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Mecklenburg County is in dire need of more affordable housing, county report finds


The cost of housing in Mecklenburg County has continued to rise in recent years as the number of affordable units has dwindled, all while more people are struggling to make rent.

That's according to the 2021 Housing Instability and Homelessness report published Thursday from Mecklenburg County and UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute.

The report is conducted annually, and is meant to provide a comprehensive look at the state of housing and homelessness in Mecklenburg County, and help county leaders determine where to allocate funding and other resources.

This year's 126-page report painted a dire picture of the county's housing supply, laying out in detail how renters are being increasingly squeezed by rising rents, all while more people are moving into the county, driving up demand and prices for houses and rental units.

UNC Charlotte researcher Bridget Anderson, who helped write the report, said local officials should be particularly concerned by the dramatic decline of low-cost units renting for less than $800.

The report found those low-cost units fell from about 66,067 in 2011 to about 41,114 in 2019 — amounting to a loss of roughly 25,000 units. Altogether, the share of units in the market renting for less than $800 dropped from a 45% in 2011 to 22% in 2019.

Meanwhile, the report found the county's median monthly rent rose from $1,070 in 2015 to about $1,191 in 2019 — an increase of about $120.

Researchers also found that fewer residents with low-to-moderate incomes own homes compared with past years. According to the report, the percent of homes owned by households earning less than $75,000 dropped from 55% in 2010 to 41% in 2019.

Also, the report confirmed that homelessness is on the rise in Mecklenburg County, and people who become homeless are staying in emergency shelters longer.

'There's just not enough housing'

At the root of the problem, the researchers said, is a limited housing supply that isn't keeping pace with the county's booming population.

"We've got this growing population that's coming to Charlotte, and the housing stock isn't really keeping up," Anderson said,

That's allowed many landlords to steadily raise rents on their properties, while people interested in buying homes often have to compete with multiple other buyers for the same homes, leading to bidding wars.

"You may have had a unit 10 years ago that was renting for $600 a month, but that same unit, even without any improvements, is now able to rent for $800, $900, even $1,000 a month because the demand for housing is so high," Anderson said.

In addition, many older homes and properties that were once affordable have been redeveloped over the years, increasing their value. Rising property taxes may have also have led landlords to raise rents on tenants.

Researcher Courtney LaCaria with Mecklenburg County's Community Support Services said she believed the limited housing supply remained the biggest factor driving the affordable housing crisis.

"There's just not enough housing altogether, and then there's not enough housing at the lowest price points," she said, "and that puts pressure especially on households who have the least amount of income. They have way less options to pick from."

Potential effects of the housing crisis

Staff with the county's homeless services division have said the lack of affordable housing has contributed to the rise in homelessness in Mecklenburg County. Karen Pelletier with the county's Community Support Services has also said the housing crisis has led to an increase in the length of time people are spending in homeless shelters because there are fewer affordable units available for them to move into.

Researchers said the housing crisis is also affecting the lives of people who still have homes, but may be struggling financially. For example, a child in an unstable housing situation may have trouble focusing or performing well in school, and adults who are worried about making rent may experience high, unhealthy levels of stress.

"It affects your mental health, your physical health, your relational health, and those are all important things to be able to function well in society," Anderson said. "If you don't have housing, you really don't have that foundational baseline that you need to maintain good health."

Anderson and LaCaria say city and county leaders will need to focus on creating more housing in Mecklenburg County, especially for low earners, to help solve the housing crisis, and they'll need the help from many other public and private groups to get there.

"It can't just fall on the city. It can't just fall on the county. It can't just fall on the public sector or the private sector," LaCaria said. "It requires everyone at the table and invested in the solution for us to make any dent at all."

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal