'I lost my home, I stayed in my car': Residents plead for help with housing costs

'I lost my home, I stayed in my car': Residents plead for help with housing costs
Citizens stand as speakers address the Charlotte City Council on Monday, April 9, 2018, about the need for affordable housing. (Credit: Jeff Siner | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - Activists and residents squeezed by rising rents urged the Charlotte City Council on Monday to do more to build affordable housing.

Holding signs with slogans such as "I Am Housing Insecure" and "30,000 Priced Out and Counting," the residents filled the council's chamber Monday night.

Richard Simmons, a Vietnam veteran, told council members he "wanted to put a face" on the data that show rents are rising.

"When I moved into my apartment, I was paying $550 a month, or 40 percent of my income," he said.

Simmons said his apartment complex in Matthews has been sold, with new owners making small cosmetic changes.

"They painted the countertops and put in new appliances, and my rent is now 70 percent of my income," Simmons said. "There is little left for food, utilities or a car. It's unfair to ask me, at 72 years of age, to leave my apartment."

Council members and Mayor Vi Lyles have said building more affordable housing is a priority, and it's been one of their most discussed issues. After the Keith Lamont Scott protests and riots, city leaders said they would build or preserve 5,000 affordable housing units in three years instead of five years. The city said it's on track to meet that goal.

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But the city's Housing Trust Fund is almost depleted. And there is a debate among council members about whether the city should focus on building housing for the poorest residents or whether to build so-called "workforce housing" for people earning up to 80 percent of the area median income. That would be about $56,000 a year.

John Devine, a home remodeler, said the city needs to do more. He urged council members to seek $50 million for the Housing Trust Fund, rather than the $15 million the city usually asks voters to approve every two years.

"These injustices contribute to social unrest," he said. "The Chamber and city government act as though stadiums and fancy restaurants make us world-class."

He also criticized the city for not putting more pressure on developers to include affordable housing in their developments. He cited a project under construction near Pearl Park in midtown that received $4.4 million in city and county money in exchange for building roads and other infrastructure.

Sharon Edwards, who lived in the Twin Oaks apartment complex near NoDa, said she was speaking to offer support for people who are facing eviction or those who can no longer afford rising rents.

"I am here to give my help to people who need it," she said. "So many people are getting kicked out of their places."

Another woman, Martina Lowery, said she had to sleep in her car and in a church after being pushed out of her apartment.

"I lost my home, I stayed in my car," Lowery said.