Saving Existing Affordable Units Could Become A Council Priority

Feb 2, 2018

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles says the city is about two-thirds of the way toward a three-year goal to add 5,000 affordable housing units. But that's far short of what's needed, and existing units are disappearing as well. So the council spent a day at its annual budget retreat in Durham Thursday exploring ideas. 

Those ideas span a wide range - adding more money to the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund, adopting new incentives to get developers to build affordable housing, and speeding up the development approval process to make projects easier. Mayor Lyles says another thing the city can do immediately is preserve existing units.

"I heard one of our presenters today say that we should acquire housing stock, the complexes that were built in the 1970s. Bring them up to a standard that we can keep them affordable. I liked that one a lot," Lyles says.

The city has an estimated 18,000 housing units built more than 40 years ago. They're often referred to as "naturally occurring affordable housing." Because they're older, they rent or sell for less than newer homes or apartments. But their locations - in older neighborhoods - make them desirable for buyers and developers, so they're disappearing.

Housing is generally defined as affordable when no more than 30 percent of a household's income goes toward rent.

Brian Collier of the Foundation for the Carolinas described the challenge:  "Somehow we've got to find a pot of money that allows organizations, developers and others, to take property that is currently on the market, and keep it affordable housing. You're losing it every day," says Collier.

Collier says it's cheaper to save what we've got than to try and build new affordable housing.  One idea is to put more money into the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Every two years voters approve an allocation - usually $15 million. Another referendum will be on the ballot this November - and many people think the figure should be higher.

Two years ago Charlotte's Economic Opportunity Task Force proposed setting it at up to $50 million.  Democrat Lawana Mayfield chairs the council's Housing and Neighborhood Development Committee and agrees it needs to increase.   

"But I don't know if we're ready to put a number on it and I don't think the community should hold council to a number, without knowing legal and financially, without raising your taxes, what can we take actually take on in debt," Mayfield says. 

She says it might be $25 million or $80 million - it depends on the city's capacity to take on more debt and whether the council wants to raise taxes.

Republican council member Tariq Bokhari sees a bigger role for the private sector. He says it would be in their own best interest for banks, health care companies or universities to help out.  He says he's already been talking to developers and business leaders in his Southpark area district - and they appear receptive.

”We’re challenging them to think about how can we proactively bring to the table some ideas that connect economic development with upward mobility, using affordable housing as a tool. And everyone's kind of nodding their heads and saying yeah, you know, maybe we could do something like that,” Bokhari says.

Among other things, that might take the form of a private-sector fund to provide financing for affordable housing. 

The council won't wait long to talk about affordable housing again. It will come up at Monday's council meeting, where Mayor Lyles says committees will be appointed to look at the Housing Trust Fund and how to preserve existing units.