, one of the public speakers at the hearing, said that while they are in favor of increased public transit, they aren’t seeing enough guarantees and certainties with the BRT plan and the rezoning process that affordable housing will remain in the area.

“I see that the Food Lion is being rezoned; I see that my favorite restaurants, all the stores that I go to are being rezoned, and we don’t have a design yet,” Kinsler said. “I just need more guarantees for myself and my neighbors that we’re gonna be protected, because so many of us live in naturally occurring affordable housing. I don’t think that an additional two stories for 60 percent AMI for just 30 years is enough. I think we need more.”

Yolanda Taylor, a community lawyer and member of the Wake County Housing Justice Coalition, tells the INDY that with Raleigh’s expected business and economic boom, rent prices are very likely to go up and the city must get more creative in ensuring affordable housing.

“There is such a thing called transit-induced gentrification,” Taylor says. “A walkable community that is connected to light-rail transit is going to be in high demand, and by the very nature of going in there, connecting transit to housing to retail to office spaces, that itself is going to increase the property value.”

According to Taylor, residents are right to be concerned because they have experienced mass displacement and mass gentrification due to increased development in downtown and other places.

“We want to say that we’re not anti-transit,” Taylor says. “We understand the need for transit, especially in an area like Raleigh that’s gonna see unprecedented growth.”

During the public hearing, council member Nicole Stewart said the Raleigh BRT program is “one piece of the puzzle” of the city council’s long-term affordable housing plan and that the TOD is not the only way Raleigh is addressing housing inequality across the city.

“[The rezoning] is ensuring that we can encourage affordable housing through density along our transit line so we don’t do what Charlotte did along their metro line, which is put a whole bunch of very expensive, high-rise housing,” Stewart said. “We want to make sure we get that affordable housing built in there.”

Council member David Cox asked how many naturally existing affordable housing units already exist within the proposed BRT corridors. Klem said city staff would follow up with the council with more statistics.

“That’s a major piece of the puzzle we’re missing,” Cox said. “We don’t know how much naturally occurring affordable housing there is in these corridors. We don’t know how much we will potentially lose and how many people would be affected by losing that. The only guarantee that we have with these TOD standards is 20 percent of 50 percent, which is, at the most, 10 percent of the units would be affordable at 60 percent of AMI or less.”

Because local governments in North Carolina don’t have the authority to mandate inclusionary zoning from developers under state law, Peeler and Taylor say it makes sense that the city council would work its way around that with the density bonus. But both say it isn’t enough to combat the rise of housing inequality in Raleigh because it is ultimately optional for developers.

“The developer doesn’t have to do it,” Taylor says. “It’s all about creating new affordable housing, but when you look at the percentage of what’s going to meet the need, it’s very small. And we were concerned about the preservation of naturally occurring affordable housing: what are we going to do to also preserve as we build new?”

While both Peeler and Taylor acknowledge the rezoning around the BRT corridors on Western Boulevard and the Southern corridor seems to be set in stone, Raleigh residents should also be aware of other rezoning and development projects around the city that could affect low-income housing, such as the Heritage Park and Moore Square redevelopment and the large parks bond that will appear before voters on the fall ballot.

“It takes years to redevelop something. Where do those people go in the meantime? Is the city going to set aside an apartment for them to live at the same rent while their old place gets redeveloped? Certainly not,” Peeler says. “There’s no legal mechanism for that and there’s no history of that happening.” 

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