Finding Home: Numbers Show Affordable Housing Target Not Getting Closer

Oct 28, 2019

A report out last month from Mecklenburg County is chock full of numbers that describe the housing pressures facing renters in and around Charlotte. 

  • Nine out of 10 Mecklenburg County households earning less than $35,000 a year  are cost-burdened -- meaning they pay more than 30% of their incomes on housing. 
  • If you work 40 hours a week at minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), you have only $377 a month for rent.
  • You'd need to work 109 hours a week at minimum wage -- more than two full-time jobs -- to afford a market-rate apartment. 

Another figure that stands out is the shortage of low-rent housing. New numbers show that for the region's lowest-income households, the gap continues to widen. 

The Housing Gap

Thousands of new affordable housing units have been built or planned in the past few years across the Charlotte region. Most are aimed at those around the area annual median income of about $58,000, or just below. But Mecklenburg County's 2019 State of Housing Instability & Homelessness report finds the county is now 50,918 units short for renters who make less than 80% of the area median income. That's according to 2017 Census estimates, the latest data available. And most of the need is for those with very low incomes.  

County analysis shows a wide gap between the number of rental households in Mecklenburg (blue) and the number of available units.

The new numbers are a sobering reminder that the target is not getting any closer.

City of Charlotte housing director Pamela Wideman said the need is growing even as units are being lost. 

"You continue to have what we refer to as 'naturally occurring affordable units' that are converted to market rate, which makes them further out of reach for a household that's needing affordable," Wideman said. "You also continue to have more people coming to the city."

Even in recent months, Wideman and other Charlotte officials have continued to use old numbers – citing a need for 24,000 units for households at or below 50% of the area median income, or AMI. [That's currently about $32,000 a year for a two-person household, or $39,000 for four-person household.]  

But Wideman admits the 24,000 number is outdated. In fact, a Mecklenburg County analysis estimated the gap at 41,000 units in 2016.  Again, that's for households that make less than 50% of the AMI. 

Countywide Numbers

This year, the county expanded the report's focus, and put the figure at 43,104 countywide for 2017.  And it's 51,000 countywide  for those making less than 80 percent of AMI.

The gap is largest for households making less than 30% of the AMI (about $25,000 a year for a family of four).

There are just 5,300 units for 32,000 households in that group -- or a shortage of 27,000 units.  What's more, said county housing researcher Courtney Morton, about half those 5,300 units are occupied by people who could afford to pay more. 

"So one is, you've got a shortage of units," Morton said. "But two, you've got folks who are renting down, which is further cutting off that supply. And that's also forcing those folks who are already at the least, who have the least income to rent up, which is contributing to housing instability." 

The new numbers don't surprise Charlotte City Council member Larken Egleston.  

"I think those numbers, it's not surprising that they're going up and we are barely able to keep up with the growth of the city in terms of trying to build our way out of this crisis," he said. 

Egleston said that's why the city is focusing on building and preserving affordable housing, as well as other solutions. Voters last year approved $50 million in bonds for the city's Housing Trust Fund, which helps fund affordable housing. A private-sector fund has matched that, with $53 million raised so far. Local banks, houses of worship and other groups have pledged grants, low-interest loans, and free land. And Mecklenburg County's budget this year has extra money for rental subsidies. 

Nationwide Problem

All these numbers come from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. That's an annual questionnaire to selected households nationwide that lets Census officials estimate everything from population growth to wealth and poverty.

All the nation's major metropolitan areas face housing shortages, especially for very low-income renters, said Andrew Aurand, of the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington, D.C.

"But once you go higher up the income ladder, that shortage, you know, starts to eventually become a surplus," Aurand said. "The issue is, is that the production of new rental housing often focuses on higher-income households because of the cost of development." 

Aurand's group lobbies for housing assistance at the federal level, including rental subsidies and vouchers, and tax credits or grants for new construction or rehabilitation of existing units.  But he said there's not enough federal money to solve the problem, so states and cities must develop their own solutions.

That's why Mecklenburg County and the city of Charlotte are expanding their own efforts, said city housing director Wideman.  

"The need is huge. The number is big," Wideman said. "You know, I'm always reminded of a mentor who said, 'Pam, how do you eat an elephant? You eat it one bite at a time.' So, again, I just think that we have to continue employing all of our tools to continue to address this problem."

Local officials also are looking harder now at the other side of the equation - income. Another stat from that county report:  From 2005 to 2017, rents rose 18% in Mecklenburg County, while household income grew just 4%. 

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to add a comparable number for the gap in units for those making 50 percent or less of the area median income.