Facing Forward and Held Back: Mapping the Role of Zoning in a Progressive Small Town’s Housing Crisis

By Henry Read

For the better part of a century in the United States, exclusion, restriction, and fastidiousness were core values within the accepted best practices around zoning and development. While national trends seem to slowly be reversing course toward less aggressive regulation of uses and limitations on density, the built, legal, and economic environment in communities across the country strongly reflect this history. Even in places that actively seek to be bastions of progressive culture and policy, the legacy of older philosophies persists. And the most severe and obvious of these reflections is the current crisis of affordability in housing.

As a small town with a consciously welcoming culture adjacent to the state’s flagship university, Carrboro, NC, is emblematic of this wider trend. Despite broad community consensus on the need for affordable housing for all residents, housing prices have risen faster than median incomes for decades and new housing construction has been outpaced by population growth for just as long. Carrboro has not been idle in the face of this problem; many policy initiatives have been attempted to address the scarcity of affordable homes. But due to more significant dynamics within the town and the country, these solutions have consistently come up short either in design or implementation.

In an effort to explore and address this archetypical wicked problem, this project from 2021’s course on Zoning For Equity uses mapping, statistics, legal analysis, and investigative journalism to determine why affordable housing is so difficult to come by in an environment so seemingly amenable to its creation. Through the medium of ArcGIS StoryMap, Feel Free (To Be Cost Burdened) describes the background of Carrboro’s housing crisis, the most notable attempts that have been made to address it, and the trends and policies that continue to negate the impacts of those attempts. The StoryMap then goes beyond analysis by offering a suite of potential solutions, ranging from immediate and practical tweaks to Carrboro’s zoning code to grand reworkings of America’s conception of the relationship between property rights and human rights.

In addition to existing as a static artifact of research, Feel Free (To Be Cost Burdened) has entered the world of planning politics in its own right; Its creators presented it to both the Orange County Board of Health and the Carrboro Affordable Housing Advisory Board in early 2022. Hopefully, this project can be revisited and revised to reflect breakthrough successes in Carrboro’s fight for housing affordability in the near future.


Henry Read is a Master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, with a focus on land use policy. He is fascinated with the minutia of development regulation and doesn’t understand why so many people think zoning is boring. He hopes to work in the public sector after graduation, and would like to be remembered as the guy who got your town to stop requiring bars to have customer parking and start planting native fruit trees in parks.


Edited by Jo Kwon

Featured image: Feel Free (To Be Cost Burdened) StoryMap

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