Charlotte’s lack of affordable housing has some far-reaching ripples. Communities surrounding Mecklenburg County are growing faster, as people look farther out for homes that fit their budgets. That’s created some of the same problems Charlotte is grappling with – and some different ones too.
Stephen Crane is executive director of Reinvestment in Communities of Gaston County. The non-profit develops affordable housing, in Gaston County and also Lincoln and Cleveland counties. He spoke to WFAE’s Lisa Worf for this week’s installment of the Finding Home series.
Lisa Worf: What kind of spillover effects do you see in the communities you work with north and west of Charlotte?
Stephen Crane: We have a lot of people who are looking to move west because they can't afford where they're living right now. And what we're finding is because people are coming in and it's creating a demand for housing, it creates a situation where private landlords are also raising rents and it puts pressure on people who are living below what we would call a working wage kind of level. People who work in the service industries can't afford a two-bedroom, even a three-bedroom, which is pretty much a standard house to rent. And so they kind of move further to the west and further to the west and they end up in Cleveland County where the land values aren't quite as high. Now, they're having to spend all their money commuting back into Charlotte to work. It's kind of good for the local economies, but at the same time it makes it harder on families to continue to move through their lives and move ahead with their lives.
Worf: How has that dynamic affected the amount of affordable housing?
Crane: It's increased an opportunity for people who already are living there because their property values are going up. It gives them an opportunity - I don't want to call it cashing in - but seeing the result of that long-term wealth-building that comes with property ownership. On one hand, that's a good thing. On the other hand, it also allows them to rent out a property without really having to rehab it, other than the expected standards of minimum housing standards. So that creates an imbalance as far as what is good affordable housing versus the "affordable housing" that kind of gets a bad name.
Worf: So you're seeing a rise in affordable housing that's may be renting at the same price it was before, but it's not up to the same standards?
Worf: And so how are communities trying to get their head around this and deal with that?
Crane: This comes back to what CDBGs do. And those are the community development block grants.
Federal money, federal-sourced. Grants that can be used for housing, for infrastructure. So those kinds of things kind of go into that mix. But what happens is the housing stock continues to age, continues to deteriorate and then all of a sudden now we have some of the issues that we always are talking about is people co-locate because it's affordable. It can create pockets of the poverty that they were trying to disperse or eliminate or reduce over time, which is great when you're talking at a 30,000 foot level. But when you're talking at street level, the problems can and, not always, but can sometimes follow that situation as well.
Worf: So what you're saying is that some of these pockets of poverty have really intensified over the past few years as these housing changes have taken effect?
Crane: Yes. Yeah, they do. One thing happens, another thing happens. It's a cause and effect.
Worf: Trying to break concentrations of poverty, is that a discussion?
Crane: It is a discussion. It is a concern. In Gastonia, the discussion around the Loray neighborhood, the redevelopment of the Loray mill took a long, long time probably because it was about educating the neighborhood. Would you like to see this type of neighborhood? And then there was some pushback by the neighborhood initially, but then they started thinking, "Well, wait a minute we're going to see some nicer things happening as a result of this.".
Worf: And this is a largely low-income neighborhood surrounding the mill.
Worf: And the mill has some pretty pricey loft apartments.
Crane: It does. There are a lot of people from Charlotte who have bought those or rented those apartments. The neighborhood around it was pretty upscale when it was originally built at the time. So those lots are a little bit bigger than the ones in the traditional mill villages that we had throughout Gaston County. So now when they're rehabbing those units, they're still nice houses. They're gutting them and they're making nice homes.
Worf: And as far as people being able to stay in the community as some of those pricier places go up, how is that looking?
Crane: Loray, again, is an example. They have through the Historic Preservation Trust. They were able to sell a number of the houses back to people who have lived there for years just down the street, children of the original residents in most cases. But they were able to buy the home that was just down the street from their mother's house. And now they own that house. They're contemplating, "Should I turn this over to Preservation Trust or should I try to renovate this house and maybe resell it because I'm now living in this particular house down the street." That gives rise to the obvious other discussion, but it is working well.
Worf: What's your hope as Gaston County, Cleveland counties continue to grow as far as affordable housing and the approach to affordable housing?
Crane: My hope is that organizations continue to partner, to collaborate with government, with businesses to understand that housing has to have a range of choices. And whether it's size or cost, that they continue to come out of so much of the silo- type of effect, rather than just look at each project as just a new element in the tax base. Let's talk about what the impact of that project is. Charlotte as a community decided to create a housing trust fund. That was a city and county planning process. We haven't been able to have that discussion yet in Gaston County. I think that's a big area of opportunity for improvement.
Worf: And with the Housing Trust Fund one of the things that it has going for it is that there is this more centralized control of it, right, especially when you're talking about 13 different communities in Gaston County?
Crane: Right. So those 13 communities are going to have to come together and realize that they could work together, they could create that. Now, we've got a county commission that is also going to have to consider what's good for all of the county, without having the community rivalries or the township rivalries that you would naturally get. We haven't gotten to that consensus point yet in Gaston County, in my opinion, that we can have that kind of shared discussion of how do we do this.