There are two Charlottes. This is clearer to me now after the events of 2016 and my summer interning with the Urban Ministry Center. By day I was working with and connecting to a population in Charlotte that experiences poverty and homelessness. By night I lived in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Charlotte, not having to choose between food and health care or worrying if I would have a place to sleep.
I witnessed a divide in my city that manifested itself in the protests following the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. They demonstrated that racial divisions and economic disparities are paralyzing Charlotte, something I observed at the Urban Ministry Center as well. These lines have also physically divided our city as Charlotte is increasingly segregated by race and income.
Driving to work each morning I found that only two miles separate entirely different worlds. I started my drive watching a woman leisurely walking her dog and then just seven minutes later witnessed a man walking because he had nowhere else to go.
The other side of Charlotte is often misunderstood by the majority of people. It is a world in which you can work incredibly hard and still struggle to keep your head above water, a world that most were born into, not one they failed their way into, and a world that is nearly impossible to escape because broken policies perpetuate its existence rather than giving its residents equal opportunities.
When a community is ignored, there should be no surprise when frustrations reach a tipping point. In 2017, we need to create policies that work for everyone, including the marginalized and neglected. Policies that make the minimum wage a livable wage and keep housing options affordable in a rapidly growing city.
I worked with one man who has been paid only the minimum wage his entire life. He is single with no children, yet he has struggled to live off a minimum wage in Charlotte. In fact, the North Carolina Justice Center has determined the minimum annual income level for a family of three to afford basic necessities in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is $46,680. For a family of three to make this much on a minimum wage, both adults would need to each work 60 hours every week of the year.
Stagnant wages have made it difficult for working people to afford housing even as Charlotte continues its housing boom, increasing the average rent in Charlotte to $1000 a month. I also worked with a woman who, despite having a job, was unable to find affordable housing, a common issue for the working poor. According to many reports, Charlotte needs about 34,000 additional affordable housing units.
This past year exposed Charlotte’s imperfections, and it is easy to be discouraged by the gravity of the issues we face. But the dream of a better, united Charlotte is worth working for.
We need Charlotte lawmakers to recognize these issues and start working to bridge the gap between our two cities. They can start by turning their attention towards the side that has been neglected by public policy for too long. They should consider policies such as raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to a living wage of $10 an hour and implementing a more aggressive incentive program to encourage participation in Charlotte’s Voluntary Mixed-Income Housing program, a seldom used program that encourages developers to include a small percentage of low-income housing among market rate housing in new developments.
I want Charlotte to be a city that gives everyone the opportunity to live a decent life. That starts with our public officials addressing our housing, our schools and wages. And as individuals it compels us to be more engaged in the process of change.
Duncan Richey is a sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in Public Policy.