Politics & Government

Charlotte spent millions on low-income housing, but poor people can’t afford it

Over the last 16 years, the city of Charlotte has spent or committed at least $124 million to build affordable housing. Next month, city leaders will ask voters for $50 million more.

But the money hasn’t helped people like Curtis Simpson.

He’s worked full-time as a custodian for nine years at Independence High School, but on his $25,500-a-year salary, he said he can’t find a decent place to live.

Simpson said he and his longtime partner, Tameka Boone, and their four children once lived in a motel room for a year because they could not afford an apartment near good schools. Three years ago, the family moved into a duplex east of uptown. They were nearly evicted in May when medical debts piled up and they fell two months behind on rent.

Simpson said he juggles bills to pay $650 a month for a three-bedroom duplex with roaches, mold and plumbing so bad sometimes he can’t take a bath. Simpson said he wants to move because the conditions in the duplex aggravate his 16-year-old son’s asthma, but he found nothing he can afford.

“I work my butt off to pay the bills,” said Simpson, 47, a lifelong Charlotte resident. “My reward is to fix this and fix that. It makes you feel like something less than a man.”

Curtis Simpson and his longtime partner, Tameka Boone, said their east Charlotte duplex has roaches, mold and plumbing problems. Simpson wants to move to a new home, but says his $25,500 a year salary as a school custodian isn’t enough for safe and decent housing in Charlotte. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte City Council has countered rising housing costs by using the Housing Trust Fund to help developers finance construction of homes for people with lower incomes.

Voters provide the money by approving bonds every two years. The City Council then offers grants and low-interest loans to developers who agree to include affordable housing in their projects.

Charlotte leaders are asking voters to approve $50 million in bonds on November’s ballot, instead of the $15 million they have asked for in the past.

No one disputes the Housing Trust Fund can be a key to keeping Charlotte affordable for people with modest incomes.

But over the last decade, Charlotte’s affordable housing shortage has grown more severe despite the city’s spending.

A city report says Charlotte lacks about 34,000 affordable housing units needed to meet demand. That’s roughly double the number from a decade ago.

The city’s rapid population growth, rising land costs and resistance from neighbors opposed to affordable housing helped create the problem, but the City Council’s decisions have also played a role, an Observer investigation found.

Data obtained through a public records request shows:

▪More than 70 percent of the new rental and home ownership units that the City Council helped developers build aren’t affordable to those most in need — families like Simpson’s whose incomes the federal government considers “extremely low.”

From 2002 through March 2018, the city provided developers money to build about 4,500 apartments and houses, but records show only about 1,300 were affordable to households making less than 30 percent of area median income. That’s $25,100 a year for a family of four.

▪The City Council last year awarded $5.6 million — one of the largest subsidies ever from the Housing Trust Fund — to a proposed apartment complex in southwest Charlotte, even though it has no units affordable to households with extremely low incomes, according to city records.

The developer plans to charge rents in roughly the same price range as other nearby apartment complexes that did not receive government money.

▪City officials counted homeless shelter beds as affordable housing for the very poor even though that’s not intended to be permanent housing.

In one case, the city provided a women’s homeless shelter $500,000 for an expansion in 2014. Officials recorded that as 64 units of affordable housing for the very poor.

“It’s ridiculous,” Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP, said of the city’s spending from the Housing Trust Fund. “The people who need the most help should get the most help.”

City satisfied with choices

Unstable housing has been linked to poor school performance, economic inequality, racial segregation and other social problems. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force cited a shortage of affordable housing as a major reason a Harvard and UC-Berkeley study found poor children in Charlotte are less likely to escape poverty than their peers in America’s 50 largest cities.

Charlotte’s failure to provide enough affordable housing threatens to force out residents who could benefit most from access to jobs, education and transportation that living in the city can provide, said Robert Dawkins, a longtime community activist who has lobbied city leaders for more low-cost housing.

“Charlotte is unaffordable for the people who wash your car and who wait on your table,” Dawkins said. “What’s going to happen to city workers who don’t make a lot of money? We need to reframe to focus on the least among us.”

Despite spending $100 million for new low-cost apartments and homes, Charlotte has a shortage 34,000 affordable housing units needed to meet demand. That’s about double from a decade ago. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

But most city leaders have said that Housing Trust Fund money has been spent wisely, and that they have helped pay for apartments and other projects for people with extremely low incomes when they could.

Mayor Vi Lyles said it is counter productive to debate who is the most deserving of government aid.

Social workers, firefighters and other lower-paid professionals have been impacted by rising housing costs as well as custodians, daycare workers and others who make closer to minimum wage, Lyles said.

“When people start to parse out, ‘Well, who are you going to do this for? And who are you going to do (that) for?’ — sometimes I wonder if we’re really trying to create division instead of unity,” Lyles said. “And my goal is that everyone in this community should have a decent place to live.”

At the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, where starting officers make around $45,000 a year, officers have publicly complained about their ability to live in Charlotte on their salaries. Teachers, whose starting salaries are about $40,000 a year in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, protested on the State Capitol in May for better pay.

“The concern about 30 percent of area median income is a little overstated,” council member Ed Driggs said. “At 60 and 80 percent of area median income, rents are rising faster than incomes. We tried to take a broad spectrum approach.”

However, a city-hired consultant told the City Council last year that the largest deficit for affordable housing is for households with extremely low incomes. It marked the second time in five years that a consultant told Charlotte leaders that the private market generally provided enough housing affordable to people with higher incomes, according to a September 2017 Observer report.

Housing trust funds in many cities fail to deliver enough rental apartments and other housing for the poorest of the poor, said Michael Anderson, director of the Housing Trust Fund Project for the Center for Community Change, a social justice group that advocates for affordable housing.

Anderson said that doesn’t mean voters should not support Charlotte’s ballot proposal. Housing trust funds serve a need and create jobs in construction and home building, he said.

Some cities have enacted policies that ensure more money goes to the very poor, Anderson said.

“To expand its housing trust fund, Charlotte has got to get that right,” he said.

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Curtis Simpson said roaches swarmed the inside of his east Charlotte duplex after his neighbor was evicted. He said he is hesitant to have people come to his home because bugs may crawl on guests. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Out of reach

Even in Grier Heights — one of Charlotte’s most challenged neighborhoods with poverty, crime and unemployment — the duplexes where Simpson lives stand out.

Weeds, overgrown shrubbery and trash surround two rows of brick one-story buildings. A stench from dirty diapers and other garbage wafts through the air.

Records show city inspectors have investigated more than a dozen complaints at the duplex since 2016. The complaints included mold, broken sinks, faulty heating and electrical and inoperable smoke detectors.

Wooden boards cover windows and doors of one vacant building, but neighbors said drug dealers, prostitutes and squatters sometimes occupy empty units because the doors are not locked and windows are not secured.

City inspectors have investigated more than a dozen complaints since 2016 at the row of duplexes along Billingsley Road in east Charlotte. The owners are negotiating to sell the property, neighbors said. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Inside Simpson’s unit, he said, roaches swarmed the walls after his next-door neighbor was evicted.

When the plumbing fails, he said, the family has been forced to use water from a sink to fill the toilet. Other times, they put towels on the floor to soak up water when the toilet leaks.

Simpson said he has remained in the duplex for three years because he has nowhere else to go.

The family previously lived in a weekly motel on Albemarle Road in east Charlotte, paying $265 weekly. Six of them slept on one bed and a sofa.

So when he found the duplex on Billingsley Road, Simpson said, he felt lucky despite the foul odor and a hole in the kitchen floor. There was no credit history check and no questions asked, he said.

“When I came in here (the first time), I was like ‘Lord have mercy,’” he said, recalling the stench and damaged floors throughout the unit. “I said a little prayer...I pulled my shirt over my nose.”

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development says families in Charlotte whose incomes are less than 30 percent of area median can afford about $400 a month in rent and utilities.

That ensures they have enough left for food, medicine, clothing and other basic needs, the agency says.

But Charlotte has given money from the Housing Trust Fund to developers building rental housing that costs $750 to $1,300 a month.

That leaves out people like Simpson.

After taxes, he said, he brings home about $1,600 a month. Boone, his partner, said she suffers from diabetes and that multiple foot surgeries have left her unable to work at a daycare center, where she once made $11 an hour. Simpson said he also had surgery this year because he was diagnosed with polyps in his stomach.

Between medical bills, groceries, phone bills and other expenses, Boone said they often run out of money before all the bills are paid. “Something is not going to get paid,” Boone said. “It may be.... we get a little less food.”

Curtis Simpson said his family lived in a motel until they moved into a duplex in east Charlotte three years ago. Simpson said the conditions inside the home aggravate his son’s asthma, but he can’t move because of a lack of affordable housing in Charlotte. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

What other cities do

When Charlotte officials established the Housing Trust Fund in 2001, they worried that increasing housing costs could slow the city’s economic and population growth by forcing families with lower incomes to move to outlying towns and cities.

They vowed to help developers build affordable homes for police officers, teachers and other lower-paid professionals and the very poor, which included minimum-wage earners, the disabled and homeless.

But unlike some other cities, Charlotte does not set aside a large portion of Housing Trust Fund money for people who have extremely low incomes. Places such as Pittsburgh, Detroit and Philadelphia,\ have pledged that at least half of Housing Trust Fund money benefit their poorest residents.

A 2016 report from Pittsburgh leaders called those policies a national best practice.

Pamela Wideman, Charlotte’s director of housing and neighborhood services, said her goal is to pursue a more balanced approach.

Rent has jumped 36 percent in the past five years in Charlotte, climbing to a monthly average of $1,142, while wages have not kept pace.

As a result, Wideman said, the city has a responsibility to help as many people as possible.

The City Council earlier this year approved a new plan that calls for developers receiving public money to set aside 20 percent of units for the very poor when it is financially feasible, Wideman said.

“It’s about finding the right balance,” Wideman said. “If we find the right balance, it will lift all boats.”

But a national report found the Charlotte area has 34 units of available affordable housing for every 100 families with extremely low incomes. Metro Charlotte has more than enough housing for families with middle and high incomes, the report says.

Charlotte leaders are asking voters to approve $50 million in bonds for affordable housing over the next two years on November’s ballot. The Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force cited a shortage of affordable housing as a major reason a Harvard and UC-Berkeley study found poor children in Charlotte are less likely to escape poverty than their peers in America’s 50 largest cities. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Counting beds

Wideman told the City Council earlier this year that about half the money from the Housing Trust Fund supports projects that help people earning no more than 30 percent of area median income.

But that doesn’t mean people got permanent housing.

In 2004, for example, the city gave $192,000 from the Trust Fund to a renovation project at the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope homeless shelter for women. City officials then counted that as 114 units of affordable housing even though the shelter provides clients with only a temporary place to sleep.

Ten years later, the city provided the shelter another $500,000 for an expansion. Officials calculated that as 64 units of affordable housing.

In all, records show, city officials counted about 670 shelter beds and other transitional shelters as affordable housing units since they started using money from the Trust Fund 16 years ago.

Angie Forde, a longtime affordable housing activist, said city leaders are using those numbers to hide how few apartments the Housing Trust Fund provides to the very poor. Expanding the supply of housing affordable to people with extremely low incomes would reduce the need for homeless shelter beds, Forde said.

“What the city is doing is a cynical joke,” she said.

Wideman acknowledged that officials counted shelter beds as housing units.

In some cases, Wideman said, people remain in transitional housing for months or years instead of a few days.

A case study

A planned apartment complex near the old Charlotte Coliseum site on Tyvola Road is an example of the type of project the Charlotte City Council has supported financially.

The Charlotte City Council agreed to provide $5.6 million to help a developer build affordable housing along West Tyvola Road near the old Charlotte Coliseum site. Google Street View

Laurel Street Residential, a Charlotte-based developer, bought 11.6 acres from the city last year, according to a March 2017 report from the Observer. In September, the Charlotte City Council agreed to provide the developer money from the Housing Trust Fund.

When complete, the developer and city officials say, it will bring 200 new units for people with lower incomes. But most people who need low-cost housing cannot afford the apartments even though taxpayers are providing more than $5 million to help build them.

Interviews and a review of city documents found:

Of the 200 units, none are priced to be affordable to people making 30 percent of area median income or less. The lowest-priced units — 80 of them targeted to senior citizens with low incomes — would rent for $700 to $800 a month.

Some 120 of the proposed apartments will rent for $850 to $1,300 a month. That’s roughly the same price range as some other nearby apartment complexes that did not receive taxpayer dollars.

In the Yorkmount neighborhood, near the development, rent averages between $795 and $1,181 a month, depending on the number of bedrooms, according to RentCafe, a website that tracks rent prices.

Lee Cochran, senior vice president for Laurel Street, said his company used the CityPark View housing complex across the street from the planned development as a comparison for prices. CityPark View, which advertises luxury apartments, a swimming pool and fitness center, is renting one and two-bedroom apartments for $1,042 to $1,343 a month, according to Zillow, a real estate tracking website.

“It’s a wasted opportunity,” said Terry Allebaugh, community impact coordinator for the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness. “What have you really done? Is that the best use of public dollars?”

Asked why there wasn’t a bigger difference in the prices between proposed homes and nearby apartments, Cochran said subsidies from the Housing Trust Fund will keep many of the units in his company’s development affordable into the future even as rents rise at other places.

Laurel Street agreed to deed restrictions that mean the company must offer affordable rents on units for at least 15 years, Cochran said.

But the agreement for the project guarantees affordability for a far shorter period than other projects awarded Housing Trust Fund money.

Deed restrictions for similar projects historically call for affordable rents to remain in place for 30 or 40 years, affordable housing advocates said.

And Cochran said 59 units in the West Tyvola development will have unrestricted deeds, meaning that the developer can set rents at private market rates.

Still, council member Braxton Winston said the West Tyvola apartments deserved public support because they provide homes for seniors, a growing segment of the city’s population.

“We are sometimes forced to ask ourselves, ‘What will be built there if we don’t try to bring some sort of affordability to this area?’” said Winston, who was elected last November.

A new home?

Curtis Simpson and his neighbors may have to move from their homes. They said the landlord has put the property up for sale.

One resident complained about the roaches in his unit, snakes that come in the yard and other problems, but said he is afraid he will find nothing else in Charlotte he can afford.

Simpson is in the same predicament.

Just in May, he was two months behind in rent when the landlord started eviction proceedings.

Simpson said he took $1,400 from his 401(k) retirement account to pay a portion. The family got $1,000 from Crisis Assistance Ministry, a Charlotte nonprofit that helps families avoid eviction, to pay the remainder of the balance.

Now, he said he heard the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, a non-profit affordable housing builder, is going to help him and other tenants find new homes.

Housing Partnership Executive Director Julie Porter refused comment, saying she did not want to jeopardize her agency’s negotiations to buy the property from its owners.

Simpson said the stakes are high for him and his family.

“I don’t want my family in the streets,” he said.

Fred Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027; @fred_ckelly