Charlotte must tackle its real housing problem

The Observer editorial board

Charlotte needs more apartment units for very low-income folks, not those with higher incomes.
Charlotte needs more apartment units for very low-income folks, not those with higher incomes. File photo

Charlotte is poised to spend nearly $21 million on something its own research shows is not needed.

City Council members, with city staff at their back, are barreling toward a Sept. 25 vote on spending $20.8 million on affordable housing. That sounds noble, except that 97.5 percent of it will go toward housing of which we already have a surplus. Just 2.5 percent of it will go toward the city’s most pressing housing need – apartments for those who make about $17,000 or less per year.

The city’s recently heightened focus on affordable housing is heartening. Council members sent a letter to the community last October pledging to make it a priority. Momentum is building to put more money in the city’s Housing Trust Fund. Council member Ed Driggs came up with a creative idea (that the council, alas, rejected) for freeing up a large amount of money for it. And the council is pushing hard to meet its goal of building 5,000 affordable units in three years.

Such attention is desperately needed. Charlotte is growing rapidly, but so are its rents and housing prices, and low-income people are spending huge portions of their income on housing.

Given the immensity of the challenge, though, it’s crucial that every dollar be spent strategically. A City Council meeting this week raised serious questions about whether the city is doing so.

“Affordable housing” is a broad term. A consultant with Enterprise Community Partners, which is working with the city, displayed a chart showing where the need lies. Though the chart misleadingly lumped data together, with some dissection it revealed interesting facts. It showed that the city needs more than 21,000 additional units for renters who make 30 percent or less than the area median income, known as AMI. Those people make about $17,000 or less. It also showed that the city has a huge surplus of units (almost 52,000) for those making between 50 percent and 80 percent of median income, or about $28,000 to $45,000 per year.

Yet city staff is asking council members to approve $20.8 million in grants from the Housing Trust Fund primarily for the higher end of that scale where there is a surplus. The five developments would provide 769 “affordable” units, but 25 percent of those would be for renters making 60 to 120 percent of AMI. Two-thirds would be for renters making 51 to 60 percent of AMI. Only five percent would be for renters making 31-50 percent of AMI and only 2.5 percent below that.

City government should step in where the private market fails. Instead, it is stepping in where the market is already working.

We understand why the city is reluctant to tackle the poorer end of the housing scale. It’s extremely difficult to make the dollars add up for developers, and most people would fight that housing coming to their neighborhood anyway.

That doesn’t make the problem go away. If the City Council truly wants to address Charlotte’s affordable housing challenge, it needs to recognize what that problem really is and wrestle with it, not treat it as something it isn’t.