Charlotte has a new pot of money for affordable housing. Last fall, the city’s voters approved the sale of $50 million in municipal bonds to be put into the local housing trust fund, and last week, three financial institutions — Bank of America, Ally Financial, and Barings — announced an additional $70 million to fund affordable housing projects. All told, it’s a welcome but modest influx of resources in a city that estimates it needs at least 24,000 more housing units for people earning less than half of area median income and expects as many as 500,000 new residents in the region by 2030.
To help make the most of its new investments, last week, the Charlotte City Council approved new location guidelines meant to steer new affordable housing projects to areas close to jobs, commercial centers, and transit amenities, and in neighborhoods undergoing rapid change. As part of the new policy, proposals for most new affordable housing projects receiving government funding will be put through a site scoring system to help provide data to the city council when weighing which projects to support. It’s the first time the policy has been updated since 2011, says Warren Wooten, the housing services operations manager for the City of Charlotte.
“The policy is supposed to be directive or instructional, and [the former] policy was good at the time,” Wooten says. “It served the needs of the city in 2011, but the real estate market in 2018 and 2019 is way different. The city is a different city, so the policy just no longer fit the city.”
Potential sites will be scored 1-10 in four categories: Proximity to amenities like schools, parks and grocery stores; access to jobs; neighborhood change, with metrics related to housing prices and gentrification; and income diversity.
The neighborhood change category is important because the city wants to supply affordable housing in areas that are in danger of becoming inaccessible to low-income residents, Wooten says. And, to the extent that it can, the city is looking to provide a range of housing options in every neighborhood.
“One of the things that council talks about very often is not concentrating poverty,” Wooten says. “When we talk about housing diversity, it basically looks at what types of units the development is going to provide and at what income level, and compares it to the income level of the community. It’s looking to see that it’s providing different options.”
Back in August, the city adopted a new housing framework that prioritizes investing in housing that’s affordable to residents earning less than 60 percent of area median income, preserving naturally occurring affordable housing, and making strategic land purchases, as Next City reported in September. The site scoring system is meant to help implement some of those priorities, though high or low scores in any of the categories won’t necessarily be decisive for any particular project, Wooten says. The previous version of the policy had the lone goal of spreading affordable housing throughout the city, and the city council was increasingly providing waivers from its previous policy for individual projects, as WFAE reported last summer. The new policy is meant to help the city make more strategic investments.
“It’s just going to give developers and council more data about the neighborhoods that they’re considering placing their housing investments in,” he says.
In North Carolina, the state provides only about $7.5 million a year to a statewide housing trust fund, notes Bill Rowe, general counsel and deputy director of advocacy for the North Carolina Justice Center. (The allocation is down from about $22 million, adjusted for inflation, since 20017, according to the North Carolina Housing Coalition.) And the federal government hasn’t adequately responded to the shortages of affordable housing across the country either.
“I think cities now are recognizing that having affordable housing and having it strategically placed so people can access transit and jobs and services is really important,” Rowe says.
Governments in Durham, Asheville, Raleigh and Wake County have stepped up and put bond money into affordable housing efforts, Rowe notes, and Durham in particular is making smart investments near planned transit amenities, he says. In Charlotte, Rowe says, the city missed an opportunity to make significant affordable housing investments alongside a light rail that opened a little more than a decade ago.
“I think when the transit lines were going in, it was not understood how proactive and deliberate you had to be to make this happen,” Rowe says.
Rowe, who has worked to represent individual tenants and groups in class action fair housing matters, now spends most of his time lobbying for more housing resources at the state level. The damage brought by the hurricanes that struck North Carolina last year have focused some legislators’ attention on the need for more stable and affordable housing across the state, he says. But cities still need to do the work of helping affordable housing developers get control of strategic sites.
Emphasizing investment in changing neighborhoods, as Charlotte is planning to do, is a smart strategy, Rowe says.
“It’s important to try to maintain some housing for people of lower means in those communities,” Rowe says. “But it’s also important to try to have land banking in those higher-opportunity areas where there may not be any affordable housing, and therefore you can create an opportunity for people to live throughout the city, rather than having them be concentrated in one area.”
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia. His work has been featured in Philadelphia magazine, PlanPhilly, Hidden City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, City & State, Grid magazine, and other publications.