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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

The housing issues in Charlotte reach all the way to the sky

The real estate market in Charlotte is hurting from both ends — one way that hurts families, the other way that hurts developers. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his "On My Mind" commentary, wonders who will get the most relief.

So it seems we have two housing calamities in Charlotte, and they’re coming from opposite directions.

By now pretty much everyone knows about our affordable housing crisis. Rents have gone up across the board, outpacing wages. Private equity firms are buying up houses all over the city, making it harder for families to find a starter home. One of the most common paths to a stable future in America — buying a house and building equity — is out of reach for a huge number of Charlotteans. 

Ah, but now there’s another housing crisis to worry about. This one is a problem of office housing — more to the point, office space that nobody wants in the big uptown towers. Charlotte built those skyscrapers on the assumption that the city would always keep growing and people would always come uptown to work. The pandemic collapsed that notion like a bad pull in Jenga. Thousands of workers who formerly commuted uptown are now full-time remote or on a hybrid schedule. Millions of dollars worth of offices in those fancy high-rises are now sitting empty. 

Now those of you with devious minds — I’m raising my hand here as well — might be thinking of an elegant solution: Why not just turn those office towers into affordable housing? Two birds with one stone! 

I think we all know that’s not going to happen. First of all, there are obviously some logistical problems in turning offices into housing. But more importantly, despite all their philanthropy, I don’t think there’s a bank exec or a real estate developer in town with the guts to welcome middle-income and low-income families into those gleaming buildings. It’s too radical. Too bold.

The more interesting part, to me, is the notion that the owners of those old buildings need to be bailed out. 

City officials and developers are starting to build a low hum toward the idea of shifting some taxpayer money toward repurposing the office towers, or even tearing them down. 

It’s funny, I don’t recall those developers pitching any plans to bail out low-income families who get gentrified out of their homes, or have their rents jacked up when some hedge fund buys half their neighborhood. 

You also might have noticed that every time there’s a move to build affordable housing in well-heeled areas, the residents act like somebody suggested running open sewer lines down the street. 

Watch carefully these next few months and see where the money goes. Does it go to the people living paycheck to paycheck, or the ones living mountain house to beach house? It will be a clue as to which crisis our city actually cares about.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.