Housing push will spread low-income and homeless people across Charlotte

United Way and Foundation for the Carolinas are tackling poverty in Charlotte’s poorest neighborhoods with new programs.
United Way and Foundation for the Carolinas are tackling poverty in Charlotte’s poorest neighborhoods with new programs.

When United Way announced in September that it is diverting millions of dollars to help Charlotte’s most troubled neighborhoods, it became the second of two very different plans created to tackle the city’s economic and racial inequalities.

United Way’s plan is to put money directly into the hands of charities working in areas plagued by crime, joblessness and poor high school graduation rates. Its goal: To help the poor by improving the places where they live.

The alternative is a course charted by the city and Foundation for the Carolinas, and it involves the creation of a rental housing consortium. Its goal: To help low income people by letting move away from troubled neighborhoods.

If successful, the foundation’s HousingCLT plan would accomplish something community leaders have sought for decades – the dispersal of affordable housing across the city. This would include wealthy areas that have been adamantly opposed public housing projects.

“It’s two really different strategies and you need them both,” said Brian Collier of Foundation for the Carolinas. “One is to improve the neighborhoods where people are living and want to stay. The other is to give people the opportunity to move to areas that are closer to their job or their child’s schooling.”

Better still, the HousingCLT effort is a way around the angry protests that erupted in the past when plans were unveiled to build affordable housing in upper scale areas

There is a downside.

Neither of the new initiatives promises quick help for the poor, leaving the city at risk of more of the violent protests that erupted a year ago in uptown. Those protests were ignited by a fatal police shooting of an armed African-American, but it became clear in the days that followed bigger issues were involved, including the city’s lack of affordable housing.

The HousingCLT landlord’s consortium expects to start placing families in homes near the end of this year, using some money from the foundation’s $20 million A Way Home Endowment.

United Way’s new United Neighborhoods initiative will take even longer to see results. United Way intends to donate $2.4 million over three years to charities operating in west Charlotte’s Renaissance community and Grier Heights, just off Randolph Road three miles south of uptown.

Specifics on the uses of that money aren’t yet clear, but it could boost programs for such things as early childhood education, tutoring for parents and job-search assistance.

“Our goal is to improve the quality of life in individual neighborhoods,” according to a statement from Sean Garrett, United Way’s executive director. “To do this, we will work neighborhood by neighborhood, while also working to improve the larger systems that serve children and families across our area.”

Renaissance is a redevelopment project built on top of what was once the 41-acre Boulevard Homes community. Before being torn down, Boulevard Homes had a median household income of $14,034 and only 25 percent of the children in the area scored at or above grade level on statewide tests.

Grier Heights once had an even worse reputation. From 2011 to 2013, the community of 3,000 people had a violent crime rate that was five times the city average, according to an Observer analysis of 2010 census data. Three of four families relied on food stamps, and the school dropout rate was twice as high as the city average.

Both communities are in the midst of a transformations due to neighborhood-based nonprofit programs.

Philanthropist and former Family Dollar CEO Howard Levine was among the first to applaud the United Way initiative. Levine has given more than $1 million to spur the rebirth of Charlotte’s west side. His money is helping build a child development center in Renaissance that will be named in his honor.

He is hoping United Way’s effort will encourage other philanthropists to join the neighborhood approach.

“The United Neighborhoods initiative will go a long way in improving the lives of many families,” Howard said. “I do hope others will follow as there is a very clear need out there.”

United Way intends to get the money for its new initiative from the agency’s annual campaign. The norm has been for United Way to allocate money to agencies based their success in meeting community needs, with critical needs charities given a priority. Giving extra money to the neighborhood effort mean cuts elsewhere, and no agencies are being spared from consideration, United Way officials said.

HousingCLT is currently funded with a two-year HUD grant, combined with money from the NC Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and Foundation for the Carolinas. The $300,000 annual cost includes money for risk mitigation between landlords and tenants, which is one of the incentives to coax landlords into joining the consortium. Some of the rental subsidies will come from via the foundation’s A Way Home Endowment, which is just $450,000 shy of a $20 million cash goal.

Of that money, $10 million came from the city, and the goal has been to match that with $10 million private philanthropy gifts.

HousingCLT is the first program of its kind in North Carolina, modeled after Seattle’s successful Landlord Liaison Project. Charlotte’s housing charities and shelters have each had their own variations of the program, but struggled to recruit landlords. A community-wide landlord consortium was a recommendation from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force.

“Ideally, you’d like to see folks in units spread across all Zip codes in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. No high concentrations in any one neighborhood or Zip code,” said Brian Huskey, project director for HousingCLT. “I may not get a lot of units around SouthPark, but I hope to.”

While that might rankle people who live in upper income areas, Huskey says the consortium program is designed to surround tenants with so much social support that they become virtually indistinguishable from their neighbors. “Ultimately, the goal is that you really can’t tell they are there,” he said.