Charlotte’s booming rental market makes it tougher to house homeless

Tiffany Woodley has a good job at the U.S. Postal Service, a 10-year-old son who’s playing football and making straight A’s and a 6-year-old daughter who just started the first grade with dreams of being a doctor.

It’s tough to imagine she and her children are also homeless, but they have lived most of the summer at the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope shelter, having been padlocked out of their home in May by the landlord.

For homeless advocates, the Woodleys’ family crisis is particularly maddening because they have the rental subsidy needed to get an apartment. But they have searched months trying find a landlord to accept it.

“I’m a hard worker willing to do anything to prove I’m worth the risk,” Woodley says. “Landlords aren’t offering people like me second chances.”

From a business standpoint, they don’t need to. Charlotte’s rental market is so robust, that apartments are filling as quickly as they can be built, and at record rents averaging $1,000 a month. Landlords now have the luxury of turning down the millions of dollars promised by rent subsidies with no fear of losing money. And they also get to dodge risky tenants with bad credit and past evictions.

That makes life easier for landlords, but it’s a crisis in the making for nonprofit housing initiatives in the city that were national models a few years ago. A growing number of Charlotte’s homeless families and veterans are now finding themselves stranded, with rental money in hand and no takers.

Deronda Metz, who runs the Center of Hope shelter, says she has more than 90 rental subsidies for families, but can’t find the housing. Those subsidies have a value of $500,000, including community and federal money.

“I go out knocking on doors and I can’t get the first sentence out of my mouth before they cut me off,” said Metz. “We could empty the shelter of families in a day and pay their rent for six months. That’s 280 to 300 women and children in housing, if we could only find the units.”

Metz is not sure yet if she’s ready to use the word “crisis,” but 31-year-old Woodley would disagree. The Center of Hope was so overcrowded that she and her kids had to wait two weeks to get in the door.

The family spent that time living in their car.

“When we were in that car,” says Woodley, “all I could think of was how my kids didn’t deserve this.”

A landlord’s market

There are 13,000 apartments under construction in the Charlotte area and 13,000 more planned, and experts say its still not be enough. Nearly all of them will be market rate, unaffordable to people like the Woodleys.

The Charlotte Housing Authority has 29,000 people on a waiting list to get housing subsidies. Those subsidies, called Housing Choice Vouchers, are the federal government’s chief program for helping very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled afford decent housing in the private market.

CHA provides $31 million worth of vouchers each year. It isn’t sure how many of its 5,150 voucher holders are having trouble finding landlords, but one CHA official called it “a consistent challenge.” An Observer survey of local housing programs found nearly all are having problems finding enough landlords for their low income clients.

Family and veterans programs are the worst hit, with the region’s Veterans Administration reporting close to 50 vets can’t find a landlord to take their vouchers. Some have been looking since February, VA officials say.

The Men’s Shelter’s cited Charlotte’s rising rents as a big reason its having less success placing men in homes. In the last three years, the number of men it found housing for annually has dropped from 475 to 398.

What’s most frustrating for the Men’s Shelter and other housing charities is that evictions are uncommon among the formerly homeless people placed in apartments. That’s because the programs combine subsidies with social workers, who make sure rents get paid on time. It’s a system that has worked in dispelling stereotypes of low income people as financially risky and difficult to deal with.

Ken Szymanski, executive director of the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association, says those programs are facing an uphill battle because Charlotte continues to be a workforce magnet. The most recent census data showed the city had a net gain of 16,000 people in four years, and he says it has continued to rise due to a strong job market, including construction work.

Not only are there more people, he says, but more of them prefer renting over buying. The percent of Charlotteans renting is at an all time high: 47 percent versus about 35 percent a decade ago.

“Lessons were learned from the financial crash of 2008. People discovered that not everybody should buy a home. Renting has become a necessity,” Szymanski said. “I’ve been in this business 30 years and I’ve never seen it this strong.”

Rents have gone up 19 percent in the past three years, data shows.

“The way fair market rents are going, we can’t keep up,” says Cheron Porter of the Charlotte Housing Authority. “It’s supply and demand, and landlords are getting what they want.”

Hunt for solutions

Among the organizations looking for solutions is Charlotte-based Foundation for the Carolinas, which began tackling the homeless problem when it launched the A Way Home Endowment in 2014 to stabilize low-income families.

The endowment has given out $300,000 in subsidies. Those subsidies work on a sliding scale, paying the balance of a rent payment that exceeds 30 percent of a renter’s monthly income.

Foundation officials say they have found a possible answer to the affordable housing shortage: A landlord consortium that would operate on behalf of nonprofits seeking housing. Organizational efforts are underway, but no launch date has been set.

“Everyone is telling me that we need something like this, but we first need consensus,” said Brian Collier of the Foundation for the Carolinas. “There is an insatiable appetite for market-rate housing in Charlotte....We need someone out there knocking on doors every day to find new partners and new places for people to live....And they need to speak the language of landlords and developers.”

United Way of Central Carolinas and the city of Charlotte are also working with nonprofits on solutions. The city’s Housing Advisory Board of Charlotte Mecklenburg says it will soon release a report of suggested strategies for financing and promoting affordable housing development.

A landlords symposium is already being planned by the city. Another idea under discussion is an appeal for the faith community to help out, said Pamela Wideman of the Charlotte’s Neighborhood and Business Services division.

If there are faith organizations that own homes, or members of their congregation that own properties, they could rethink renting them at market rate, and help out with this cause,” she said.

Valaree Grier of VIP Homes and Properties in Charlotte is among those who have already stepped up to help in the cause, with nearly 25 homes currently rented to formerly homeless people.

Grier says if nonprofits want to get more landlords, a good start is pledging two years worth of rental subsidies up front for tenants. All charity housing programs should also have mandatory tenant classes on how to take care of rental property, she says. “You put a couch on the front porch and I’m going to take it away and charge you for it,” Grier said.

Better still, she says nonprofits should create a mandatory class on evictions, including the damage it does to credit scores and the cost to landlords, which averages $350 per case.

Turning away families

The Center of Hope – as Charlotte’s busiest emergency shelter – recently created a new statistic to elevate the homeless issue: It is counting how many people are turned away each day due to lack of beds. This past week, it was 15 households a day.

Some have resorted to parking their cars outside the shelter, where they sleep until space opens up. Its safe, well lit, and nobody comes knocking in the middle of the night, asking questions.

The Woodleys spent six weeks living in hotels after they were evicted, which Tiffany Woodley blames on an irresponsible roommate. Once her savings ran out, the family moved into her 2009 Honda Accord.

While some might see their July 4th move to a homeless shelter as bottoming out, it put Woodley in line for the Center of Hope’s successful Rapid Rehousing initiative. More than 400 families have found homes through the program, though the number has slowed lately due to the landlord shortage.

Woodley had nearly given up hope when a landlord agreed to take them in at the end of August.

He was sympathetic to her predicament, she says, but it helped that Foundation for the Carolinas’ endowment program pledged two years worth of rental subsidies.

The family moved into their new home 10 days ago, with an air mattress and little else. To celebrate, Woodley cooked a big dinner of fried chicken, and stew beef with white rice and gravy. They had no table or chairs, so the three enjoyed the meal while sitting on the living room floor.

For months, Woodley said she’d lie awake nights at the shelter, thinking of how she had failed her children.

Would they forgive her?

“I think the only thing that really mattered to them was that we all stay together,” she says. “And we did.”

How you can help

  • Property owners interested in incorporating this program at their properties, should contact Deronda Metz at the Salvation Army: 704-348-2560, ext 245.