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Rebuilding Charlotte Means Addressing Long-Standing Problems Exacerbated By Pandemic

Erin Keever

Throughout 2021, WFAE is looking ahead. Our series Rebuilding Charlotte examines the challenges and opportunities as our region strives to recover from the pandemic. We kicked off the series last Monday to lay out some of the challenges.

A sampling of comments from last week encapsulates some of the issues on the horizon:

"The (homeless) encampment in the north end of uptown highlights many of the ongoing challenges that have resulted from long term federal and state policies and budget cuts," Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said.

"It amazes me how empty downtown is, how lonely it feels," Charlotte City Council member Malcolm Graham said.

"You have this fundamental misalignment between what people earn and what our housing costs," Roof Above CEO Liz Clasen-Kelly said.

Joining us to discuss the challenges ahead for the city is Charlotte City Council member and Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt.

Marshall Terry: Welcome.

Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt
Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt

Julie Eiselt: Good morning.

Terry: Let me ask you, what do you see as the city's biggest challenge in rebuilding after and recovering from the pandemic?

Eiselt: Well, the biggest challenge in some ways, Marshall, are the challenges that were there before but have been out of sight to a lot of people. And now I think one of the silver linings is that people are much more aware of the inequities in affordable housing, the issues of social justice and the problems with transit and congestion. Of course, in the short term, it's getting people back to work, getting children back in school and getting back to a functioning economy.

Terry: In the short term with those last three that you mentioned, what's the solution with those, then?

Eiselt: Well, from our standpoint, from what City Council does, the affordable housing one is a big one and the homelessness is a big one. We've really focused our resources on keeping people in their homes, keeping people from what we worry about when the eviction moratoriums are over. So, we just allocated the other night $27 million of CARES Act funding to rent and utility relief. We had allocated $10 million in the first round to rent, mortgage and utility relief.

Terry: Now, you mentioned there keeping people in the homes they already have. What about the people who just don't have a home right now? One of the most visible challenges is what has become known as the "Tent City" of homeless people that's uptown. How do you think that needs to be addressed?

Eiselt: Well, and that's a tough one. I've been down there. I've helped serve food down there. It is a crisis. A lot of the folks that are down there are chronically homeless, and they don't necessarily want to be in a shelter. That doesn't mean that they don't want housing, but they don't want to be in a shelter, congregate environment.

And so, one of the solutions is that we've got to find more single-occupancy rooms for the chronically homeless that are attached to social services that they need to have some stability. We have been putting money towards that. We gave Roof Above $4 million to purchase a motel that's being converted into single-occupancy rooms for the chronically homeless, and they will have office space for social services. We have given more money to the Salvation Army for 250 more beds.

But those things take time. They had to renovate in order to accommodate those beds. And unfortunately, the space that we operate in sometimes is the longer-term solution — which is necessary, but it doesn't feel like it's addressing what people see on the streets. One of the problems, though, is that this was there before. But people are really noticing now that we have a chronic homeless problem.

Terry: One of the other things that you mentioned that was there before but seems to be exacerbated by the pandemic is racial injustice — social inequality. What kind of conversations are you having with your colleagues about that and what to do?

Eiselt: Well, again, when we look at our space and what we can do, I think that the conversation of affordable housing plus transit is more connected right now. People understand that it's not just about giving somebody access to housing that's affordable, but if you put it in a place that doesn't have any access to transportation or they still have to have a bus ride that's on average 90 minutes long, that's not fair, right?

So the conversation around transit has definitely been elevated. And it should be, when the average bus ride round-trip in Charlotte is three hours. That impacts people that have been hurt for a long time, people of color that are the ones that most need those services.

Terry: Another piece of the puzzle that's obviously closely associated with all of those things is income and employment. Charlotte has lured a lot of high-end jobs in finance and tech. Is it doing enough, though, to bring jobs for those who maybe don't have a college degree?

Eiselt: We are more conscious of that when we look at these companies. When Centene wanted to relocate here, which is the largest relocation North Carolina has ever had.

Terry: And just to be clear, that's the insurance company that announced it was locating here last year.

Eiselt: Correct. Here they were bringing on board a day care center. They have jobs along all incomes of the spectrum. And those are the kinds of jobs that we want here. And so we've got to have jobs here that are not just the high six-figure tech jobs and banking jobs. Because while those do produce other jobs for every one of those that comes here, those are generally minimum-wage jobs. And people cannot live on a minimum wage in this city. So we do need to be more conscious of that and do what we can to attract jobs at all levels of the income spectrum.

But the other thing is, I think that the companies that then come to us and say they want to move here, we need to expect more from them. One of the things I think we could have done recently with a company that wanted to be uptown is we could have said to them, we would like you to provide transit passes to all of your employees because it's expensive to go uptown and work uptown. And transportation is the second-biggest component of people's disposable income. And in Charlotte, our cost of transportation exceeds our peer cities by about seven points. We should be at about 15% of disposable income and we're at 22%.

But doing things like that and saying to corporate partners, we need you to help make our city more livable for the people that you want to hire here, I think has to be part of the conversation.

Terry: How do you see Charlotte a year from now?

Eiselt: I really am optimistic about it. We have seen innovation — a lot of innovation — for instance, in the food and beverage industry. Innovation in transportation. Even on our side, having more awareness around streets that should be more accessible to pedestrians and cyclers and scooter riders, because that is public space and it shouldn't all be given over to cars. I hope that we will be bold in our transit initiatives and understand that it might cost us something up front, but the cost of not doing anything, i.e., passing a mobility tax is going to mean that we're all stuck in congestion.

We kind of forget now because it's easy to get uptown, but we have 400,000 people moving to the Charlotte area in the next 20 years. That's the whole population of Asheville and Greensboro, so if we don't do something about that now and take advantage of the opportunities we have, we're not going to be in a better place a year from now.

Terry: That Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Eiselt: Absolutely. Thank you.

This conversation was produced as part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte, WFAE's look at how life has changed and the challenges ahead because of the pandemic. Support for Rebuilding Charlotte is provided by Lowe's Home Improvement.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.