Staring down a housing crisis

How much can you afford to spend on housing these days?

Let's say you lost your job and were reduced to an unemployment check. Regardless of your previous salary, those checks are capped at $494 a week in North Carolina, $326 in South Carolina.

How much of that could you afford to spend each month on housing?

Now you are approaching the financial circumstances of the working poor who cannot find a place to live in Charlotte.

A lot of them are homeless. And a lot of us who live comfortably with a roof over our heads would not be far behind if our own paychecks disappeared.

In my career as a journalist, I've written or edited scores of stories about homelessness. Only rarely did I sense that the general public was as interested in the subject as the reporters who wrote passionately about it.

For the sake of all of Charlotte's homeless, I hope that this is one of those times.

Our city is staring down a housing crisis. Over the next three days, Observer journalists will explain the scope of this problem. They will help you see how Charlotte's well-intentioned strategies have fallen short, despite voters' commitment of more than $65 million in bonds for low-income housing.

Most importantly, they will point to strategies working in other cities that refuse to see homelessness as an unsolvable dilemma.

Today we start with the new face of homelessness. It includes people who simply lost a job, then a home, then the means to hang on through friends or relatives. Many of these people continue to work in menial jobs for low wages. Why can't they get into the low-income housing that your bonds helped finance?

Because it still costs too much. In fact, we have a surplus on the higher end of what is classified as “low-income” housing.

That takes us to Monday's story. Charlotte's City Council inadvertently contributed to this surplus with a strategy that rewarded developers with bond money in return for including low-income housing in their developments.

Developers did build low-income housing, but much of it remains too expensive for someone making just over the minimum wage. Meanwhile, up to 8,000 people sleep on Charlotte's streets.

That's twice the population of Pineville.

Clearly, we need a new approach. Not just for the newly homeless, but also for the chronically homeless who have struggled in our midst all along.

We looked around the country for cities that appear to be succeeding on this issue. On Tuesday, we'll tell you about them. Based on what we found, they held no advantage that Charlotte doesn't already have, except one.

In those cities, people stepped out to make housing for the poor a top political and social priority.

People could do that here, too. Perhaps this series will help you decide if you want to be one of them.