Charlotte on pace to solve affordable housing problem in 1,200 years

Charlotte on pace to solve affordable housing problem in 1,200 years
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When it comes to affordable housing, it seems like Charlotte’s City Council has a one-track mind.

Nearly all of the conversation seems to be around building new apartments, and the council’s only tangible goal is to build or preserve 5,000 affordable homes.

[Agenda story: What does affordable housing mean in Charlotte?]

On paper, Charlotte is hitting that goal. As the city nears that figure with nary a dent made in the problem, it’s becoming clear that the city needs to move beyond building apartments.

There’s not enough money to make a dent in the problem.

Right now, the city of Charlotte is putting $15 million into its Housing Trust Fund, which it uses to subsidize new housing developments that include affordable units.

The city estimates that there’s a need for some 34,000 new affordable homes, and that’s not taking into account the 60+ people who are moving here each day. The biggest need is for Charlotte’s poorest, who simply cannot be served by market forces in our city.

Generally, the city gives apartment developers money in exchange for setting aside a certain number of apartments to be affordable to people making at most 80 percent of the area’s median income.

City data, however, shows that the greatest need is for people making less than 30 percent of the area median income. Only a smaller slice of the chunk of affordable housing units developers pledge goes toward that category.

The “extremely low income” designation refers to 30 percent of the area median income.

At the rate Charlotte is moving, it would take 1,200 years and $11 billion to meet demand.

That’s according to figures that councilman Tariq Bokhari pointed out a recent meeting. He based his math on the latest slate of affordable housing projects the council was asked to approve. Only 7 percent of the new homes would be accessbile to the lowest-income Charlotteans.

Looked at another way, it would take a total $6 billion investment to build enough affordable apartments at $200,000 per unit, according to calculations from developer Clay Grubb in an Observer op-ed.

Mayor Vi Lyles has proposed bumping up the trust fund to $50 million. Perhaps that would shave a few centuries off the total, but it comes nowhere close to making a significant impact.

Mayor Vi Lyles

So what’s the solution?

I wish I had an easy one. Likely it will take bringing much more to the table.

For one, affordable housing should include actual houses, not just apartments. As we’re seeing in Charlotte’s booming neighborhoods, it’s generally only homeowners who share in the city’s increasing prosperity. Renters continue to feel pressure from landlords incentivized to raise rent.

The city is doing this in some cases. But information on down-payment assistance and other programs are hard to access.

There’s no excuse not to focus on affordable houses in this era of “tiny homes.” There are plenty of plans on the market for houses that are under $90,000 and make great use of available space.

But so far, Charlotte’s City Council has only focused on ways to squash tiny homes, not find a way to build more of them.

A tiny house in Charlottesville. Photo via VRBO

Don’t forget where all of this conversation came from.

Namely, the protests after the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott by a Charlotte police officer.

Protesters wanted the city to address the full spectrum of issues affecting economic mobility, or what’s preventing the poor in Charlotte from getting ahead. Bogging down in debating apartment building prevents the city from addressing any of the other ones.

The City Council’s “letter to the community” in 2016 also talked about increasing well-paying jobs and skills training, and pledged that this was just the beginning. Why not tackle the demand side of the affordable housing equation?

It’s a positive sign that the City Council — Democrats and Republicans — are treating affordable housing as a serious issue and dedicating significant time to it. But all those special meetings have revealed that truly addressing the problem will take a different approach.

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