(NOTE: This was originally written in March 2018, now updated a little bit. The aim is to display solid writing around a controversial subject.)
The lack of “affordable housing” in Charlotte is a very hot topic these days. Our lone item of mass transit, the LYNX light rail train, runs from UNC Charlotte on the northeast edge of the city, down Tryon Street, into the North Davidson arts district, through uptown, down South Blvd to the southern tip of town at I-485. The southern leg (uptown to I-485) opened in 2007, and has spawned about 47 gazillion dollars in new development. The vast majority of this development is super-extra-high-end-I’m-a-higher-life-form-than-than-you-because-I-have-$3000-to-spend-on-rent apartments, plus numerous micro-breweries. Throughout the city, similar apartment buildings are going up. It really has been many years since anything was built that you could afford on less than $25 an hour. In 2019, if you want to rent an apartment in Charlotte, you have 3 choices:
- Pay $1,500 per month at the absolute, bare minimum, but be prepared to pay $2,000 or more.
- 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.
- 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 (80% of the median is 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 near the tracks.
I have to add a bit of the political landscape for context. The state legislature is mainly comprised of super-religious farmers that hate the city of Charlotte with a fiery, burning passion. They’re always coming up with excuses to pick fights with Charlotte. I keep expecting to open the paper and read that the legislature is 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.
(Context: Sunday alcohol sales were recently pushed back from a 12 noon start to a 10 AM start, to benefit restaurant brunch menus. One legislator cried that this was a safety risk, because the streets would now be flooded with drunk drivers while people were trying to get to church. Really. I’m not kidding. At all.)
So whatever civic project springs to life in Charlotte is going to get no help at all from the state. And of course, most Federal money is tied up in military build-up, nation-building abroad, and other anti-Constitutional functions, so not much help is available there.
A column in the Charlotte Observer opinion page addressed the housing issue. It was written by Billy Maddalon, a correspondent who grew up in Charlotte. There was some local legislation up for a vote that would prevent most of the building of “tiny houses,” legislation that Maddalon opposed (and so did I). 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. Maddalon correctly opines that the move to stop such structures from being built is based on two assumptions. 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. The second assumption is that 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.
While this is being over-simplistic at best and prejudiced against poor people at worst, I have seen some evidence that this can be true. When I got married in 2000, 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 North Davidson St Arts District, or “NoDa” as the locals call it. This area dates back to the late 1800s, when it was home to numerous textile mills and housing developments for their workers. As US textiles tanked in the 80s, the mills closed and the area became dilapidated and crime-ridden. But in the 90s, starving artists started buying the houses at rock-bottom prices and using old buildings to create and display their wares. By the end of the 20th century, the image was changing from run-down mill area to artist colony, and land values were creeping up.
During the time we lived there, the apartment complex went from mixed-income 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. 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 staff. Things were always breaking and rarely getting fixed. We eventually moved out and into a single-family house nearby that we rented from another church member. We were just in time. Less than a year after we left, it was closed due to a termite infestation. The buildings sit vacant and rotting to this day.
Now I finally get around to the main point of all this. The mindset of civic leaders as well as citizens, needs to change to solve complex issues like mass transit and affordable housing. This applies to any metro area with these challenges. Here are the changes needed:
Drop the “only build bigger houses” mindset. Maddalon is absolutely right on this one. Back in post-WWII time, there was only one way to measure success, and that was to get a bigger house. 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, no matter what their incomes are. 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 Charlotte if its leaders 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.)
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, then you were a lower life form than car owners. It is now very common to assume of people not in a car that there is something wrong with them – most likely that they are bums that expect everyone else to buy their stuff and pay their bills for them. This mindset is everywhere in Charlotte. It really looks to me like many drivers not only do want 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 the massive gaps.
Respect everyone, regardless of income. People of high income must stop viewing people of low income as leeches and therefore 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.