The affordable housing challenge in Charlotte

The affordable housing challenge in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The affordable housing crisis is not new in Charlotte, but community outcry after the September shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer accelerated the effort to spread opportunity across the Queen City.

In October, City Council members pledged to build 5,000 affordable housing units in three years as part of their commitment. It's estimated 34,000 people need affordable housing help now.

Diane, who wants to protect her identity, pays $347 a month to live at Brookhill Village near Southend. She's one of many people on the edge of being able to pay rent and needing assistance.

Brookhill offers few amenities, but it works for Diane.

"It's accessible to the bus line that I can take to go to work and go to school. And most places don't have that," she said.

Her story shows the disparity in Charlotte. Many of the units nearby are boarded up, as the owners deal with a federal complaint about crime on the property. Diane worries she may soon be told to move out, like many of her neighbors.

Yet a few blocks away is one of Charlotte's most thriving communities, Southend. Cranes dot the skyline and are visible from Diane's front door.

Southend has a lot to offer like easy transportation and good jobs, but there's a price. Many two-bedroom apartments list for $2,000 a month or more.

WBTV asked Diane how hard is it to find affordable housing in Charlotte.

"Oh my goodness, it's very hard. If you go around Charlotte, you notice all these high rise apartments. They sell from a thousand dollars and up. No poor people could afford that, you know what I'm saying? Only the rich could afford that," said Diane.

City Council gives its blessing to developers by approving rezoning requests. There's no automatic way to require developers to include affordable housing in their plans. Recent data shows more renters are falling behind in their ability to find and pay for affordable housing, yet there's a steady flow of new apartment construction.

"We get to be the neutral players in bringing all the information together," said Ashley Williams Clark, assistant director of the Institute for Social Capital at the UNC-Charlotte Urban Institute.

In layman's terms, Williams Clark crunches the numbers on housing and homelessness for Mecklenburg County, no politics allowed.

"I'm probably a broken record on this, but I say behind every piece of data, there's a person. Every number is a person," she said.

The snapshot is grim. The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development defines fair market rent for a basic two-bedroom apartment with utilities in the Charlotte metro area at $864 a month. A single parent would have to work 92 hours a week at a minimum wage job to afford the rent. Almost half the renters, more than 74,000 people, in Mecklenburg County spend more than a third of their income on rent.

Much of the work to change those numbers happens under the guidance of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Advisory Board. The board is a mix of non-profit, business, real estate and civic leaders. Their big hurdle: quantity, quality and location.

"Five thousand is a great number, but if they're all located on one street - it doesn't do us much good," said Board member Brian Collier during a board meeting in October.

Building 5,000 affordable housing units spread across the city in three years won't be easy.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership CEO Julie Porter understands the challenge all too well.

"I think Charlotte solutions will have to be at the Charlotte level and we're going to have to figure it out ourselves," said Porter.

It took years to make their senior living property, The Gables, a reality in north Charlotte. There's always a wait list. Rents range from $300 to $700 dollars for seniors who make 50-percent or less of median income.

"Just to personalize that, if you're a senior at the Gables at 30-percent of median income, you'd be making somewhere in the neighborhood of $21 to $22-thousand a year," said Porter.

Part of the mission is to spread affordable housing across the city so people can live where they work, especially in areas of opportunity. But there's often resistance to new neighbors in affluent areas. Neighbors in Ayrsley and Ballantyne in south Charlotte came out against CMHP projects in recent years, and won.

Porter said there's a misconception about those new neighbors. She said attitudes usually change with more education and interaction.

"Once you get to know them, you no longer have an objection," she said. "You realize - this is the nurse's aide I just ran into at urgent care. Or this is the barista who just filled my coffee cup."

Getting private developers to buy in isn't easy either, especially where land is pricey and rents are high.

"You have to respect the fact that for-profit developers have folks they answer to. They have to make a profit. So you have to make it revenue neutral at the very least for those for profit developers," said Porter.

There's no automatic requirement city officials can use to add affordable housing either.

"It's a little more difficult in North Carolina because the State does not have mandatory inclusionary zoning. So when a developer says I'm going to do 200 units of apartments, they are not required to have a certain percentage of those be affordable," she said.

Nationwide, city leaders are getting creative by using more options like tax incentives and bigger housing trust funds to pay for projects.

There's also a focus on mixed income construction, like the CMHP's Brightwalk community. It's a purposeful revitalization of the old Double Oaks neighborhood on the edge of uptown.

Still, Brightwalk sits in the same 28208 zip code as most Housing Partnership Projects.

"In terms of economic mobility especially, I think in Charlotte we are very segregated and we have our low income population isolated in certain areas. And because of that, it's really difficult for folks to … find their way out of poverty." Said Porter.

Back at Brookhill Village, the future is uncertain for Diane, who fears relocating.

"I'm very worried because I don't know where I'm going to go," she said.

Like so many in our city, she can see signs of prosperity right outside her door - it's just out of reach.

Copyright 2016 WBTV. All rights reserved.