Time for a rant on the city I have called home for close to 30 years.
Two things are of keen interest right now in Charlotte. Our lone item of mass transit, the LYNX light rail train, has finally expanded to my old school, UNC Charlotte. It now runs from UNCC, down Tryon Street, into the North Davidson arts district (or NoDa), through uptown, down South Blvd to the southern tip of town at I-485. The southern leg opened in 2007 and has spawned about 47 gazillion dollars in new development, the vast majority of which is super-extra-hoosey-doosey-I’m-better-than-you-because-I-have-$3000-to-spend-on-rent apartments and micro-breweries. Throughout the city, similar apartment buildings are going up. In 2018, if you want to rent an apartment in Charlotte, you have 3 choices:
1) Pay $1,200 per month at the absolute, bare minimum, but be prepared to pay closer to $2,000.
2) Choose a 40-year-old unit that is so dilapidated that you really need to have one of the maintenance staff live with you as a roommate for when something breaks every week.
3) Buy a piece and move to the ‘hood.
My wife and I are using option 2 at the moment.
The city is about 40,000 units short of reasonable, affordable places to live for people who make less than 80% of the median income (about $56,000). Nothing is being built except these luxury $2,000-$3,000 per month units. And with the train line now expanded, even more of the high-end units are being built or planned near the tracks.
This highlights both the housing crisis and the transportation crisis. As far as transportation goes Charlotte really needs 3 very long train lines – the current one extended to Concord to the north and Rock Hill SC to the south, a line from Statesville through town to Ballantyne, and one from Gastonia to the airport through town to Monroe. At the absolute minimum, the first thing that should have been built is something from the airport to uptown. But of course, politicians are beholden to whoever gives them the most campaign contributions, and the west side is the least affluent side of town, so the affluent south side got the first train line. While what I have stated here is a true regional mass transit system, the only thing that is really in play are lines within the county, with the possible exception of the north line, which could go as far north as Mooresville. And even this is going to cost $6 billion. Adding to the headache is the mindset of President Trump, who wants to reduce the Federal share of road/transit building – a legitimate Constitutional responsibility of government – from 50% to 30%, while spending more money on more military than we need, nation-building abroad, and fighting the “war on drugs – none of which are legitimate Constitutional responsibilities of government. Of course, that’s part of why I didn’t vote for him (#VoteLibertarian). But I digress. So, Charlotte probably cannot count on more than $1.8 billion of Federal dollars for those lines. The state of NC paid 25% of the first line. However, the state legislature is mainly comprised of Bible-thumping redneck farmers that hate the city of Charlotte with a fiery, burning passion. They’ll find some excuse to cut that down to 15% (like funding some pet project of a state Senator in a rural county with 20,000 people to headquarter their “Bring Back Prohibition” movement with a shiny new building or something equally dumb). So that’s probably just $900 million coming from state coffers. This would leave Charlotte finding $3.billion on its own. To put that in perspective, the current half-cent sales tax that was approved by voters in 1998 was supposed to raise $1 billion over 25 years (as if the tax would be repealed in 2023, ha, ha!). That’s $40 million a year. Thanks to the recession of 2001 and the depression of 2008-09, those numbers haven’t come in. As of now, there’s about $93 million left that the tax is expected to generate in its original lifetime. But nearly every dollar of that is already spoken for.
So how do we come up with $3.3 billion for badly-needed transit and at least another $1 billion to build places for the working-class people to live?
Two columns that recently appeared in the Charlotte Observer opinion page addressed those issues. The transit issue was addressed by the editorial board, which advocated for doubling the transit tax to 1 cent. I’m OK with this, since roads (or in this case, train tracks that serve as roads) are a legitimate function of government. If you wonder where I came up with that, it’s in the Constitution, Article I, section 8, item 7. But when you need $3.3 billion, $93 million doesn’t do a whole lot. To make a decent dent, you probably have to go all the way to 2 cents, which would give you about $280 million. The other item they advocated is value capture, which is requiring a share of the value of new development to be contributed to the cost of the infrastructure. The south end of the train line is believed to have added $2.1 billion in new development – that’s just half of one train line. If you expect that much from the new half that just opened, and similar value on the 3 sections that are just concepts right now, then you’re talking $6 billion in new development. If the developers are required to give 20% to pay for the trains, that gets you $1.2 billion. Even still, you’re well over $1 billion short of what you need, unless the Federal and state government keep their current payment percentages.
The other column was about the housing issue, written by a correspondent who grew up in Charlotte. He was railing against some proposed local legislation that would prevent most of the building of “tiny houses.” I’m sure you’ve seen this concept on Travel Channel or other places. These are literally tiny houses, usually about 400 square feet at most, so you could easily build a dozen of them on 1 acre of land, and for probably no more than $50,000. The writer, Billy Maddalon, correctly opines that the move to stop such structures from being built is two-fold – for one, we are stuck in the 1940s mindset that every house that is built must be bigger than the last one because bigger is ALWAYS better, and two, building “affordable housing” will destroy a neighborhood. This is based on Euclid’s mechanical law that says, ‘things that are equal to the same things are equal to each other,’ or ‘if A = B and B = C, then A = C.’ Applied to housing, if small houses = small incomes and small incomes = undesirable people, then small houses = undesirable people. Unfortunately for Maddalon, I have lived through proof that this can be true. When I got married, I moved into my wife’s apartment. Being on disability by that time, she had a Section 8 housing voucher that allowed her to rent a place in NoDa, which was just coming into its own in 2000. During the time we lived there, the complex went from a mixed-income complex to almost entirely Section 8 recipients. And the place went completely to hell. It is true that if you are renting something, you will not care for it as much as if you owned it, or at least that appears to be the mind of most people. There were 2 ways this was evident. One was trash. There was trash everywhere. People would just toss trash bags in the general direction of the dumpsters. You couldn’t cross the parking lot without contacting somebody’s trash. Also, as the percentage of Section 8 tenants increased, the complex responded to the lower profit margin by hiring less skilled, less motivated staff, especially maintenance. Stuff was always breaking and rarely getting fixed. We eventually moved out and into a single-family house nearby that we rented from another church member.
Now I finally get around to the main point of all this – that the mindset of Charlotteans – leaders and citizens – needs to change. Here are the changes needed:
1) Leaders need to drop the 1940s mindset on houses. Maddalon is absolutely right on this one. Back in the post WWII time, there was only one way to measure success, and that was to get a bigger house than what you had. Nothing else was deemed successful. Today, people have turned back to the preference of living an urban life and being close to work and entertainment. Also, there really are people that are just fine with living in a 400 square foot tiny house. I have to do some follow-up on how it’s going, but I saw a TV program a few months ago that showed an entire tiny house neighborhood being built in Detroit, where wealth is scarce. Leaders have to embrace all options. It would also help if they weren’t swayed to be slavishly obedient to every developer in town for as little as a $1,000 campaign contribution. (I ain’t lyin’; a city council member turned her back on her entire district a few years back when a developer gave her $1,000 in campaign money to convince her to approve a project her whole constituency objected to.)
2) Citizens need to drop the 1950s car worship. As suburbs exploded in the 1950s, entire cities like Charlotte sprawled out to the point where it was impossible to get from point A to point B without a motor vehicle. With the rise in necessity of the motor vehicle, it was no time at all before the whole country was of the mind that you didn’t just need a car, you were supposed to have a car. And if you didn’t have a car, there was something wrong with you. And if there was truly something wrong with you – such as having a disability that prevented you from operating a motor vehicle – then you were a lower life form than car owners. This mindset is everywhere in Charlotte. It really looks to me like many drivers do not just want to refuse to yield to pedestrians, it looks like they want to kill them like they are cockroaches. The drivers need to accept people outside of cars as equal to them. Equally, the people outside of cars (walkers and bicyclists) need to obey the rules of the road just like car drivers. If we can cut down on the car worship, we might have some more of the brilliant people that live here coming up with brilliant ideas to close that massive funding gap to build the needed train lines.
3) Everyone, leaders and citizens, need to respect others regardless of income. People of high income must stop viewing people of low income as less than them. People of low incomes must not walk around with the assumption that everyone that has more money than them only have it because they stole it and treat them with respect. Everyone that rents a home must treat it as well as they would if they owned it. Leaders need to stop bloviating “we need more affordable housing” while they rubber-stamp every $3,000-a-month apartment development that comes up for a vote and actually come up with some incentives for developers to actually build some decent $900-a-month homes.
Again, a change in mindset will free some brilliant minds to create brilliant solutions to the issues at hand.