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What do Charlotte homeowners owe from our 'nests on high'?

A home for sale along Hillside Avenue in Charlotte, where prices keep rising fast.
A home for sale along Hillside Avenue in Charlotte, where prices keep rising fast.

Eons ago, the prophet Habakkuk saw an impending invasion of his nation and the hardship it would bring, especially to his most vulnerable neighbors.

“Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain to set his nest on high, to escape the clutches of the ruin,” Habakkuk warned.

As our city tries to solve its 34,000-unit affordable housing gap, I’ve been thinking about the prophet’s words and whether I might be one of those people who built a “nest on high.”

Twenty-eight years ago, my wife and I scraped together every dollar we had to make a $4,500 down payment on an outdated, 2-bedroom bungalow wrapped in sun-faded aluminum siding in a transitional neighborhood. Since then, as children came and life’s needs arose, we’ve moved from home to home, but all within Charlotte’s comfortable southeast “wedge” of neighborhoods.

Not all of our city’s residents have been as fortunate. For instance, those forced out of the old, African-American Brooklyn neighborhood uptown during the urban renewal movement in the 1960s. Many scrambled to find affordable housing in nearby working-class neighborhoods such as Biddleville and Smallwood near Johnson C. Smith University or Enderly Park off Freedom Drive.

Now, history is repeating itself for the grandsons and granddaughters of those Brooklyn exiles. Demand for “first-ring” neighborhoods close to uptown is driving property values up and poorer neighbors out. With our affordable housing shortage, where will they go?

For families like mine, owning a home has been as sure and steady as a good bond or stock. Our initial down payment on that first bungalow has appreciated nicely along with housing values overall in Charlotte, which have averaged 6 percent growth per year, according the respected Case-Schiller Housing index.

It may sound harsh to some to say Charlotte has been invaded, as in the prophet Habakkuk’s time. No foreign power has taken over our city. But economic powers have taken hold. Our most vulnerable neighbors lie in their path while others ride a wave of home value appreciation. Today, Charlotte is the fourth hottest housing market in the nation, according to the real estate website Zillow. More good news for home owners.

There is nothing immoral or unethical about the wealth that comes from rising home equity values. It may not qualify for what Habakkuk calls “unjust gain.” But many of us live comfortably in “nests on high” while waves of newcomers, estimated at 40-60 a day, storm into town and low-income and working people are pushed out and out and out.

Come November, we will be asked to vote on a $50 million bond referendum to help close the city’s affordable housing gap. If it passes, it’s important we think carefully about how those funds will be used, especially for those at 50 percent and 30 percent of area median income.

Even $50 million won’t be enough. So the Foundation for the Carolinas and others are calling for the private sector and philanthropists to create additional pools of funding to house those with the lowest incomes.

In his times of crisis, old Habakkuk made a vow.

“I will take my place on a high wall and stand watch for the Lord,” he said.

As newcomers stream into our city and events like the Republican National Convention bring promised millions, let’s do as Habakkuk advises. Let’s take a place on the rampart and stand watch on behalf of the voiceless and the vulnerable.

How about the creation of the Habakkuk Housing Fund dedicated for housing from the increased home equity many of us have enjoyed along with the profits we rake in through a growing tax base and big conventions? I’ll make the first donation.

Who’s in?

Rev. John Cleghorn is pastor of Caldwell Presbyterian Church.

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