What if we subsidized more affordable housing with cheap land?

A plan to redevelop the former Brooklyn section of uptown Charlotte would shrink the size of little used Marshall Park.
A plan to redevelop the former Brooklyn section of uptown Charlotte would shrink the size of little used Marshall Park.

At a forum Wednesday about affordable housing, local experts agreed: Charlotte isn’t spending enough to meet the area’s need.

The city’s affordable housing fund, paid for with bonds, totals $15 million for the next two years, an amount panelists at the Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition forum described as “paltry.”

“I think we’re going to see Charlotte burn through those Housing Trust Fund bond requests faster than we’ve ever seen before,” said Dionne Nelson, CEO of affordable housing developer Laurel Street Residential. Charlotte City Council has set a goal of creating or preserving 5,000 affordable housing units in the city over the next three years, as housing costs keep rising faster than incomes.

Pamela Wideman, deputy director at the city of Charlotte, suggested that more money by itself won’t be an answer. She suggested looking at the sources of land where affordable housing could be built, including publicly owned land from the city, county and school system, as well as land owned by churches and other houses of worship.

Large tracts of such land are up for redevelopment. Mecklenburg County, for example, is poised to sell dozens of acres uptown, in First and Second wards, over the next several years. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is selling off excess parcels around its schools. And if that land were to be offered at a subsidized rate to a developer, that could act as another form of subsidy.

Mecklenburg County is requiring the developer of the Brooklyn Village project in Second Ward to include affordable housing. The developer has promised to include 107 units of “workforce housing” mixed in throughout the project. That’s 10 percent of the total, and will target people making 80 percent of the area’s median income (think nurses, firefighters, teachers). The terms of the deal are still under negotiation.

But governments face challenges with using their land to build affordable housing. CMS, for example, is being prodded to sell of its excess land by Mecklenburg County in order to help offset the school system’s costs. That means CMS is looking for top dollar, as in Sedgefield. That’s where CMS tried to sell 3.7 acres for townhouses to Pulte Homes for $3.85 million. That would have been market rate housing – and with CMS looking down the county budget gun, there’s no incentive for them to seek less money by selling to a developer interested in building affordable housing.

What do you think of the idea of local government bodies and churches setting aside extra land for affordable housing? Where do you think this might – or might not – work? Let me know in a comment or a tweet.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo