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The next big step for affordable housing

Shortly after the Charlotte City Council approved a rezoning Tuesday for a controversial affordable housing project in south Charlotte, the proposal’s chief advocate and opponent found each other for a brief conversation.

Julie Porter, president of the non-profit Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, wanted Willowmere homeowners association president Michael Kelley to know that the two groups needed to work together. Kelley wanted Porter to know the same.

“We know we have a lot to prove,” Porter told the editorial board Wednesday.

Kelley’s encouraging response: “We don’t want some type of standoff. That wouldn’t do anybody any good.”

They’re both right. Affordable housing advocates saw an important threshold crossed Tuesday when the council gave the nod to 70 low-income apartments at Weddington Road near I-485. But the Housing Partnership now faces an even more critical task – showing a watchful city that the apartment project won’t be bad for the neighbors who protested against it.

The apartments will be the first subsidized housing project in the city’s southernmost neighborhoods. A previous proposal in Ballantyne had been rejected, in part because of questions about developers, but also because of substantial vocal opposition from nearby residents.

The Weddington Road project also faced significant opposition – more than 2,000 residents signed a petition against the proposal, and hundreds gathered at council meetings to protest. The concerns they raised about snarled Weddington Road traffic, however, appear unwarranted, as are concerns about the new residents’ proximity to jobs and public transportation.

Residents will have jobs, and most will have cars, Porter said. Those who don’t have cars will have a very long walk to the grocery and bus stop, but they will weigh those inconveniences against the benefits of living and raising families in a vibrant community with strong schools. That combination is hard to find for low-income Charlotteans.

Meanwhile, the Housing Partnership will have to show that those benefits don’t come at a cost to neighboring residents. That means an attentiveness to every aspect of the project, from initial design to renter selection to property management. It also means the Housing Partnership must be accessible and responsive to specific, legitimate concerns neighbors might have with apartment residents.

It’s unfortunate that the apartment complex and its residents will be watched so closely just because of their income level, but they will. When similarly located affordable housing projects are proposed in the future (the Housing Partnership continues to look for site opportunities) people will look to what’s happening at Weddington Road. “If we aren’t spot-on with every aspect of this, it will be harder next time,” Porter said.

Charlotte continues to have housing issues. There are too few places for the homeless to transition into traditional lives, and workforce housing is clustered in areas of the city that already are struggling. The Weddington Road project can be a big step toward demonstrating that affordable housing can provide opportunity for some without being costly to their neighbors.

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