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Homeless Charlottean sleeps in crawl space as affordable housing crisis worsens

“I want opportunity, to better myself. And that’s not going to happen until I find somewhere to sleep.”

By Sarah Morgan, WBTV

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - There are few things Will Howard can do to escape the noise of his everyday life. It’s loud, constant, and the chaos seems to follow the 57-year-old wherever he goes.

The Charlotte native became homeless when his family home was condemned two years ago. He not only lost his house – but everything he owned.

“It’s a struggle,” Will says while walking down Beatties Ford Road. “It’s mostly a mental struggle.”

The only peace he gets is when he’s running – something he’s done since he was a kid growing up in West Charlotte. It’s the way he escapes reality.

Will runs marathons with ease, frequently placing at the top of his age group.

Will Howard has been trying for months to find a place to live, but no one will take him.
Will Howard has been trying for months to find a place to live, but no one will take him.(WBTV)

“This is what I do to get serenity. It’s the endorphins. It’s just me and the road,” Will said.

That serenity is short-lived. Every night, Will walks through a picturesque Charlotte neighborhood near Uptown, historic homes that are newly renovated and developed, like so many across the city. But instead of walking through a front door, he climbs into a dingy crawlspace under a house.

“My patience is running thin. And I’m getting real frustrated,” he said.

Will is frustrated because last year he went through a lengthy background check and application process and qualified for a federally funded Emergency Housing Voucher, available to those who are homeless, fleeing domestic violence, human trafficking or are a part of other vulnerable populations.

He’s been trying for months to find a place to live, working with non-profit organizations like Running Works to call hundreds of rental property owners but no one will take him.

“I want opportunity, to better myself. And that’s not going to happen until I find somewhere to sleep,” Will told WBTV.

Last year, 70,000 EHVs were granted nationwide to local housing authorities through the passing of the American Rescue Plan Act.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave Inlivian, Charlotte’s Housing Authority, 178 EHVs to distribute. And while 74 have been issued, only three are currently being used.

According to Inlivin, 101 applications have been fully processed - and another 30 are pending additional documentation.

Ray McKinnon, Inlivian’s Board Chairman, says the problem is deep and multifaceted but their biggest hurdle is supply.

“You have all these people looking for housing, not just at the affordable rate, and we can’t keep up,” he said.

According to the City of Charlotte, 32,000 affordable housing units need to be built to make up for the deficit – which means 55,000 people living in Charlotte don’t currently have an affordable place to live.

Kim Graham, Executive Director of the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association and co-chair of the City’s Neighborhood Equity and Stabilization Commission, says those with vouchers are fighting potential tenants who come to the table with no strings attached.

“There are people who are qualified, with A-1 credit, who have the income, who have no criminal background history and they’re still competing against 10 or 15 other people for the same unit,” Graham said.

» Related: Renters in Charlotte apartments facing steep hikes in renewal prices

Since property owners have so many tenants lined up, people like Will who require extra paperwork and inspections are often passed over.

“It’s all the bureaucracy I would say of the housing choice voucher program that tends to be a turnoff for that rental housing provider,” she said.

The Charlotte City Council is exploring ways to clear the roadblocks many voucher holders face. Earlier this year, the Great Neighborhoods subcommittee presented options they believe could increase the acceptance of various rental subsidies - including Emergency Housing Vouchers and Housing Choice Vouchers.

The council is looking at the possibility of implementing a policy that would require any developer accepting public funds to allocate a certain percentage of affordable units.

Ways to combat income discrimination are also being discussed - but none of these options have been voted on by councilmembers yet.

McKinnon says they’re doing what they can at Inlivian to reduce the red tape with the resources they have.

“We have tried to speed up the process of inspecting and approving sites. Of course, there are some challenges that we have because of course we are federally funded, and we have certain rules we have to follow from HUD,” he said.

Will is tired of hearing promises that aren’t fulfilled. Voucher holders have up to 180 days to secure housing and Will worries he’s running out of time.

Every day something isn’t done means another night Will has to sleep in the crawl space.
Every day something isn’t done means another night Will has to sleep in the crawl space.(WBTV)

“Do something. Actions speak louder than words,” he said.

Every day something isn’t done means another night Will has to sleep in the crawl space.

“He’s not wrong to feel forgotten and left behind. And I think the responsibility is on all of us to solve this problem,” McKinnon said.

Until the problem is solved, Will will keep running, almost as if he’s trying to catch up to the city that’s flourishing without him.

“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. Do the right thing,” he said.

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