Wanted: A place to build affordable housing
Currently only about 200 new affordable housing units are being built each year in Charlotte, and city officials say that's not enough. So the City Council is looking at a way to speed things up by revising the policy that limits where affordable housing can be built. Dozens of neighborhoods that are currently off-limits to new affordable housing would be back in play if the revised policy is approved. It does away with the rule that says new subsidized housing projects can't be built within half a mile of each other. Instead, any neighborhood the city considers to be "stable" would be eligible for new affordable housing, regardless of what's nearby. About half of Charlotte's 173 neighborhoods are "stable," according to a city survey of crime, unemployment and other factors. Look for those neighborhoods mostly out around I-485 and in a wide swath through south Charlotte. The proposed changes are still preliminary and several members of the City Council's housing subcommittee say they want to keep the half mile rule in place, or even expand it. Residents of the Ayrsley neighborhood in southwest Charlotte are sure to speak out. A piece of property their developer promised to turn into a community area is now being considered for subsidized housing. But there's already a low-income development less than half a mile away. Charlotte's "Housing Locational Policy" was last revised in 2001 and is meant to spread low-income housing throughout the community. But city officials say not enough affordable housing is being built and they hope revising the locational policy will help. City staffer Stan Wilson colored the city's "stable" neighborhoods green on the map he showed a city council committee this week. "This is where we want new subsidized housing to be built," he told the committee. Councilman Michael Barnes had immediate concerns. "How do we communicate a message to the community that we are interested in helping them maintain the 'stability' label at the same time that we introduce additional assisted housing into the community?" Barnes asked. "Better education" was Wilson's reply. Community opposition has always been a barrier to building affordable housing. People equate it with rundown, crime-ridden projects and they recoil. "It'll ruin our property values," they say. "It'll bring a bad element into our neighborhoods." That kind of reaction recently helped sideline a project in Ballantyne. Yesterday, the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association and several advocacy groups organized a bus tour to show a different side of subsidized housing - specifically mixed income housing which is the approach the Charlotte Housing Authority and many private developers are currently taking. About a hundred developers, realtors, city officials and neighborhood activists joined the tour, including Vincent Frisina with Windsor Park Neighbors. "A lot of people are talking about NIMBY - 'Not In My Back Yard,'" says Frisina. "We're talking about AMBY - Already in My Back Yard." Windsor Park is near Eastland Mall. Despite the city's efforts to spread subsidized housing throughout the community, Frisina believes too much has been allowed to cluster in east and west Charlotte. The city considers Windsor Park a "transitioning" neighborhood, not a "stable" one. So the proposed policy changes may actually do more to funnel new subsidized housing developments elsewhere - like South Park, which is the first stop on our bus tour. Ashley Square is a far cry from the subsidized housing stereotype. It's brand new. There's a calming wall of trickling water in the marble-floored lobby. The pool area is straight out of a travel magazine. Two-bedroom apartments at Ashely Square rent for around $1,500, unless you qualify for one of the 36 apartments subsidized by the government. Then you pay just a few hundred dollars a month for the identical apartment, depending on your income. Developers and community leaders believe fewer people would oppose subsidized housing if they could visit a place like Ashley Square. But there are significant barriers to getting this kind of place built, and believe it or not, public opposition isn't the biggest one. It's financing, says Jim Simpson, a developer with Wood Partners. He's also the volunteer chairman of the nonprofit Housing Partnership board. Simpson says private developers can't afford to build apartments and offer them at affordable rents unless they get government subsidies. "It's just that there's only a limited amount of (subsidy)," explains Simpson. And competition between public and private developers is stiff. That's a problem the city council won't solve by making changes to the locational policy. But there is a perk in the new proposal to encourage developers to convert existing apartments into subsidized housing. Projects like that tend to be less expensive, giving the city more affordable housing for its money. Under the new policy, a conversion project wouldn't have to stick just to stable neighborhoods. It could be done in any neighborhood, no matter how much low-income housing is already there. That approach could produce big results - and big opposition. All summer long the city council will hold public meetings on the proposed policy before making a final decision in September.