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The ‘new urban renewal:’ Low-income neighborhoods built to fail
New developments drag on older communities
Published Wednesday, September 5, 2018 8:00 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

Ricky Hall, a West Boulevard Corridor activist, is a critic of lax planning and oversight of low-cost developments near struggling or fragile neighborhoods near the urban core.

First in a series of articles on workforce housing’s impact on Charlotte’s struggling communities.

Low-cost, single-family neighborhoods built over the last 20 years were supposed to give lower-income residents a shot at the American dream.

It hasn’t turned out that way.

Research by Janni Sorensen, a UNC Charlotte professor, and Melissa Currie of Texas Tech University found the so-called affordable housing subdivision boom from the late 1990s to the Great Recession of 2007 did not improve life for lower-income households. They characterize the neighborhoods and government policies that allowed them as “repackaged urban renewal” – often built without adequate planning near negative assets, such as former industrial sites, or environmental contamination.

Sorensen, who works with homeowners’ groups in West Charlotte, and before that in East St. Louis, Illinois, has seen the impact of substandard planning on communities. Most of the damage has been done in predominantly black new developments like Windy Ridge in West Charlotte, which were hit by large-scale foreclosures during the Great Recession and have yet to fully recover.

“These houses, when you zoom in on them, they look like the American dream,” Sorensen said. “Small houses, the kind of picket fence dream that comes true at a very affordable price, but the reality is that this was not once people moved in.”

The type of home construction and amenities also have an impact on a community’s prospects. Shoddy craftsmanship drives down home values, said Ricky Hall, a West Boulevard Corridor activist and Reid Park resident. So does a dearth of shopping, schools or other assets that attract residents long-term.

“When we think of housing development in certain parts of the city, you see a predominance of and over-reliance on housing of one type and not housing that’s driven to impact community and/or homeowner investment long-term,” Hall said. “The model I talk about is starter homes in terms of the quality of materials that are used, be it a Habitat [For Humanity] or private sector developer, doesn’t lend itself to long-term value or community in terms of raising the economic profile that allows for other amenities to be drawn to the area.”

Currie, who was a UNCC doctoral candidate at the time, looked at Mecklenburg County single-family-home neighborhoods built between 2000-10 in the bottom third of the local housing stock, which meant a maximum sales price of $170,000. The research used the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer to define and analyze neighborhoods.

“I had some really neat stories from people who bought homes there and rented homes there who said they felt like they had finally been achieve the American dream, but it turned out to be a nightmare,” Sorensen said. “The homes they bought for $130,000 very quickly lost most of their value and the surrounding houses were going into foreclosure and people were not paying their [homeowners association] fees because they saw their investments were lost because of the rapid loss of value.”

For each of the 80 identified starter-home neighborhoods, Researchers compared median sales prices when the homes were built and the median price of the most recent sales occurring from 2012-14. They looked at neighborhood locations and proximity to  locally unwanted land uses, known as LULUs by planners. Researchers found 100 types of LULUs, including toxic waste, railroad transfer yards, big-box stores, major highways and high-voltage electrical lines.

The neighborhoods were rated stable or unstable, based on whether home values by 2014 had on average lost less than, or more than, 15 percent of their initial sales price. Forty-four were rated unstable and 36 stable.

The research found:

• A clear pattern that many neighborhoods aimed at lower-income households were built near pre-existing LULUs.

• Of the unstable neighborhoods, 54 percent had been built in industrial locations. Also, 37 percent of unstable neighborhoods were infill development inserted into existing low-income neighborhoods.

• Starter-home neighborhoods built inside the Interstate 485 loop highway had lower median incomes, lower educational attainment, higher densities, higher crime rates, lower rates of homeownership, higher minority populations and lower home values.

Race also factors into the creation and siting of lower-income development, according to the research. Communities are almost exclusively built near black neighborhoods that lack the economic and political tools to fight for higher housing standards.

Also, the newer communities tended to be located near LULUs. Taken together, it’s proven a disruptive force for existing communities of color as well as startup communities.

“This is an environmental justice kind of question,” Sorensen said. “What came first: the only desireable land use is a dangerous land use? Do they come first and make the land affordable, or do they come because people didn’t care about the demographics, the population of people who lived in those locations?”

Part 2: Charlotte historically develops low-income housing near poorer neighborhoods

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