The first person arrived around dawn, just as a light mist began to fall on Freedom Drive. As more showed up, they instinctively formed a line. Umbrellas popped open and hoodies went over heads. Soon the line filled the giant parking lot, turning and twisting through parked cars, until nearly 1,000 families were here to apply for an apartment.
For two years, the Mezzanine at Freedom project has been celebrated as a glimpse at what’s possible in Charlotte when different organizations work together: Marsh Properties donated the 7.8 acres of west Charlotte land. Covenant Presbyterian raised a staggering $2 million from its congregation. The city added $4.5 million from its Housing Trust Fund. With that money and goodwill as its foundation, the community will include 185 units, 129 of which are reserved for income-qualified renters at various levels of affordability.
By lunchtime Monday, though, 975 people had submitted an application — eight times the inventory of affordable units.
Charlotte’s shortage of 24,000 housing units has been the most talked-about topic in the city in recent years. But this was the first time so many of the people who make up that shortage showed up in the same place.
The line was maybe the most telling single portrait of Charlotte’s affordable housing crisis yet.
“The Housing Partnership, we’ve been doing this for 30 years, and we’ve never had this number of folks show up on the first day for leasing,” Housing Partnership President Julie Porter said as she watched the last wave of applicants walk up around lunchtime.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had this type of visual representation of the need in Charlotte.”
Even the line didn’t tell the whole story. Of the 129 units reserved for affordable housing, 19 were for people earning up to 80 percent of the area’s medium income, or $63,200 for a family of four; 72 were for people earning up to 60 percent AMI ($47,400 for a family of four); 19 for 50 percent AMI ($39,500); and 19 for 30 percent ($23,700). So even in a project with extraordinary support, a little more than 10 percent of the units are for the city’s lowest wage-earners.
A one-bedroom apartment for a person in the bottom income bracket will go for $349. The highest-priced rent here will be a $1,450-per-month three-bedroom at market rate. Move-ins will begin in March and likely run through September, The Housing Partnership said.
The apartments, located at 2635 Freedom Drive in the same complex as Compare Foods and The Movement School, will be rented to people on a first-come, first-qualified basis. But The Housing Partnership didn’t shut off the line because everybody who filled out an application and paid the $25 application fee will be put on a waitlist — and they’re now eligible for one of the Housing Partnership’s 25 other properties.
The Mezzanine project has received plenty of attention since a groundbreaking ceremony in 2018, and a large sign on the busy Freedom Drive did a good bit to raise interest, too. The Housing Partnership had about 1,500 people on its contact list to remind about the first day of leasing, Porter said, but they didn’t expect such a high percentage of them to show.
As eye-opening as the morning was for the staff and the volunteers from Covenant who handed out coffee and water, it dimmed the spirits of those who’d arrived with high hopes.
Pamela McPhaul, who’s worked as a nursing aide for the elderly for nearly 30 years, went to bed on Sunday night after watching HGTV, thinking it would be nice to have a place to decorate like the houses on TV. She takes three buses to work each morning from the apartment where she and her daughter live off of Harrisburg Road in far east Charlotte.
McPhaul, who lost her home to foreclosure about four years ago, is in a program with Charlotte Family Housing, which helps people save money and become financially independent. She’s on track to graduate in June. She came Monday just hoping to find a place closer to the center of the city. She caught the first bus here after her shift ended around 11 a.m., but by then she knew it was probably a lost cause.
“One hundred and eighty units and a thousand people?” she said as she considered tagging on to the end of the line.
More units are coming. After Covenant announced its $2 million gift in 2017, other faith organizations in the city began to raise money to contribute.
For instance, Myers Park Presbyterian Church recently partnered with CrossRoads Corporation for Affordable Housing, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, and Grier Heights Presbyterian Church to offer $910,000 in interest-free loans to the Grier Heights Affordable Housing Project, a development off of Billingsley Road.
But to people who don’t have stable housing, future projects can seem a lifetime away. The line on Monday was quiet, cordial, subdued. Several folks made friends with the people ahead of them and behind them, even though they knew they were hoping for the same home.
Sharmae Reddick lives in a Rooming House with several other people in the University City area. She’s 50 years old and said she’s been in a temporary position as a packer at Snyder’s-Lance for five months. She believes she’ll get the job full-time soon.
She pays $150 a week for her room at the house, so when she learned about the opening of Mezzanine, she was thrilled. But when she arrived at 8:10 a.m., 50 minutes before the Housing Partnership began taking applications, she was several hundred people back. By 11:10 a.m., she had about 50 spots to go.
When I started asking her questions, a tear slipped down her cheek, but she said she wanted to keep talking. She waved her left arm around at the crowd, which was probably 99 percent black.
“It’s good, but it’s sad also that we, as black people — I’m sorry — as you see, it comes to this, to get affordable housing,” she said to me. Over her right shoulder, center city’s buildings rose in the gray sky just three miles away. “It’s just sad that people are coming to Charlotte, building these townhouses, these condos, and this is all we have to look forward to.”
We shuffled forward a few steps with the line.
“It’s just sad that Charlotte has gotten to this, where they don’t have affordable housing for people like us, of color,” she said. “When I heard about this place, that it was based on income, I was so happy. But then to come out here and see this. It makes me want to cry, actually break down and cry.”
A few more steps forward.
“I’ve been here since 2001,” she said of her time in Charlotte. “You know, you have good seasons and bad seasons.”
Hearing that, a woman in front of her, who’d arrived only a few minutes before her that same morning, turned around and hugged Reddick.
“I don’t even know you, but I love you,” the woman said. “But God sees your struggle. He sees your struggle, and He hears your cry. And He got you, in spite of everything else, He’ll bring a sunny day.”
Story update, Friday, January 31
The Housing Partnership issued an apology a few days after this story ran.
“Regretfully, we fell short in the planning and execution of the event,” a Facebook post regarding the new Mezzanine at Freedom community read. “We hear the concerns of the community and we’re factoring them all into our internal evaluation, and will make changes and every effort to ensure there’s not a repeat of this event.”
On Thursday morning, the organization announced that it would refund the $25 application fees for many of those who came. People who qualified but were too late can take a refund, or they can stay on the waitlist for the Mezzanine or any other The Housing Partnership property. People who didn’t advance past the initial screening will automatically receive a refund.
The final tally of applications was 1,417.
For further reading, check out the county’s recent housing instability and homelessness report. It’s illuminating, and shows how easy it is to go from stable to standing in line.