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At Durham Retreat, Council Members Tackle Affordable Housing

The Charlotte City Council is in Durham for three days this week for its annual budget and planning retreat. The main topic Thursday was a major council priority - how to preserve and create more affordable housing. WFAE's David Boraks is at the retreat and talked with host Mark Rumsey.

RUMSEY: This is the meeting where council takes a deep dive on a lot of issues. So David what are the specifcs they're getting down to?

DAVID:  They've gotten a series of presentations on all aspects of the housing issue - economists, planners, housing specialists and grantmakers. It's like affordable housing 101. And that's good for the council's new members, getting them up to speed on a problem they've all said they want to work on.

District 1 council member Larken Egleston pointed out that many council members have said affordable housing is their number one priority.

EGLESTON:  And I think it's the solution that solves a lot of our city's issues. I think if we get housing right it fixes a lot of things.

BORAKS: City officials say there's a need for at least 34,000 additional affordable housing units in Charlotte. Everyone agrees that's a big number, and they say the city can't solve it alone.

RUMSEY: What are some of those possible solutions?  

BORAKS: A range of things. First and foremost is increasing the size of the Housing Trust Fund. That will be on the ballot this November. It's a city fund financed through bond referendums every two years, to help pay for new affordable development. It has been $15 million every two years, but a consensus seems to be emerging to raise that. How much is the question.

The city's Economic Opportunity Task Force proposed raising that number to as much as $50 million. Some think it should be even higher. I talked to council member Lawana Mayfield, who chairs the council's Housing and Neighborhood Development Committee. She agrees it needs to increase.   

MAYFIELD: But I don't know if we're ready to put a number on it and I don't think the community should hold council to a number, without knowing legal and financially, without raising your taxes, what can we actually take on in debt.  

She says it might be  $25 million or $80 million - it depends on the city's capacity to take on more debt and whether the council wants to raise taxes. I talked to other council members and they're also reluctant to pick a number. But they seem ready to raise it.

RUMSEY:  What are some of the other ideas?

BORAKS: There was some talk about zoning, and whether the city can update its rules to make it easier and quicker to develop affordable housing.  And incentives. So few units get built using existing incentives that some council members are talking about the need to offer better incentives.

Another major problem they're talking about addressing is how to keep existing low-cost housing from being torn down or converted to something a lot more expensive. These typically are older homes and apartments with lower rents.

RUMSEY: How big is that problem?

BORAKS: It has already affected many neighborhoods - like Cherry, near uptown. And there are more at risk. I talked to one expert here who estimates there are about 18,000 properties more than 40 years old that are at risk

RUMSEY: What can the city do?

BORAKS: The city might buy and preserve some of these units. Or it could offer tax incentives or financing to a developer that keeps units affordable. There seemed to be a lot of interest among council members in this idea. It's something they can work on now and have an immediate effect.

RUMSEY: So what might come out of this retreat?

BORAKS:  All those ideas we talked about are now on the table for the council. Mayor Vi Lyles says they'll discuss it all again at Monday's meeting - where they'll set up council subcommittees to look at things like preserving existing housing and the Housing Trust Fund. They'll have to come up with a number to put on the ballot in the coming months. The mayor also wants to produce a joint statement among all the groups in the city working on affordable housing, to try and get everyone the same page.

RUMSEY: That's WFAE's David Boraks, at the city council retreat in Durham today.

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.