Affordable Housing Crisis Reaches a Tipping Point in Charlotte, N.C.
After experiencing explosive growth in recent years, the city is tripling its spending to address the shortage of lower-income units.
Charlotte has a housing problem.
The largest city in North Carolina, home to a growing financial sector, is short 34,000 affordable housing units to meet demand, according to a city report released in late 2016.
With those challenges in mind, Charlotte has embarked on a comprehensive approach to create more affordable housing. Last fall, the city more than tripled the amount of money it asked residents to approve in bond funding for the city’s housing trust fund.
Typically, Charlotte has gone to residents every two years and asked for support in the form of $15 million in bond funding. But in 2018, Charlotte asked for and received voter approval for $50 million in bond funding.
The city will use some of its additional bond money to acquire property adjacent to transit and commercial centers, pair the housing trust fund dollars with federal Community Development Block Grant funds to create mixed-income housing, expand the development of rental housing through Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, and ensure that publicly funded developments set aside at least 20 percent of units for families earning less than 30 percent of the area’s median income.
Since the housing fund was created in 2001, the city has pumped more than $136 million into the construction of low-income housing through grants offered to developers to build the units. Across the city, more than 7,000 units have been built and rehabilitated since the fund was launched. More than 3,000 of those units are affordable to families earning less than 30 percent of the area’s median household income, or $22,250 per year.
The Tipping Point
Two events in recent years added a sense of urgency to the city's housing crisis.
The first was the 2014 release of a national report that ranked Charlotte dead last among the nation’s 50 largest cities in terms of economic mobility. According to the report, which was released jointly by Harvard University and the University of California, children who were born poor in Charlotte had less of a chance to escape their economic conditions than did children in cities such as Detroit, Milwaukee and New Orleans, where the poverty rates are more than twice as high.
Then in 2016, Charlotte police officers shot and killed an African-American man named Keith Lamont Scott; video footage of the shooting sparked days of protests across the city.
Pamela Wideman, director of housing and neighborhood services for the city of Charlotte, says the shooting and the economic mobility report were a tipping point. Together, the two events prompted officials to look at how poor residents, especially poor black residents, could be better integrated into Charlotte's economic growth.
The city and its surrounding county formed the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Opportunity Task Force. The work of the task force culminated with a report released last summer, which called for a new, more multipronged approach to increasing affordable housing.
The city has attracted more than 100,000 new households since 2000, notes the report, titled "Housing Charlotte." That's led to a housing crunch, and the increase in housing costs has outpaced increases in wages.
"While significant progress has been made over the past decade to increase the supply of affordable housing in Charlotte, the reality is that housing is becoming less affordable," the report concluded.
'Put a Face on Affordable Housing'
“We never want to concentrate the affordable housing in one area,” Wideman says. “What we should always do is create mixed-income neighborhoods.”
That's not always a welcome proposition. Cities can encounter pushback when they try to diversify the mix of housing options. That's why Charlotte has focused on humanizing the need for affordable housing.
"We are trying to serve people that come to work every day, our hospitality workers, our teachers, our firefighters, our police officers," Mayor Vi Lyles said last month in announcing a partnership between the city and Bank of America and other financial institutions to provide low-interest loans for approved people to rent or buy a home. "We're growing, and what we are trying to grow are neighborhoods, good families, good housing -- whether you choose to rent or to buy," said Lyles.
City planning documents have also consistently focused on the need for housing options for teachers, firefighters and other lower-income residents.
“I think there will always be NIMBYism" from residents who don't want affordable housing options in their neighborhood, says Wideman. "One of the strategies is to put a face on affordable housing and change the way people talk about it. This is housing for the entry-level teacher or the entry-level public employee.”