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City Reports Progress On Affordable Housing, But More Work To Do

City officials say Charlotte is nearly halfway to a goal set last year of creating 5,000 affordable housing units over three years. But at the Charlotte City Council Monday night, council members, staff and citizens all said it's not enough - especially for those with very low incomes.

The City Council set that three-year target last October, instead of a previous five-year goal. It came after protests following the police shooting of Keith Scott focused attention on economic inequality in the city.

Since last year, the city has created or rehabilitated about 2,200 units - or about 44 percent of the way toward that goal.  But Pamela Wideman of Charlotte Housing and Neighborhood Services says there's still a big shortage:

“Somewhere between 21,000 and 34,000 [units],” Wideman said in an interview. “That's just in terms of supply. I think there's this whole other thing that you have to understand is that there are about 52,000 people in this community that we would consider housing insecure.”

Those are people who have housing, but are spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on it, Wideman said.

The city is chipping away at the goal by offering developers tax credits or low-cost financing, to subsidize new affordable apartments. It also offers money to repair existing units. And it helps people pay their rent or make down payments to buy homes.

But those strategies won't solve the problem fast enough, resident Angela Ambroise told the council.

“We need to look at opportunities that we can grab right now. I am confused when I hear that CMS has three buildings for sale, in highly displacement areas. We're talking Wilmore, we're talking Cherry and Druid Hills. That is a tangible thing that you can do now, to move, to purchase those buildings to provide affordable housing,” she said.

Wideman told the council the city is working with a consultant to come up with a Strategic Housing Plan to address the problem. That could include recommendations for policy and rules changes. A final plan is due by the end of the year, but council members got a preview from consultant Chris Kizzie of Enterprise Community Advisors. He said delays in getting zoning approval for projects are major problem.

“In affordable housing development particularly, added timelines, added months, added days to the development timeline means added costs,” Kizzie said.

Profit margins are typically thinner for affordable housing, and it's harder to raise rents to make up those added costs.

Other major barriers found by the consultants include rising land costs, a lack of funding, and too few incentives for developers. Charlotte's main incentive right now is higher density, but developers can often get that without building affordable housing.

Kizzie also noted that Charlotte's biggest shortage is in units for the poorest families - those who make less than 30 percent of the area median household income, or less than about $18,000 a year. The closer you get to the area median of about $56,000 a year, the easier it is to find housing you can afford, he said.

While the meeting was going on inside, housing activists gathered outside the Government Center to call on city officials to do more. One idea is to require the city to spend proceeds from land sales on affordable housing. Another would be to help set up community land trusts, to preserve land for affordable housing.

Robert Dawkins of the group Action NC had another idea:

“Raising the Charlotte Housing Trust Fund next time from $15 million to $50 million,” he said.

He's not the only one to offer that suggestion. It was a key recommendation of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force this spring. And it's something city officials are discussing.

Since 2001, voters have been asked to approve bonds to fund affordable housing. The last bond vote in 2016 was for $15 million. At the meeting, Wideman gave a presentation recommending five projects totaling 769 units that would use $21 million from the trust fund.

“What we just presented to the City Council demonstrates that we can spend the Housing Trust Fund money in an expeditious manner and a quality manner, which further demonstrates the need for an increased bond ask,” Wideman said.

Those five projects will come up for a vote at the council's September 25 meeting. After that, the council will have to start thinking setting a new amount, for the next bond referendum in November 2018.

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.