Finding Home: Reviewing Charlotte's Housing Progress And Challenges

Nov 18, 2019

All this year, we’ve brought you stories each Monday that look at the Charlotte area’s affordable housing crisis. Our Finding Home series has had stories that examine the scope of the problem and what’s being done about it. There have been stories of hope, and stories of despair.

All these facets of the issue came together last week in a special Finding Home broadcast of "Charlotte Talks" at the Harvey B. Gantt Center. WFAE’s David Boraks was there and was part of the program. He joined Morning Edition host Lisa Worf for this edition of Finding Home.

LISA WORF: So, what did we learn from the show? 

DAVID BORAKS:  We heard a lot about what's being done here to build and renovate affordable housing. We heard about some potential policy changes. But I think the most compelling thing we heard was from people directly affected by the displacement that's happening as old complexes are redeveloped. 

Vanessa Phillips lives at Brookhill Village off South Tryon Street. It's one of the largest low-rent apartment complexes in the city, built in the 1950s. Rents are $500 or less for a two-bedroom apartment. But there's a plan in the works to tear it down and redevelop it. Rents likely will be higher, and there's no guarantee that current residents will be able to move back. Phillips said she's worried she won't have any place to go.  

PHILLIPS:  I don't have an option right now. I'm just ... I'm trying to wait just to make sure to see what we go through as far as being able to apply for the apartment and make sure all my credentials and everything are straight and I can afford it. 

BORAKS: The same kind of displacement is happening right now at another large, older complex: Lake Arbor, on the West Side. And we'll probably see more. 

WORF: So the city is spending money on the problem.  This event was titled "Finding Home: Charlotte's $270 Million Dream." Where does that $270 million figure come from? 

BORAKS: That's the total public and private funds committed over the past year or so to solving Charlotte's affordable housing crisis.  

  • $50 million in city Housing Trust Fund bond money.
  • $55 million in private donations raised through the Charlotte Housing Opportunity Investment fund, led by the Foundation for the Carolinas.
  • $104 million in other commitments, including land donations, grants and reduced rate-loans from local banks.
  • $25 million from Local Initiatives Support Corporation. That's a nationwide nonprofit that's helping here. They're in about 35 cities.   
  • And rent subsidies - $15 million from Mecklenburg County, and $26 million from the Foundation for the Carolinas' A Way Home Fund.  

All this money is used in different ways. Grants and loans will subsidize construction of new affordable housing, bringing down the cost so rents can be lower. And as I mentioned, some is for rental subsidies and downpayment assistance.  And we learned the other night that the total is a bit higher than we've reported previously. It actually turns out the total is now about $275 million. 

WORF:  What will we get for that money, and is it enough to end the city's housing shortage? 

Brian Collier of the Foundation for the Carolinas said some estimate it would cost $6 billion to solve Charlotte's affordable housing crisis.
Credit Jeff Cravotta / WFAE

BORAKS:  Not even close. Call it a small dent.  "Charlotte Talks" host Mike Collins asked the panel how much it might cost to built enough units. Brian Collier of the Foundation for the Carolinas

COLLIER: $6 billion

COLLINS: $6 billion with a 'B' …

COLLIER: …  is what some people have said. It's a $6 billion problem. 

BORAKS: City housing director Pamela Wideman said so far, they've spent about $21 million out of the $50 million Housing Trust Fund bond money. That's paying for new units and rehabs of existing units that might otherwise be lost to developers.  

WORF: Your panel talked a bit about what's causing the shortage. Just remind us -- how did we get into this crisis? 

BORAKS: To put it simply, it's a supply and demand problem. Charlotte's growth has outpaced the number of apartments. We can't build them fast enough, and what's getting built is too expensive for most renters. On top of that, we're losing existing low-rent apartments to redevelopment. They're being torn down and rebuilt as luxury complexes with high rents. 

And rebuilding is expensive. Even if you want to build new apartments at a low price point, your costs are high, especially for land.  Here's city housing director Pamela Wideman. 

WIDEMAN: Charlotte is growing, right? And so you can look at that as a blessing or a curse. Also with that growth, you have fewer areas of land to develop affordable housing. And so you just have to put all that together, and that begins to speak to the multi-layer of challenges. 

BORAKS: That's why so many new affordable projects these days depend on public and private subsidies, reduced-interest loans and land donations. It's the only way to get it done. But Wideman also said the city has more tools these days to encourage affordable development.

WORF: What are some of those tools?   

BORAKS: We're mainly talking about zoning rules here.  Wideman specifically mentioned density bonuses. That's where a developer is allowed to build more units than zoning allows in exchange for making some units affordable. 

Another idea the panel talked about was speeding up the approval process.  Some city officials suggest that when it comes to scheduling public hearings and approvals at the city council, we should put projects that include affordable housing ahead of those that don't. 

One tool we don't have -- a way to require developers to build affordable housing, sometimes called inclusionary zoning. With the exception of three communities, it's illegal in North Carolina. It's not something the state legislature has ever gone for -- under either Republicans or Democrats.  

WORF:  Now you guys talked about housing costs, but there's more to the problem, right? 

BORAKS:  You're right, Lisa. It's way more complicated than just building more housing. Carol Hardison is the CEO of Crisis Assistance Ministry, which helps hundreds of families a day deal with housing crises, and she made that point.

Carol Hardison of Crisis Assistance Ministry says Charlotte's housing crisis has its roots in segregation and lack of social capital.
Credit Jeff Cravotta / WFAE

HARDISON: Affordable housing is critical to child and family stability. But is it the problem of economic mobility?  We have to ask ourselves how did we get here? The history of segregation and the lack of social capital, that's the problem. 

BORAKS: There's the price of rent, but there's also what you can afford based on your income. Rents in Charlotte now average more than $1,200 a month. That's up from just over $900 in 2015.  From 2005 to 2017, rents rose 18% in Mecklenburg County, but wages were up only 4%.  The problem is worsening, and wages aren't keeping up.