Finding Home: Mayor Says Better-Paying Jobs Can Help Solve Housing Challenges

Jan 13, 2020

We are beginning the second year of our affordable housing series, Finding Home. In 2019, we had a story nearly every Monday on the Charlotte area’s affordable housing crisis. In 2020, Finding Home airs every other Monday on "Morning Edition," And we start with today’s guest, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles.

She has a long history of dealing with affordable housing. Before she was first elected mayor in 2017, Lyles was a member of City Council, and before that worked 30 years for the city — including eight years as an assistant city manager. Her time working in city administration included developing an affordable housing plan.

Lisa Worf: Mayor, thank you for joining us and kicking off Finding Home 2020. The city has reached its goal of creating 5,000 affordable units in three years, and some of those are commitments. But even with these units, the need has grown so much. What is realistic as a new goal, now?

Vi Lyles You know, we're gonna be working on that as a City Council. This is something that we have to have community understanding of and we need to set it as a policy. But when I think about it, what I think is that we need to shift more from our rental to the ability to get people into entry-level home ownership. I learned a statistic yesterday in one of our major business park areas, 25% of the housing is under $250,000 for for-sale, single-family home. We've done a lot of rental. We've got over a thousand units under construction. But I think there are two areas: How do we get people in working class into home ownership and how do we continue to deal with the issues of people that make so little income that without some way to rent affordably, they're not going to be able to grow in their economic ability to live here in our city.

Worf: So how do you do that? How do you move people to homeownership?

Lyles: What we have to do is create better-paying jobs. But we also have to talk about soft skills like financial literacy and how to get that ratio that the banks rely upon, that you're not spending more than 40% or 30% on what you have to do to live. And so there's a lot of data around it. We have to look at that data. Look at the people that we want to serve and be able to accomplish that ability to produce that housing at that affordable level.

Worf: Now, Charlotte has recruited a lot of tech jobs, you know, high-paying jobs. Do we need to do more as far as jobs that don't require a college diploma?

Lyles: You have just hit on the real issue here. It's about people that are working in ways that they don't make enough money to be able to live in our city. So how do we give them a pathway to work? We've been very successful in our construction industry. We've been actually very successful on our financial technology. And we're producing people that are now making $35-55,000 a year just by investing in their training.

But it's not just the training component. You have to make sure that they have transportation there. You have to make sure that child care issues are addressed. So I would hope in 2020 that we create more cohorts around the idea that you would have a pathway to work that would allow you to be able to afford to live in our city, whether it be a choice of rental or home ownership. I'm looking to the health care industry. They are our No. 1 employer. And in the health care industry, those jobs are now $15 an hour with benefits. So can we look at that as a place that we can grow income for people?

The other part of it is that we've got one of the best community college systems. How do we train people through our community college system, but also make sure that they know at the end of that training they have a job to go to?

Worf: There's such a demand for housing now. And as Charlotte keeps on growing this quickly, is there a way to really make significant inroads in affordable housing?

Mayor Vi Lyles
Credit Wendy Herkey / WFAE

Lyles: I wouldn't be sitting in this chair as mayor if I didn't think there was the hope and the ability for this city to be one of the best in the country. And if we're going get to do that or meet that goal, then we've got to address affordable housing. We all know of communities and cities, major cities where homelessness continues to outpace anything else that we're dealing with, where have affordable housing outpaces anything that we're trying to deal with. So I think we are in a good position to 1. Do something because we work well together. And I believe that the city sees the ability to do something differently and to do it in a way that makes us move forward.

Worf: But then you have the goal of 5,000 units, and you make that goal -- and then the need keeps on growing.

Lyles: I agree with that. But, you know, when we did that 5,000 units, we were investing $15 million to $20 million a year. So think about it. Within that same timeframe, we've gone from $15-20 million to $50 million to $100 million. So I see us as making progress. And as long as we're moving forward, we're doing well.

Worf: As part of one of our Finding Home reports, you mentioned that you wanted the city to look into creating ordinances that may make it harder for landlords to turn down people who are on Section 8. How's that going? Do you know?

Lyles: Well, this is a national trend and this national trend is about income discrimination. So if you just happen to have something that's a governmental supplement to make your income meet a certain level, are there people that are not willing to deal with governmental red tape, you know, inspections and things like that, particularly in housing? So I've been working with the Charlotte Apartment Association and major landlords to say, is it occurring, first of all? And if it's occurring, what is it that makes it an impediment to use of that income? And when we find those things out, can we challenge them and change them? What does it require? And so I think it's one of the things that we will look at seriously in 2020.

Worf: An ordinance, then, specifically doing that?

Lyles: I don't know that it has to be an ordinance. It may just be saying to a landlord, "We're going to cover the security fee." Maybe that's where they're worried that, you know, something will happen inside the unit and they won't get their deposits back or people can't afford the deposits. So it doesn't necessarily mean an ordinance. It just means, what is the challenge and how do you change that challenge to being an opportunity?

Worf: We've heard in some of our reporting that people who are working and leaving Charlotte to find something affordable. What kind of communication have you had with neighboring towns and counties on this issue?

Lyles: Well, not enough. I look at our Housing Authority and our Housing Authority's boundaries are the boundaries of the city. But there are six other towns in our county, and it would certainly be great if we actually had the ability to talk about our Authority's developments and vouchers in all seven cities in this county.

Worf: So you're saying sort of a merged organization that deals with this?

Lyles: I'm saying take what we currently have in Charlotte and ask our neighboring towns to join with us in this effort. I think that every part of our county is seeing the need. And so can we all participate in a strategic way to accomplish it?