Schools, discrimination, racism – Affordable housing touches many topics

Housing affordability can seem like a dry discussion about how much it costs to rent or buy a place to live, but a speaker Tuesday in Charlotte tied the topic to everything from racism in America to struggling schools to mass incarceration.

Clint Smith, summed up his view of housing succinctly.

“It is a place where people feel safe. It is a refuge,” said Smith, as well as being a crucial source of stability, the ability to transfer wealth from one generation to another and the determinant of why many schools look the way they do.

“It is both a social and economic bedrock,” said Smith.

In a wide-ranging talk using spoken word as well as typical keynote-style speaking, Smith examined the many threads woven through the affordable housing shortfall. Where we can afford to live affects everything from access to well-performing schools to how violent the neighborhood around us is to access to fresh groceries.

There’s been a much sharper focus on housing affordability in Charlotte of late, as the city’s ongoing boom continues to drive up rent and housing prices. The latest numbers, released last week by Real Data, showed Charlotte’s average rent as of February jumped 7 percent from the same month a year ago, to $1,082. Over the past five years, the average rent in Charlotte is up 35 percent.

“It’s incredibly important to understand history...when it comes to inequality,” said Smith. “Charlotte has the lowest economic mobility rate of any city in the United States. Mecklenburg County, broadly, is at the bottom of the totem pole.”

[You can listen to Smith on Charlotte Talks, “Poverty, Injustice and the Affordable Housing Crisis.”]

Smith is a writer, Davidson graduate, spoken word poet and Harvard doctoral candidate. He’s looked into Charlotte’s problems before. In October, Smith wrote a piece for the New Yorker titled “The desegregation and resegregation of Charlotte’s schools,” examining how the success, and ultimate end, of Charlotte’s desegregation and busing programs fed into the protests last year following Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police’s fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.

“We might misdiagnose what’s happening in Charlotte” without considering the city’s 50th place ranking in economic mobility and degree of school segregation, Smith said. “Stratification continues to perpetuate itself.”

The event he spoke at, called Building Futures, was sponsored by Habitat for Humanity and held at Central Piedmont Community College.

Smith said the history of discrimination in the housing market, from redlining to deed restrictions to predatory lending, is essential to “reckon with the thing that made certain parts of Charlotte look one way and certain parts of Charlotte another way.”

One obstacle to increasing the amount of affordable housing: It will cost more, and might involve people giving something up or allowing new people into their neighborhoods and schools.

“Everybody lives equality in the abstract,” said Smith. “When you have to give something becomes a lot more difficult to say ooh, we need equity.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo