Finding Home: SocialServe Helps Renters Nationwide. What Barriers Stand Out In Charlotte?

Jul 15, 2019

Finding affordable housing in Charlotte is often a daunting task, with the city estimating the supply to be at least 24,000 units short of what is needed.  One organization that helps those looking for a place is SocialServe.

It’s a website and call center headquartered in uptown that connects renters in 31 states with affordable properties. WFAE's Marshall Terry visited their office as part of our series Finding Home.

SocialServe call center staffer Victoria Johnson searches a database while assisting a caller with trying to find an affordable unit.
Credit Marshall Terry

Victoria Johnson is on her first call of the day and begins running through SocialServe’s standard list of questions.

“I need to know if you’re looking for one bedroom, two bedrooms,” Johnson tells the caller.  “Anything with a kitchenette? OK. Alright, how much can you afford to pay for rent?”

No luck for the caller, who’s looking for a place in the area around Sarasota, Fla.  It’s a disappointment Johnson herself knows all too well. She’s a convicted felon and her record has made it difficult to find affordable housing in the past. Johnson shares her story with callers who find themselves in the same situation.

“I remember a lady called one day, and I was looking for housing at the same time,” Johnson said.  “She said, ‘You don’t understand what I’m going through.’ I said, 'Ma’am I’m homeless right now." She said ‘What?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m homeless right now. And I said, ‘But you’re going to find somewhere to live just like I will find somewhere to live eventually.'”

Johnson did find a place with the help of SocialServe. The center deliberately tries to hire people who’ve had an affordable housing challenge. It’s designed for people with limited access to the internet or who would just rather speak with someone over the phone who can help them through the process.

“Our call center staff are trained to not rush people off the phone,” said Tara Peele, SocialServe's executive director. “A lot of times people want to share their stories. And they can be pretty complicated situations they’re in having difficulty finding housing."

Peele says the center gets about 1,000 calls a day.  Over the past year, it received about 13,000 calls from the Charlotte area. 

Terry:  What's the most common story you hear from callers?

Peele: We get a lot of calls from people who are homeless or about to be homeless because they're being evicted. We get a lot of calls from people who have disabilities and so they're on a fixed income. I think it's roughly around $750 a month right now. And maybe they've been staying with family or friends and they can't do that anymore so they're looking for housing at an extremely low rate. We get some calls from people who have a Section 8 voucher and they're looking for a landlord that will accept the voucher. We get a fair amount of those.

One of our specialties is to identify on our site whether a landlord will accept a Section 8 voucher or not to make that search a little bit easier. We know that landlords are less and less willing to accept Section 8 vouchers so identifying the ones that are willing to do so is really helpful for folks.

Terry: You take calls from all over the country. What distinguishes Charlotte, I mean, what stands out about Charlotte compared to all the other places that you take calls from?

Peele: Charlotte's lack of affordable housing is pretty severe. The demand is just way higher than the supply.

Terry: So it sounds like it's worse here than maybe some of the other places?

Executive Director Tara Peele stands in front of a map showing the states where SocialServe operates.
Credit Marshall Terry

Peele: It's worse than many of the other places, not all of them, and we obviously have the same problem in other large or larger cities. But it's pretty striking here because we have a pretty strong presence in North Carolina... We have about 30,000 units listed in Mecklenburg County on our service. But, you know, around 100 are actually available. So the demand really outstripping the supply is an issue here.

Terry: How often would you say that when somebody calls you and you're able to find them what they're looking for.

Peele: Depends on the area. Right? So in many areas there's a greater supply. We make a point to try to keep the listings up to date so that we know what's available and what's not. And we focus on the ones that are available so we can connect people to housing that's not on a waiting list.

So given that a large part of our calls are from all over the country, it sort of varies by area. In some areas there's way more available housing than in others. If we can't find more than a few listings that match a person's criteria we also refer them to other resources. So, for example, we'll refer them, we'll give them contact information for their local public housing authority or for other agencies that might provide rental assistance that might help them be able to afford something at a higher rent.

Terry: What obstacles do you run into you in trying to find something, especially in Charlotte?

Peele: So there's a few obstacles in Charlotte. I mentioned supply is an issue. Because of the supply issue, landlords can basically pick and choose what kind of screening they want to do and they sort of have their pick of renters, so they're more strict on criminal or credit.

One of the big things in Charlotte that I noticed when I moved down here are the fees that are charged for applications. It's not just you pay a $20 to $50 application fee but you're also paying an administrative fee or even in some cases something that's like a risk fee based on range of credit scores, and the fees for making an application can run up easily into the hundreds of dollars. So you can't really afford to apply to multiple properties at the same time you're paying $200-$500 per application. That's a barrier.

Terry: You've worked outside North Carolina. You've worked in places like Illinois, Chicago, you've worked in the Raleigh-Durham area. How did those places compare to Charlotte in terms of the affordable housing challenge? What stands out about Charlotte in comparison to those places?

Peele: In Chicago they obviously have a lot more housing stock. I would say neighbors are a lot more willing to accept the fact that there will be a two- or three-unit property next to theirs. I'm not saying everyone there is accepting of affordable housing. Affordable housing is challenged there by neighbors just like it is everywhere.

But density there is expected. So adding some units of affordable housing into a "neighborhood" doesn't make as much of a splash as it would in Charlotte, where everything is primarily zoned single family. So it makes it a lot more difficult to come in and change from having one house on a lot to a few units on a lot. You're more likely to get challenged over just a few units in Chicago. You wouldn't get challenged over that at all. We did it a number of times and didn't even have to change the zoning to accomplish it.

Terry: What do you think Charlotte can learn based on how other places tackle affordable housing challenges?

Peele: I think I see a will growing here to be more encouraging of developers to include some affordable housing and then developments. I think and hope I see a stronger will to sort of not bow down to neighborhoods when they challenge affordable housing.

I know that the city believes in educating people about that not all affordable housing looks alike. And I think that's an important message, and it's true that you really only notice the affordable housing that is not run well. There's more affordable housing out there that you don't know is affordable housing because it's run well. And I think drawing people's attention to that is important.

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