As rents rise, Charlotte's mayor seeks to more than triple the affordable housing fund

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said Wednesday that she plans to seek $50 million in affordable housing bonds in the fall, more than tripling the amount of local money available for low-income housing.

The city's Housing Trust Fund, which largely subsidizes construction of housing for low-income renters by private developers, is funded by $15 million worth of voter-approved bonds every two years. Advocates have called that level inadequate, especially in the face of rapidly rising rents and home prices.

"We have to think about how to do things differently," said Lyles, who plans to make a formal request for the city manager to study how a $50 million bond would work at a city budget workshop Wednesday afternoon. "Talking about it as a major, new public commitment is important."

She said it's too soon to say whether such a funding increase would require raising taxes.

"There's no decision in this community that's not made with a fiscal impact. ... We need to have an open discussion about them, and we need to set some priorities. And I see this as a priority," said Lyles.

"The manager has to come back and tell us what the consequences of that are," she said of the proposal.

Average rents have jumped 36 percent in Charlotte over the past five years, rising from $842 to $1,142 this year. For-sale housing has seen an almost identical escalation, with the median price rising to $235,000 in March.

A $50 million Housing Trust Fund bond will require several steps to implement. First, the manager will make a budget recommendation in May. The City Council will then decide whether to include the bond in its budget. If that happens, the public will vote on the bond in a fall referendum.

"I believe this community is more ready, perhaps, than some of the decision makers in the community," Lyles said. "I want us to have that thorough, open examination. And the community will make the decision."

Affordable housing advocates have been pushing for the higher Housing Trust Fund level for months, and speakers at Monday's City Council meeting held signs and talked about their struggles with finding a place they can afford in Charlotte.

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Across Charlotte, but especially in fast-growing areas such as the Park Road corridor and SouthPark, developers have torn down older apartments to build new, luxury units. And developers have bought about 13,000 older apartments and upgraded them, often raising rents by 30 percent or more.

"I still see this as probably one of the most difficult issues facing this community," Lyles said. "If you work in Charlotte, you ought to be able to afford to live in Charlotte."

Since 2001, the Housing Trust Fund has spent or committed $124 million, subsidizing almost 6,800 income-restricted housing units. Many of those have been for people earning up to 80 percent of the area's median income, roughly $42,000 in Charlotte, despite studies from consultants that show the biggest shortfall is for people earning significantly less, such as those making minimum wage.

Lyles said the increased Housing Trust Fund wouldn't necessarily be restricted to helping people on the lowest end of the income scale, because Charlotteans at many income levels are being pressured by rising prices.

"It's most needed at every spectrum," she said. "I'm not going to parse out need. It's clear in this community that need is great."

The trust fund increase would give the city more flexibility to subsidize new developments as well as increasing resources for programs such as rental subsidies and crisis intervention to help people on the verge of eviction.

"Without resources, everything kind of stays the same, and this is a resource issue," said Lyles.

Developers have already submitted proposals for another 1,000 housing units that would be restricted to low-income renters in 11 developments that would be subsidized by the trust fund. The Charlotte City Council is set to consider those on April 23.

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