Editor’s note: This is the second of three stories that look at the promises city leaders made in the wake of last year’s unrest.
A year after the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and protests, the city says it’s on track to hit its goal of creating 5,000 affordable housing units in three years – but a lot depends on what you count.
The 5,000-unit goal was one of the three key promises City Council made in a Oct. 3 letter to the community laying out Charlotte’s response to the unrest: “We seek to accelerate funding for housing, with the goal of creating 5,000 workforce and affordable housing units in three years so those who work in our city can live in our city.”
The city so far says since the start of 2016, it’s created or preserved 2,219 affordable apartments and houses – 44 percent of the way to its goal. That includes more than just newly built units, however. About 900 of those are existing houses or apartments that have been repaired through a city fund that gives grants to low-income families for needed renovations, or houses that low-income owners have received help to purchase from a down payment assistance fund.
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Despite the letter’s wording, city leaders say that the plan won’t create 5,000 brand-new affordable housing units.
“The goal was never to build 5,000 new units,” said Pamela Wideman, the city of Charlotte’s director of housing and neighborhoods, who’s leading the program. The city’s criteria counts both new affordable units created by partnering with developers and already-existing affordable housing units preserved through the rehabilitation and down payment assistance program.
Even if the city were to build 5,000 new affordable units from scratch, it wouldn’t meet Charlotte’s affordable housing needs. A study last month found Charlotte is more than 21,000 units short of meeting the current demand for affordable housing among the city’s poorest residents, those who make less than half of the area’s median income. Other estimates have said the city has a 34,000-unit shortfall of affordable housing.
“When we reach 5,000, we will not be finished,” Wideman said.
The idea of creating more affordable housing stemmed from the aftermath of the the shooting, when some activists emphasized that the underlying issues went beyond the police. They pointed to gentrification and displacement, the cumulative impact of decades of “urban renewal” that wiped out the Brooklyn neighborhood, tearing down predominantly African-American, low-income developments such as Earle Village and Piedmont Courts, and reshaping neighborhoods like Wilmore, Cherry and Villa Heights with expensive new houses.
“Before there was a NoDa, there was North Davidson Street,” Brandon Miller, a Charlotte native and executive director of the Youth Educational Society, told City Council at an emotional meeting last September. “The gentrification process is how we were removed from there...What we’re looking at now, that’s the effect.”
Not everyone agrees with the premise, however. Former Charlotte City Council member and N.C. Sen. Malcolm Graham said that while increasing affordable housing is a worthy goal for the city, it risks obscuring the true cause of the problems: The police shooting death of a black man.
“People were not out there rioting and looting because they wanted more affordable housing,” Graham said. “We have to address the elephant in the middle of the room, which is police relations within the city of Charlotte...You can meet that (housing) goal, but that doesn’t address the core issue of a year ago and why people were out there on the streets.”
Rent, prices climbing fast
Charlotte’s average rent is up 35 percent in the past five years, to almost $1,100 a month, and for-sale housing prices have jumped 42 percent in that time. That’s putting a big squeeze on low-income residents. Studies have found almost half of renters in Mecklenburg County are “cost-burdened,” spending more than 30 percent of their income on shelter.
Marland Dawkins, a former Navy service member who receives assistance from a federal housing voucher program for veterans, said he learned this summer that the rent on his north Charlotte apartment was increasing from $600 to $827 a month. He couldn’t afford the increase, and started looking for a two-bedroom apartment where his son could also stay with him.
He quickly found there wasn’t much in his price range, as his search dragged on for weeks. Properties owned by the Charlotte Housing Authority had wait-lists of months to years. Some private landlords refused to take vouchers, and there’s no rule preventing them from discriminating on the basis of income.
“The inventory out there is substandard” for low-income renters, said Dawkins. “It’s a needle in a haystack right now.”
Days away from not having a place to live, Dawkins said he found another apartment and was preparing to move. But he said the landlord told him the rent would actually be slightly higher than the quoted price shortly before he moved in, and Dawkins – who was able to get a one-month extension on his current apartment – is back to looking.
He said paying non-refundable application fees of $25 to $60 has also drained his savings.
“Most people living in affordable housing can’t afford multiple application fees,” he said.
The city’s 21,000-unit gap is concentrated heavily among apartments affordable for those making half the median income or less – roughly $35,000. But most of the city’s efforts have largely focused on creating “workforce housing,” affordable for people making around 80 percent of the area’s median income.
Wideman said that those renters also face problems finding affordable housing, because they’re competing with higher-income renters who save money by renting cheaper places than they could afford. That means, Wideman said, many people making moderate incomes are spending too big a share of their income on rent, leaving them “housing insecure.”
James Ford, co-chair of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg economic opportunity task force, said he doesn’t think reaching the 5,000-unit goal will alter the city’s underlying economic dynamics.
“The goal of 5,000 units is admirable,” he said. “Whether or not it will have an apparent impact? We can state objectively, it probably won’t.”
“Numerically,” he said, “we’re a far cry from where we need to be.”
‘Accelerating’ the goal
Before the shooting, Charlotte City Council already had a goal in place of creating or preserving 5,000 affordable units over the next five years. After the shooting, they shortened that to three years.
The biggest single step the city has taken so far to speed up funding for affordable housing is a plan to subsidize 769 apartments in five new developments. Those are in the pipeline for almost $21 million Housing Trust Fund subsidies – bonds that are used to pay developers building affordable housing – and the plan represents a major increase in how quickly the city spends its trust fund money. City Council is planning to vote Sept. 25 on that proposal, which would tap out most of the city’s Housing Trust Fund until more bonds could be approved in late 2018.
If those are approved, the city would be able to claim it’s created or preserved nearly 3,000 units – 60 percent of the way to its goal. That housing won’t be completed for years, however.
The federal government defines housing as affordable if it doesn’t cost more than 30 percent of a family’s gross income each month. The Department of Housing and Urban Development defines the median income for the Charlotte area each year. (The median is the midpoint, with half the households earning more and half earning less.) Here’s how much someone could afford on rent and meet that standard:
▪ For the Charlotte area, a family at the HUD-defined median income of $70,700 could spend up to $1,767 a month.
▪ A low-income family of four, making 80 percent of the area’s median income ($56,550) could spend $1,413 a month on rent. A very low-income family with half the median income ($35,350) could spend $884 a month.
▪ An extremely low income family making 30 percent of the area median income ($21,210, or not much above minimum wage) could only spend $530 a month.
Affordable apartments for the the lowest-income residents are the most difficult to develop, because they require the most subsidies and generate the least cash. That’s one reason the city has focused on creating “workforce” housing for those with somewhat higher incomes.
City officials say they can’t solve the problem alone.
“We have accelerated our process as much as we can on our own,” said council member LaWana Mayfield, chair of the Housing and Neighborhood Development committee. “There’s always more that can be done, but we’re also limited. We don’t have an unlimited funding source.”
And, Mayfield acknowledged, there’s another dynamic at work: Even as the city subsidizes new affordable units, older ones are being lost to redevelopment, in many places replaced by upscale, top-dollar apartments.
Ford said the city should increase the amount of its housing trust fund bond allocation – currently $15 million every two years – as well as looking at new strategies, such as preemptively buying land for affordable housing around new transit lines, passing a measure to ban landlords from refusing to rent to housing voucher recipients and using surplus public land for affordable housing.
Wideman said the city must consider asking voters to approve more bond money next year, possibly $30 million for the next two years, to subsidize more new housing.
“To provide affordable housing at the rents we need will cost more money,” she said.
Wednesday: Will a $1 million pledge create jobs for those who need them?