Here’s why Charlotte leaders still have questions about this affordable housing plan

Charlotte spent millions on low-income housing, but poor people can’t afford it

Over the last 16 years, the city of Charlotte has spent or committed $124 million to affordable housing. Next month, city leaders will ask voters for $50 million more. But the money hasn’t helped people like Curtis Simpson.
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Over the last 16 years, the city of Charlotte has spent or committed $124 million to affordable housing. Next month, city leaders will ask voters for $50 million more. But the money hasn’t helped people like Curtis Simpson.

More than a year after Charlotte City Council started working with a new nonprofit to handle and recommend how to distribute affordable housing funds, local leaders say they are still trying to understand how the program will work.

The city’s contract is with Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national nonprofit based in New York, which will manage a private sector fund of low-interest loans, money and land donations for affordable housing. Charlotte is paying LISC $600,000 over three years.

The coordination with the nonprofit represents a shift in how Charlotte manages its affordable housing program, as rents and home prices skyrocket across the city. This is the first time the city council is using an outside group to vet affordable housing proposals from private developers.

LISC will play a big role in how $100 million worth of public and private subsidies are spent.

On top of that, LISC is raising $25 million from its national partners to invest in Charlotte, either in housing or non-housing programs.

The group has explained its process to vet affordable housing proposals to council members multiple times. But some council members and housing activists say there’s still confusion over what the organization’s role is.

“I think some people, even folks in the community, have kind of thought that by engaging this group we solved the (affordable housing) problem,” said council member Tariq Bokhari. “What ended up happening is we end up punting a lot of major decisions and work that we needed to do.”

LISC, which raises money for community organizations across the country, established an office in Charlotte this year. It hired Ralphine Caldwell, who previously worked at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, as executive director of the Charlotte branch.

The group announced last week that it had raised $2 million to start off its investments in Charlotte, including a grant to Historic West End Partners, a community organization that works to improve the quality of life in west Charlotte.

Denise Scott, LISC executive vice president, said the organization will work with the city to combine the public and private dollars for affordable housing projects.

The private sector fund the group is managing, the Charlotte Housing Opportunity Investment Fund, has around $20 million so far, and the goal is to raise at least $50 million. The city also has $50 million in bond money for the Housing Trust Fund, which subsidizes affordable housing projects.

“We are kind of representing the private sector in this fund discussion. But we are also working with the city to align the two buckets of money,” Scott said of the private sector and Housing Trust Fund money.

She said the program allows developers to go through one centralized process for getting projects approved.

Council concerns

On Monday, the city council received another update from LISC on its activity in Charlotte. But council members still had questions about the group’s level of community engagement and how the group works with city council.

What I’m trying to ensure and hear directly from you is exactly where the community truly has a voice and not just the handful of people that have been appointed through the mayor’s office,” council member Lawana Mayfield said to Scott at the meeting.

Mayfield previously chaired the housing and neighborhood development committee, which handled affordable housing requests. But in a shakeup this month, the mayor dissolved Mayfield’s committee and appointed a new one, chaired by council member Justin Harlow.

Mayfield declined to speak with the Observer. But in a tweet, she expressed concern about LISC’s new authority over affordable housing projects.

In the Monday meeting, Harlow said LISC’s involvement doesn’t take away the council’s oversight on projects, and that it allows the council to get involved earlier in the process.

To evaluate affordable housing projects through the new process, the city will solicit proposals from developers, then conduct a review with LISC and give an analysis of the proposed projects to the city council. The council will ultimately approve the projects that involve public money.

Currently, the council approves spending money from the city’s Housing Trust Fund on a case-by-case basis.

Pete Kelly, a member of housing advocacy group the Housing Justice Coalition, said city council needs to clarify that LISC’s work is just one piece of Charlotte’s broader strategy to address the affordable housing issue. That strategy is outlined in a policy known as the Housing Charlotte Framework, adopted by city council last year.

“The tendency for the answer to complicated questions is, ‘well, let’s wait and see what LISC is going to do,’ ” he said. “And that’s not the answer to the framework. LISC is just part of the execution.”

Danielle Chemtob covers economic growth and development for the Observer. She’s a 2018 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and a California transplant.