Closing the gap for affordable housing in our community is possible, but requires a courageous and coordinated approach by both the public and private sectors. Unfortunately, recent actions by the city and county have taxpayers questioning the lack of strategy and commitment of our elected officials regarding this critical issue.
Recently, the city and county approved projects with private developers that included residential units, but did not require any affordable units. The projects presented our elected officials with golden opportunities to include affordable units within walking distance of public transit, recreational amenities and jobs. In the future, our elected officials must commit to finding creative ways to ensure that our tax dollars are leveraged to secure at least 10 percent affordable housing in all residential projects that receive subsidies. That would help fill the huge demand for affordable units.
Like many in Charlotte, my commute to work, the grocery or the Y does not take me by neighborhoods with shelters, sub-standard or overcrowded housing. But virtually all of us interact with people every day who are experiencing these conditions or are forced to choose among basic needs, because they are paying up to 80 percent of their income for housing. While many in our city enjoy the benefits of living in a thriving community, the ugly truth is that those who care for our children in day care, our loved ones in the nursing home or provide us a sandwich at lunch time likely make less than 30 percent of the Area Median Income, which in Charlotte-Mecklenburg means they earn less than $24,300 a year. For those workers, there is a shortage of 49,990 units in the Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia MSA.
While we most often think of the benefits to the affordable housing tenant, researchers like Dr. Robert Putnam, who included Charlotte in his research 20 years ago, have found that mixed income housing enriches the lives of all residents, regardless of income status. For low-income residents, the impact can be life changing because the proximity to wealthier neighborhoods builds social capital by providing access to information, formal and informal relationships, referral networks and much more. In fact, with the exception of family structure and education, a community’s level of “social capital” is the most important factor in predicting an individual’s ability to attain upward mobility – a serious challenge for Charlotte made clear in Dr. Raj Chetty’s 2013 research, which ranked Charlotte 50th out of 50 large cities around the country in upward mobility.
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Where there is access and inclusion, there is trust. Our community must be using all its resources to engender trust if we are to address the systemic issues which were made so clear during the unrest of September. It is time we stepped up as a community – public and private together – to maximize every opportunity to increase affordable housing. Charlotte has shown again and again that it has the collective capacity for change. Let’s step up and meet this challenge together.
Mike Rizer is head of community relations for Wells Fargo and chaired the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Advisory Board from 2010-2014.