We’re housing the chronically homeless. Why is workforce housing so hard?

The Observer editorial board

The old Silver Oaks Apartments on Monroe Road, which housed low-income families, were torn down to make way for the new Meridian Place development.
The old Silver Oaks Apartments on Monroe Road, which housed low-income families, were torn down to make way for the new Meridian Place development. The Charlotte Observer

When it comes to housing Charlotte’s chronically homeless, local leaders have attacked the problem with admirable gusto.

Housing First Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a public-private coalition with the bold goal of ending chronic homelessness by the end of this year, appears poised to finish the job in 2018. Its leaders last week celebrated an expansion of the nationally recognized Moore Place complex, even as they unveiled a new $12 million, 120-unit complex for west Charlotte.

Such momentum is absent, however, in the broader affordable housing fight that includes families who aren’t homeless, but nevertheless can’t afford Charlotte’s fast-rising housing costs.

For those folks, Charlotte’s affordable housing supply runs far behind demand. The city says we need 34,000 more housing units that meet its working definition of affordability – that is, affordable for families making at or below 60 percent of the county’s median income, or $40,200 for a family of four.

City leaders are struggling to keep the working poor from getting left behind in an increasingly upscale housing market.

From a $60 million affordable housing bond to federal low-income housing tax credits to a mostly untouched “density bonus” program for real estate developers, they are striving to dent a problem that threatens to keep growing right along with Charlotte’s population.

While they lack explicit legal authority from the state to enact the kind of mandatory inclusionary zoning programs other large cities use to ensure affordable housing gets built, our local leaders must find new ways to attack this problem.

They can make affordable housing a condition of the sale of government-owned land, as Mecklenburg County did last week in striking a deal with private developers on the Brooklyn Village project in Second Ward.

But in that case, as in others, developers strive to keep affordable units at a minimum. They need to make money, and in Charlotte’s thriving market, such units eat into profits.

From their perspective, it’s just not affordable to build affordable housing.

The city is continuing to look for answers, but it’s clear more aggressive solutions are needed. Like inclusionary zoning, General Assembly approval could be needed for other local measures like tax breaks tied to affordable units.

That’s a tough political sale, given the simmering HB2 feud between GOP lawmakers and the city. Still, we can’t just keep building new upscale apartments and knocking down the older ones our school bus drivers and grocery store cashiers depend on.

We must try harder.

“There’s a lot of conversations that you would think would be common sense to have, but they’re not happening,” City Council member LaWana Mayfield told the editorial board recently.

This community is housing hundreds of citizens who have spent years on the streets.

Surely it can find new ways to accommodate the thousands more who simply need a rent or mortgage that they can afford.