Officials defend Drakeford project

Some City Council members are defending a land deal with a developer who has not included low-priced homes in a project near uptown.

A city official last week apologized for failing to set price limits on the homes as part of the contract.

The city of Charlotte sold developer Robert Drakeford seven acres at less than half its appraised value so he could build a combination of townhomes, stores and offices. City staff told council members the homes would sell for $110,000 to $145,000 to accommodate people making less than the city's median income, documents show.

But Drakeford is selling units for as much as $235,000, the Observer reported this month.

Council members interviewed this week disagree over whether affordable housing was among the reasons they agreed to the deal two years ago.

Councilman John Lassiter wrote a letter in support of the project in response to the Observer's story. He said the city gave Drakeford a break on the land because the development would bring needed retail to a business corridor that has suffered from lack of investment.

“At no point was subsidized or ‘affordable' housing envisioned or requested,” he wrote. Councilmen Warren Turner and Andy Dulin said they agree with Lassiter.

“As a council we never discussed affordable housing as a condition to sell that land,” Turner said. “It was a wish.”

But public records show that council members were told affordable housing was part of the project.

City Council members typically discuss details of proposals in committee meetings before voting as a whole. During a meeting of the Housing and Neighborhood Development committee in February 2006, the late former councilman Don Lochman asked this question about the Drakeford proposal: “What is the basis for this project? Who are we trying to serve?”

Stanley Watkins, the city's director of neighborhood development, answered: “We are trying to provide additional affordable housing for individuals who earn less than 80% of AMI (average median income).”

The committee recommended approval. Watkins could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Before the full council voted in March 2006, members received a written summary of the deal. The summary said the project would include “69 for-sale, affordable townhouse units.” It said the city's sale price for the land would allow the developer to sell homes at $110,000 to $145,000.

Council members did not discuss details of the deal before they voted, according to the minutes.

Drakeford has said the city never asked him to build low-cost housing. He also said his $330,620 purchase price is not as favorable as it appears because he agreed to subsidize $161,000 toward the cost of the retail portion of the project.

Economic Development Director Tom Flynn said he erred by not including a price range in the contract. “That was an oversight in which I take full responsibility,” he said.

Flynn also explained that because Drakeford had missed a May deadline to start construction, the city has the opportunity to back out of the deal. A spokeswoman for the city economic development office declined comment Wednesday.

Some council members say the deal should be re-visited – either re-negotiated with the developer or brought back to council for clarification. Councilwoman Susan Burgess, who chairs the housing committee, said this week that when she voted for the project, she believed it would include affordable housing. She said she was misled, and blamed city staff.

“How in the world did it get to our committee if it was an economic development proposal?” she asked.

Councilman Anthony Foxx, who was on the committee at the time, said he is confident that the purpose of the project was economic revitalization. But he proposed that it be brought back to council for clarification.

“I think there's clearly some confusion that's been generated about the goals of the project,” he said. “I don't know that we're going to address any concerns or allay any fears by continuing to air things out in the newspaper.”

Drakeford said in a letter to City Manager Curt Walton that he would “be willing to take additional measures to ensure this project fulfills more City objectives,” such as providing affordable housing.