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Wake up on affordable housing, Charlotte employers

A city report says Charlotte needs about 34,000 units of affordable housing to meet demand. The shortage has grown more severe as rents have risen during the last five years, housing advocates say.
A city report says Charlotte needs about 34,000 units of affordable housing to meet demand. The shortage has grown more severe as rents have risen during the last five years, housing advocates say. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Crescent Communities donated land for 124 affordable housing units in west Charlotte. Charlotteans have said yes to a bond that will infuse $50 million into the Housing Trust Fund, and Foundation for the Carolinas is challenging the private sector to match it with $50 million in cash, land or assets. Covenant Presbyterian Church is investing $2 million in affordable housing and others in the faith community are getting involved, too.

These are wonderful first steps. They are not nearly enough.

Charlotte employers, it’s time to wake up. You’re experiencing serious employee turnover among your support staff and it’s affecting your business, bottom line and ability to serve customers. The turnover is largely caused by the city’s affordable housing crisis. That’s why affordable housing is your problem.

Charlotte’s lack of affordable housing means that many service employees must move to surrounding counties for a place they can afford. Their housing costs drop, but their transportation costs rise to get to and from work in Charlotte. For lower-wage workers, operating and maintaining a reliable automobile eats up any savings realized from living outside the city and may not leave enough money for medicine and other necessities.

Our city desperately requires from 24,000 to 34,000 affordable housing units, depending on how you define “affordable.” There is precedent for employers getting involved in affordable housing, dating to Henry Ford, who built housing for his workforce. We can refine old models to succeed today.

Large companies, including financial institutions, often own land for expansion around their facilities. They can enter into land-lease arrangements with non-profit developers to build affordable housing for employees. This partnership removes the challenge of land costs — typically 35 percent of the cost of construction — and makes it easier to build apartments at affordable rates. Deed restrictions would keep the rent affordable. The employer would not own the housing, preventing the problems that arose when textile mills built employee housing.

The idea also works for non-profit employers. Atrium Health could build housing around medical practices or hospitals for nurses and other workers. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools could create housing for teachers and custodial staff on land around schools.

Leaders of smaller companies share in the responsibility. When a zoning ordinance for affordable housing comes before Charlotte City Council, express your support on behalf of your workforce. Take a positive stand if the housing is near your workplace or home.

Some argue that boosting wages is the answer. Basic economics suggests otherwise. The cost of rising wages is passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices for goods and services. Higher prices affect everyone, including the employees you’re trying to help.

If you don’t think affordable housing is your concern as an employer, ask your employees. Find out how they are dealing with housing and transportation costs. I guarantee you will hear stories of struggle from some of the workers you most value.

Perhaps that will be enough to help you see affordable housing is not just the city’s problem, the faith community’s problem, the non-profit sector’s problem. It’s your problem, and you have the power to find solutions.

Davis is CEO of Community Link, a Charlotte nonprofit that works for safe, decent and affordable housing. Reach him at fdavis@communitylinknc.org
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