Charlotte's Housing Boom Is A Bust For Those Who Need It Most

Feb 3, 2020

Two stories about the Charlotte area’s housing crisis played out during the week, running on parallel tracks, like trains headed to a destination where no one wants to go.

Story one was over on Freedom Drive, where the Mezzanine for Freedom community opened itself up for applications. Most of the apartments there are designed as affordable housing – the rent is set up in tiers based on family income.

The affordable housing there adds up to 129 apartments. Nearly 1,000 people showed up to claim one.

The second story was over on Brookshire Boulevard, where the manager of Kiplin Automotive Group is turning over part of his space to a slice of our community – homeless people who sleep in their cars.

James Charles, the manager, said he was inspired by a moment a few years ago when an employee went to repossess a car, only to find out that the owner was living in it. He doesn’t intend to turn his lot into a homeless camp – it’s only for folks to spend a couple of nights in a safe, well-lighted place until they can find something better.

Problem is, around here, it’s hard to find something better.

Drive around metro Charlotte for 10 minutes and you’re bound to run into a construction site. More and more apartments are going up to accommodate all the new people in one of the fastest-growing places in America. But not many of those apartments are being built for the people at the bottom of the income ladder.

A Mecklenburg County report from last year found that the county is short nearly 51,000 housing units for people who make 80% or less of the area’s median income. And most of the need is for people who have even lower incomes.

Meanwhile, the county’s homeless population sits at somewhere between 2,000 and 3,500 people, depending on how it’s counted. They spend the night in crowded shelters or camped in the woods or sleeping under bridges. In some ways, the ones who have a car to sleep in are the lucky ones.

We can’t get every homeless person off the street, and we’ll never have an affordable apartment for everyone who needs one. But the lack of a perfect answer leads a lot of people to throw up their hands at our housing crisis.

The truth is that a lot of things need to happen. The city and county have to push developers to commit to more affordable units. Developers have to understand that as the price for building in a profitable city. Neighborhoods have to agree that it’s not some other neighborhood’s problem. And we the people collectively have to realize that helping people find affordable places to live makes for a more stable, more civil, more livable, stronger, safer, better city.

It’s not rocket science. In fact, it’s the opposite of rocket science. It’s all about street-level work and willpower and sacrifice.

More than that, it’s about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. If you were desperate for an affordable place to live, you’d hope somebody would help. It’s what neighbors do.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday 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.

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