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Creating Diverse Classrooms

Creating Diverse Classrooms

(January 17, 2011)

A Case Study in the “Busing Versus Diverse Neighborhoods” Debate

Should classroom diversity goals be emphasized at the cost of subjecting children to prolonged school days and long bus rides, or should neighborhood schools be promoted in hopes of increasing parental involvement in the education process?

This question was at the heart of a heated debate in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the Wake County School Board abandoned their award–winning, decades–old “busing for diversity policy.” The school board opted instead to assign students to schools in their communities. In the aftermath of the Wake County debate, Raleigh continues to explore how to plan future neighborhoods so as to reduce housing segregation patterns and enhance classroom performance.

Traditionally, local governments have, through planning regulations, separated housing stocks into separate zones, each mandating a distinct lot size, which has led to standard home sizes and housing patterns in each neighborhood. With standard lot and house size came standard prices. With standard prices came buyers with similar incomes, and similar abilities to borrow. Governmental zoning patterns also tended to segregate and distance apartments and other multi-family housing stocks from the sacrosanct single family detached neighborhoods. Sixty years of this zoning process has contributed to neighborhoods segregated by socioeconomic class and often by age and race. Neighborhood school attendance districts will tend to be similarly segregated.

Governments' sponsorship and/or subsidy of “aff ordable” housing projects with little regard to their impact, positive or negative, upon neighborhood diversity has also contributed to the School Board's dilemma. A 2008 study by the Wake County Housing Authority revealed that government subsidized housing as a percentage of total housing stock ranged 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. Yet, until recently, Wake County and the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency continued to fund affordable housing projects with minimal regard to their distance from places of employment, transit or their impact on school system diversity guidelines. Some government agencies that sponsor, and most private developers who profit from, such projects continue to cite land availability and lower land cost as the reason they favor the eastern half of Wake County over the west. But what happens to the “lower cost” justification when the long term financial and emotional expense of busing school children from one side of the county to the other due to the segregated housing patterns are factored into the equation? HUD reports that transportation costs now represent most families' second largest household expense — after housing— but before both food and health care!

Some change is on the horizon: the Wake County Commissioners have enacted a policy to promote affordable housing development all across the county by placing working families near places of employment, near transit lines and in municipalities where the percentage of government subsidized housing is lower than the county average. Honoring this commitment may initially require a higher rate of public subsidy in high land price areas, but County officials are confident that the long term public benefits will make up for the difference.

On the land planning front, Raleigh's new Comprehensive Plan applauds mixed use developments and mixed use neighborhoods containing a variety of housing types and styles in sustainable, walkable, transit-oriented communities. Raleigh's new zoning ordinance (being drafted with the help of highly paid, out-of-town consultants) will hopefully provide the tools to effectively implement the Comprehensive Plan Goals. Still, all local planners can do under current North Carolina law to promote affordable housing within diverse neighborhoods 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 (see Union Land Owners Assoc. v. County of Union, 689 S.E.2d 504, N.C. App Dec. 8, 2009, and Amward Homes, et al. v. Town of Cary, N.C. App. Aug. 3, 2010), City Attorneys in North Carolina will continue to advise against mandatory inclusionary zoning (with a minimum percentage of new homes in any development designated affordable) until and unless the North Carolina General Assembly legitimizes the practice. Currently, federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against protected classes in housing, but little specific authority exists for local governments to proactively mandate a diversified housing stock in new developments. In fact, a recent amendment to Raleigh's zoning ordinance (TC-2-10, effective 9/1/10) prohibits developers 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 mandatory inclusionary zoning programs. The reality is that larger, more expensive homes yield higher profit margins than do smaller, less expensive homes. If government planners force private builders to produce dwellings at lower price points, developers and home builders argue this will either depress local land values, drive up the price of homes at the higher end (creating a shortage of mid-priced homes), require dramatically increased density yields (more apartments and small-lot homes), drive builders to outlying jurisdictions where land is cheaper and they build what they want — or all of the above. Economic theory supports, at least in part, all of these predictions; yet, as in the new Wake County policy regarding government sponsored affordable housing, should not the expenses of commuting to find suitable work, the misery of transportation gridlock, the trauma of busing school children to promote diversity, and the seemingly never ending debate over public school attendance zones be factored in?

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Clyde Holt
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