The story behind Charlotte’s affordable housing crisIS

By Pam Kelley, June 17 - Charlotte Observer

This article has been modified to fit this page.  The original title for this article was From Brooklyn to Ballantyne: The Story Behind Charlotte's Affordable Housing Crisis

Anyone who’s lived in Charlotte for a minute knows that the Ballantyne area, wealthier than Mecklenburg County as a whole, isn’t the place to find an affordable apartment if you’re a hotel housekeeper, a fry cook, a landscaper – anyone making less than $15 or so an hour.

But back in 1991, when the affluent mega-neighborhood was still a gleam in a developer’s eye, Mecklenburg County commissioners approved a document that suggested a new era of mixed-income housing in south Charlotte.

The “Standards for the Development of Ballantyne” document, approved with the project’s rezoning, stated the developer’s intention to build a variety of housing for rent or sale, “priced to accommodate all levels of income represented by Ballantyne’s workforce.”

Some lower-priced houses were built, but nothing for low-wage workers. And Ballantyne, with million-dollar homes but no subsidized housing developments, became another chapter in Charlotte’s history of affordable housing that never happened. 

This history stretches back to 1960s urban renewal, when Charlotte conducted an epic tear-down of low-cost housing occupied by black people, then failed to replace much of it. “Adequate housing for low income residents is perhaps the most pressing single need in Charlotte,” a Charlotte Observer editorial declared in 1968.

The story continues today, as the Lynx Blue Line zips past thousands of new luxury apartments but few affordable ones, even though a city policy encouraged affordable housing along the route.

Charlotte’s shortage is now described as a crisis, with an estimated deficit of 34,000 below-market units. Most are needed for people making 60 percent or less of the area’s median income, which is $79,000 for a family of four. This deficit likely underestimates actual needs, housing professionals say, because older, cheaper apartments are being demolished or upgraded faster than they can be replaced. Charlotte has added an average of 312 city-subsidized units a year over the past decade, according to a recent report.

The city’s popularity exacerbates this shortage, as growth outpaces construction, driving up prices. Local rents have climbed 45 percent since 2010 and now average more than $1,100 a month. In many ways, these problems, fueled by stagnant wages and gentrification, mirror housing shortages in urban areas around the world.

In one way, though, Charlotte stands out. In 2014, a groundbreaking study of U.S. social mobility ranked Charlotte last, 50th among 50 of America’s largest cities. The study revealed that children here who were born poor mostly stay poor, that Charlotte wasn’t the opportunity-rich place many citizens assumed. It was, in fact, the opposite – a city rife with economic inequality. A local task force tagged a lack of affordable housing as a major cause.

Today, spurred by that last-place social mobility ranking, Charlotte has launched the most intense push for affordable housing in its history.

In November, voters approved a $50 million Housing Trust Fund bond, more than triple the $15 million bonds of the past. A Foundation for the Carolinas campaign has nearly matched that $50 million with private gifts. Banks and other institutions have pledged nearly $100 million in land, down-payment assistance and below-market housing loans to developers. County commissioners, who usually leave most housing issues to city government, just allocated $11 million for rent subsidies.

This cash infusion offers Charlotte the chance to expand existing programs and try new solutions – paying developers to preserve older, affordable apartments, buying land for future housing, developing a metrics system to track progress. But it also begs the question: What took so long?

Blame the shortage partly on circumstances beyond Charlotte’s control. U.S. cities once relied on federal money to subsidize their low-cost housing, but in the 1980s, the Reagan administration and Congress gutted the housing budget, which never recovered. The federally funded Charlotte Housing Authority now serves about 16,000 residents with its apartments and housing vouchers, only 500 more than in 1999, when the city had 300,000 fewer people.

Also, North Carolina doesn’t give local governments the authority to take actions other cities and states use to promote economic equity – requiring developers to include affordable units and prohibiting landlords from automatically rejecting tenants who pay rent with housing vouchers, for example. Housing activists argue that state legislators’ unwillingness to allow such policies obstructs real reform.