Politics & Government

Advocates say they haven’t had a voice in affordable housing deals as promised

Charlotte housing advocates say the city is not honoring its promise to involve the community when deciding how to spend millions of public money on affordable housing projects.

City council is set to vote Monday to approve $12.8 million from the city’s Housing Trust Fund for eight affordable housing projects with a combined 950 units.

Advocates say officials have not adequately involved housing and homelessness groups in their decisions to recommend projects using trust fund dollars, violating agreements set out in the city’s housing framework document.

“The community input has been a dog and pony show,” said Robert Dawkins, of the social justice group Action NC.

The framework, which provides guidance on how to address and direct resources toward affordable housing, states the city will “implement a process improvement to inform and seek community input on bond-funded housing support requests, specifically including those who advocate for or are personally impacted by displacement and homelessness.”

Voters in November approved $50 million in bond revenue for the housing trust fund.

Bob Simmons, executive director for Council for Children’s Rights and a member of the advocacy group OneMECK’s affordable housing committee, said the city has not upheld its promise for substantive community involvement made while campaigning for the $50 million bond issue.

“No meaningful change in the inequity of opportunity in our community, including deficits of housing access and housing stability, will occur unless and until the status quo of power and wealth in our community has the humility to hear the voices of the people adversely affected on their own terms,” he wrote in an email to housing advocates and city officials this week.

The eight recommended projects council will vote on Monday use money from the trust fund, as well as contributions from the private Charlotte Housing Opportunity Investment Fund, city-owned land, and other incentives.

“I think the big misunderstanding is there is some belief that grassroots individuals are going to be able to vet or vote on deals,” said Pam Wideman, Charlotte’s housing and neighborhood services director. “That was never promised and that is never going to happen.”

Among the reasons why, she said, was that considering such deals includes private financial information from developers.

Rather, Wideman said, the framework added an “extra step” to hold meetings community groups and advocates to provide information about the process to consider deals.

One meeting was held in late June, before details on the recommended projects were made public. A second meeting was scheduled for Thursday to cover specifics of the deals.

“The city has honored its process,” Wideman said.

Judy Seldin-Cohen, a volunteer organizer with the Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice, said she believes the framework is explicit in its call for more direct involvement.

“The language says that the community specifically, the advocacy community and those directly affected will have the opportunity to weigh in on the individual bond requests,” she said.

Dawkins said he takes issue with the process, rather than the quality of deals, which he said include many elements pushed for by housing advocates. But holding a meeting just days before council votes doesn’t leave time for substantial conversation, he said.

“If we don’t fight on it now, how do we make sure if the deals aren’t good next time, that the community input is there?” he said.

Developers seeking housing trust fund money are already required to host a public meeting in the neighborhood of the proposed development, Wideman said, and the July 8 meeting when recommended deals were presented to council was open to the public.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say they didn’t know or had no opportunity (for involvement),” she said.

The framework also states LISC Charlotte, the nonprofit hired by the city to help vet deals that use housing trust fund money, will create a local advisory council for community participation.

Ralphine Caldwell, executive director of LISC Charlotte, said her organization’s grassroots committee is not designed to vet deals but rather provide input on a variety of housing and other economic issues to get on-the-ground feedback from across the city.

She refused to provide a list of those invited to join the committee, saying the group was still being finalized, but described it as 25-30 people with a range of expertise, neighborhood and demographic backgrounds.

Caldwell said the group is expected to meet for the first time in mid-August.

This work was made possible in part by grant funding from Report for America/GroundTruth Project and the Foundation For The Carolinas.

Lauren Lindstrom is a reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering affordable housing. She previously covered health for The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, where she wrote about the state’s opioid crisis and childhood lead poisoning. Lauren is a Wisconsin native, a Northwestern University graduate and a 2019 Report for America corps member.
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