Finding Home: Decisions That Contributed To Charlotte's Housing Crisis

Jun 16, 2019

In this installment of "Finding Home," we look at decisions that have contributed to Charlotte's affordable housing crises.

Reporter Pam Kelley examines this in a story for the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative. The network is a collaboration of several media organizations, including WFAE. Kelley reported on Charlotte's past missteps for a series called "We Can't Afford To Live Here."

Marshall Terry: So your story looks at several failures in the city's history to plan for affordable housing. One is along the light rail line in South Charlotte the city required 30 percent of units near the line to be reserved for people making 30 percent or less of median income. But we didn't come close to that. So what happened?

Pam Kelley: Well the city approved a policy in 2001 that was very ambitious. The problem is the policy had a number of requirements like that 30 percent requirement, but it really didn't have incentives to kind of make it possible. The result was there are 100 affordable units along light rail built by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership that is along the South Boulevard line and that's out of like 6,200 apartments that have been built, many of them luxury apartments.

Marshall Terry: So was the city's affordable housing policy along the light rail more aspirational than a requirement?

Pam Kelley: Yes. You know you could build market rate along light rail and developers did that. But if you wanted to build affordable housing you had to actually meet requirements that were more demanding than if you wanted to build affordable housing somewhere else in Charlotte. And those included having 30 percent of your units for people who made 30 percent or less of the average median income. To do that you really need some subsidies for developers to make those numbers work because those ran at very low prices, but the city didn't offer any special incentives for those affordable units along light rail.

Marshall Terry: You also talk about the city's failure to acquire land early on and that that was kind of a mistake.

Pam Kelley: Yeah and I think there has gotten to be some pretty broad agreement about that. That's what housing activist said and the city has never done that for affordable housing. But I think it's been done elsewhere for years. You know if you don't control the land you don't have anything and the trick is to get the land before it becomes expensive. And they knew where the light rail line was going but they didn't buy the land except in one case when it was still very inexpensive.

Marshall Terry: And of course the blue line has now been extended up to the to UNC Charlotte. But the same thing has happened, pricey apartment complexes popping up along the way. What happened? The city didn't really learn from its past and recent mistakes?

Pam Kelley: Yeah and I mean it's been challenging to figure out what happened. People have kind of different stories about it and it's been a challenge to reconstruct. But I think one point is that the district representative for that area at the time, Michael Barnes, was not in favor of more affordable housing in his district. And to be fair that district has lower income housing like in the Hidden Valley neighborhood. And he felt that this could concentrate poverty. Now people are saying that by not buying land along the Blue Line extension again when it was an inexpensive they've really missed an opportunity.

Marshall Terry: At the time the light rail was being constructed back in the early 2000s Ballantyne was becoming a booming area in the city. There's no affordable housing in that part of town but in the 1990s when Ballantyne was first proposed it was expected to have low-income housing. Again, what happened?

Pam Kelley: Yeah. And this was a surprise to me but someone pointed out to me a document from 1991 that was approved when the county rezoned Ballantyne that stated that it was the developers' intention to build a variety of housing for rent or sale priced to accommodate all levels of income represented by Ballantynes workforce. So it was an intention. It wasn't a requirement. And school advocates had really pressed for some moderate and low-income housing because they were hoping the area would be integrated. This was back when we were still using busing to integrate schools and it was getting harder and harder as white suburbia expanded. (Developer) Johnnie Harris told me they did build housing in a neighborhood that was much less than most Ballantyne housing - it was affordable by Ballantine standards - but it was about the median price for housing in Charlotte at that time. So it wasn't affordable for like the low-wage service workers who work in Ballantyne.

Marshall Terry: One thing that really stood out to me from your story is this quote from a 1968 Charlotte Observer editorial. It said "Adequate housing for low-income residents is perhaps the most pressing single need in Charlotte." That was 50 years ago. That was at a time when neighborhoods were being demolished in the name of urban renewal. The city failed to house people who were displaced by urban renewal. What were the effects of that that we can still see today?

Pam Kelley: It's interesting because I know nationally in the late 70s I have read and been told that there was actually a surplus of affordable housing in America. But when I go back and look - and I've gone back and looked at stories going back to the 60s -  and we never had a surplus in Charlotte that I can see. In fact this has been a problem that we have talked about in Charlotte every few years and there's a study or a report or a task force that comes up and people say we've got to come up with a plan and we can do this and nothing has been done.

Marshall Terry: You wrote this for the Solutions Journalism Network. We've reported on some solutions under way but is anything that's happening now enough to make significant change in the next decade?

Pam Kelley: Well that's the big question. And I think, you know, time will tell. But I will say that from looking at the past and looking at what we're doing now in terms of putting money into the problem and trying some new solutions that Charlotte has never tried this hard before.

Marshall Terry: You kind of mentioned it in the story. What's different now?

Pam Kelley: More money for one thing. As you know voters approved a $50 million housing trust fund bond in November which is more than triple past bonds. The Foundation for the Carolinas has been raising money. They've almost matched that and they've raised I think nearly $100 million in the form of like land and below-interest housing loans for developers. So there's definitely more resources available, and the phrase I keep hearing is "political will." That in the past we did not have the political will but that we do now.