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Report Finds Affordable Housing Disappearing, Homelessness Rising In Charlotte

Despite years of public and private efforts, the number of affordable housing units is continuing to decline in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, even as the need grows. That's among the themes in Mecklenburg County's annual State of Housing Instability and Homelessness Report. The report also notes an increase in homelessness and says the COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse.

The report is based on 2018 Census data and more recent local information. It paints a picture of an affordable housing crisis that is not improving, said Mecklenburg County housing researcher Courtney LaCaria.    

"We're losing ground. And the need is growing. And there's a need for more permanent affordable housing, especially for households who earn the least. And that need was there yesterday. It's going to be there today. And it's going to increase tomorrow," LaCaria said.

Affordable Housing Gap 

The report estimates a shortage of 44,572 rental units for people making less than 50% of the area median income, or $39,500 a year for a family of four. That's up almost 1,500 units from last year's report.  

More than half of that gap, or about 23,060 units, is for rentals deemed affordable to the county's poorest residents — those making less than 30% of AMI, or $23,700 a year for a family of four.

The percentage of Mecklenburg County rental units charging less than $800 a month has fallen by half since 2010, from 51% to  25% of all rentals, adjusted for inflation.
Credit 2020 State of Housing Insecurity & Homelessness report / Mecklenburg County
Mecklenburg County
The percentage of Mecklenburg County rental units charging less than $800 a month has fallen by half since 2010, from 51% to 25% of all rentals, adjusted for inflation.

Looked at another way, affordable housing is now a much smaller portion of all rentals in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, said Bridget Anderson of UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute, the report's lead author. 

"Not only is there a shortage, but that shortage is actually increasing. So in 2010, 51% of rental units were considered low cost. And in the eight years since, that low-cost rental stock has shrunk to 25%," Anderson said.

The decline reflects both construction of new luxury units as well as the loss of existing affordable units. And that loss of what's called "naturally occurring affordable housing" has pushed up the area's average rent to more than $1,200 a month. 

"So the result is that more renter households are paying more than they can afford for housing, and some end up in a homeless situation as a result," Anderson said. 

Cost-Burdened Households 

In fact, 44% of renter households in the county were "cost-burdened" in 2018. That's defined as paying more than 30% of their incomes for housing. Many were "severely cost-burdened." About 20% paid more than 50% of their income for housing.  

The number of cost-burdened renter households grew from 78,862 in 2017 to 81,611 in 2018, the most recent data available. 

A majority of these households are African American or Latino, groups that also have been more likely than others to lose jobs or income amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Anderson's research found that more than 55% of Black and Latino households reported a loss of employment income in the first two months of the pandemic, compared with 43% of white households. 

Homelessness On The Rise 

The report also says Mecklenburg County’s homeless population grew to 3,111 people this June, about 1,000 more than a year ago. That's according to the county's Homeless Management Information System, which tracks by name everyone who seeks services related to homelessness.

Of those, 508 people are considered chronically homeless. 

"So there's a small portion that ends up in shelters or on the streets," Anderson said. "But most of those who are experiencing homelessness are doing so outside of the public view. They might be staying with family or friends, or temporarily in hotels or motels." 

COVID-19 May Have Lasting Effect 

Most of the county's housing problems have been around since long before the coronavirus, but LaCaria said the pandemic has made things worse. 

"It's possible that the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is going to result in a higher number of people experiencing housing instability and homelessness," she said. "It's brought a new sense of urgency to the need to both help house everyone, but also because it's important to protect public health."

But there could be a silver lining here. The pandemic has brought an influx of new emergency funding. Federal, state and local money has helped move some homeless residents into temporary housing in hotels and motels to allow for quarantining and social distancing at shelters. 

The question, said LaCaria, is "how can the community leverage the current challenge into an opportunity for long-term recovery?" 

LaCaria said in some other states, temporary shelters are being turned into permanent housing. That's what happened in California, where the legislature approved spending $550 million to buy motels to convert some motels used as shelters into permanent supportive housing. They're also spending another $350 million on supportive services.

Other Findings 

  • Eviction filings rose 12% last year in Mecklenburg County, the third straight annual increase.
  • The median rent in Mecklenburg County increased 22% over the past eight years, from $952 in 2010 to $1,162 in 2018.
  • Homeowners are also suffering the effects of rising costs. About 44,000, or 25% of owner-occupied households with mortgages paid more than 30% of their incomes in housing costs in 2018. 
  • This year's report also includes a section on barriers to affordable housing. That includes a lack of income, bad credit, physical or mental health and what's called "source of income discrimination." That's when landlords refuse to accept federal vouchers or other rental assistance. Anderson said about 21% of Mecklenburg County's federal vouchers were not used before they expired in 2019. Housing advocates are lobbying City Council for rules that would make it harder for property owners to rule out tenants solely based on their source of income.