Finding Home: Affordability Is Only Part Of Charlotte's Housing Problem. Wages Matter, Too

Nov 4, 2019

WFAE has spent a lot of time looking at the pressures around the availability of affordable housing as part of our series Finding Home. This week, we’re turning our attention to another part of that equation — income.

As rents have risen in Charlotte, pay has remained largely flat. So, how do you bring incomes up to help make more homes affordable – or at least reduce the need for subsidies? Pam Kelley has been reporting on this as part of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative series "I can’t afford to live here." She joins WFAE "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf to talk about what she found.

Pam Kelley: Well, we're bringing in a lot of high-wage good jobs, some of them averaging, you know, six figures. But at the same time, we have many, many low-wage jobs that kind of support the people in those high-wage jobs. Jobs like janitors and food service workers, hotel workers.

There was some new data from the North Carolina Justice Center. They looked at federal employment data and found that 32% of the workers in Mecklenburg County are employed in occupations that pay a median wage of less than $15 an hour. So we've lost manufacturing jobs which used to pay a good middle-income salary. So we kind of have a lot of high-wage jobs and we have a lot of low-wage jobs.

[RELATED: How Charlotte's Low-Wage Jobs Make Housing Unaffordable]

Lisa Worf: And the minimum wage in North Carolina is the same as the federal at $7.25, then. So, these are workers making that or above that?

Kelley: Yeah. I think because of the tight labor market, they're probably making a bit above that, maybe $8 or $9 or even $10. But even that is not enough to afford housing in Charlotte without living with several employed people or a subsidy. I mean, it's not enough to afford housing on your own.

Worf: How much do you have to make to afford an apartment here — your typical apartment?

Kelley: MIT has a living-wage calculator that says that the living wage for Mecklenburg County would be $12.58.

Worf: In Mecklenburg County there's been a big push to create more affordable housing, but not so much around efforts to raise income. Why is that?

Kelley: Yeah. That's a good question. I mean, I think one thing is that the city and the county feel hamstrung by the state legislature. They can't raise the minimum wage in the city. Many cities have raised their minimum wage around the country, by the way, and 29 states have raised their minimum wages above the $7.25 federal minimum wage.

The Leading On Opportunity task force actually declined to address minimum wage in its report, saying that there was kind of differing research on it. They made a recommendation that businesses voluntarily raise their benefits and wages.

Worf: So how do you do that voluntarily? I mean, in other words, encourage businesses to raise the wage of low income workers?

Kelley: Well, it's interesting. There are a number of what's called living wage projects that have sprung up in the last couple of decades. And there are three in North Carolina that cover Durham County, Orange County, Buncombe County and Transylvania County. And they are projects that set a living wage for their community, based a lot on housing costs.

They give businesses certification if they will pay that minimum wage, which varies depending on whether the business also gives health benefits. And they have enlisted hundreds of businesses in North Carolina in these communities to pay these higher wages, which then lift their employees out of poverty.

Worf: Is that making a difference?

Kelley: The people running these programs in the communities and the businesses definitely say they are. I mean, I talked to a couple business owners in Asheville and in Carrboro who talk about that people really support their businesses and they're keeping employees for years. The employees don't have to work two jobs. So, it sounds kind of like a win-win.

Worf: And there have been businesses, the city and Mecklenburg County government, who have decided to raise their low wage workers here, too.

Kelley: Right. The city has raised their minimum to $16, the county to $15, Atrium and Novant $12.50 each, Bank of America $17, and it's going to be going up to $20 in a couple years. Advocates of higher wage say that's great. But they also point out that it leaves out the outsource workers for these companies, and they are often the lowest paid workers there, like the janitors that clean City Hall. And they're not making near those minimums.

[RELATED: Some Employers Pay At Least $16 Per Hour, But Many Workers Are Left Out]

Worf: As far as addressing affordable housing: Are we going about this the wrong way in Charlotte?

Kelley: I don't think anybody thinks building more affordable units is the wrong way, but I think they think we need to be doing this on many fronts. I've been told you can't build your way out of this problem. So, when you give somebody more child care subsidies, suddenly they've got more money to pay for housing. So that's a way to do it. But then another very direct way is if they have more money in their pocket, they can pay for housing more easily.