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Charlotte's planning history restricts location of affordable housing
Developments usually sited near low-income areas
Published Thursday, October 18, 2018 8:00 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

Charlotte's neighborhood planning history has resulted on construction of low-income and workforce housing communities built near existing low-income areas. The impact has dragged down property values and higher rates of foreclosure.

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Editor’s note: Second in a series of articles on workforce housing’s impact on Charlotte’s struggling communities.

For years, Charlotte’s answer to affordable housing was to build in low-income areas.

As new neighborhoods sprouted in the north and west, they maintained certain characteristics – inconsistent construction, absentee owners and communities located near non-existent assets such as supermarkets or parks. Such an example is the Windy Ridge neighborhood in West Charlotte. The community off Rozzelles Ferry Road and Brookshire Boulevard was built in the late 1990s only to come apart as the 2008 recession fueled by a national mortgage crisis shuttered homes. It pointed out weaknesses in Charlotte’s zoning and planning process, which allowed developers to pack struggling new neighborhoods next to existing low-income communities.

“A lot of our neighborhoods have failed and it’s particularly in black and brown communities, mainly because of poor public planning,” said City Council member Justin Harlow, who represents District 2, which includes Windy Ridge. “We have had no instance of a comprehensive plan. We have zoning ordinances, but those ordinances have not really lined up with those plans and they’ve certainly been done on the backs of lower-income and lower socioeconomic communities that just happen to be majority minority.”

Research by UNC Charlotte professor Janni Sorensen and doctoral student Melissa Currie, who is now a professor at Texas Tech University, found Charlotte’s affordable housing drive of the early 21st century did not improve living conditions for working-class and low-income communities. The researchers characterized the neighborhoods and government policies that fostered their growth as “repackaged urban renewal” – often built without adequate planning near negative assets, such as former industrial sites, or environmental contamination. Windy Ridge was one of the hardest hit neighborhoods.

“For a while they lost street lights in the community because they couldn’t pay their power bills,” Sorensen said. “The cheap construction of the homes very quickly became evident where structural kinds of problems with the houses showed within the first few years after they were built, so the quality of the neighborhood, the design and all of that were problematic.”

Sorensen’s research studied Mecklenburg County single-family-home neighborhoods built between 2000-10 in the bottom third of the local housing stock, or a maximum sales price of $170,000. The research used the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer to define and analyze neighborhoods.

The research found:

• A pattern that many neighborhoods aimed at lower-income households were built near pre-existing locally unwanted land uses, or LULUs.

• Among unstable neighborhoods, 54 percent had been built in industrial locations. Thirty-seven percent were infill development plugged 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 homeownership rates, higher minority populations and lower home values.

Harlow said he wasn’t aware of the study, but his personal observation of neighborhoods like Windy Ridge revealed the same conclusion.

“We build around railroads and we build around electrical lines or we build around old hazardous waste sites and we didn’t buck that system through the zoning process,” he said. “We get the outcomes we have with undesirable locations around undesirable assets.”

A major concern for affordable housing advocates is durability and craftsmanship of housing. Ricky Hall, a West Boulevard Corridor activist and Reid Park resident, says poor construction drives down property values as much as a lack of adequate shopping, schools or public space that attract and retain residents long-term.

“If you look at a corridor like the West Boulevard corridor or Wilkinson or the Freedom area, there’s a tremendous volume of Habitat housing, and that’s no knock on Habitat – they serve a useful purpose,” he said. “But when you look at the quality of material, workmanship and the over-reliance on volunteer labor, the preponderance of the same type of housing design, then it reaches a tipping point where communities’ impact and benefit is lost and you really start to tip the scales on the other end of the spectrum.”

Charlotte leaders need to do a better job of planning workforce housing that won’t lose value or drag neighboring communities, Harlow said. The city and developers will have to bridge a gap between often-competing interests in terms of where neighborhoods are built and the number of units.

“Developers want to participate because they want to make any dollar that they can, especially before another recession hits,” he said. “The challenge we have is really twofold. One is we want to get more units on the ground as fast as we can to get more people to have a roof over their head. However, in the areas that we want it, the land is more expensive, so more expensive land costs mean fewer units. The easiest model that’s been used, and the most detrimental model is go find the cheapest land and build the most that you can, and that’s always traditionally been in these unwanted areas.”

Hall agrees, noting that Charlotte has for generations been averse to moving workforce housing to middle- and upper class communities – the not in my backyard, or NIMBY, effect.

“One of the reasons we had the location policy is because we were discouraging the placement of housing of one type in areas that were heavily impacted,” he said. “You go back to the ‘70s and ‘80s where the location policy was formed. Now, we’re looking at changing it under the guise of mixed income development, but in fact areas that are already impacted become the predominant areas that we’re looking to place these houses, what does that do from a socioeconomic development perspective? What does it do from an economic development perspective? What does it do to address food deserts?  Poor schools? The need for connectivity and transportation to support people and get them to and from jobs? What is the overall community impact?”

Acknowledging Charlotte’s growing need for affordable housing – defined as within 40 percent of a household’s monthly income – makes deciding on a new plan paramount, Harlow maintains. As $50 million in housing bonds goes before voters via referendum next month, the city has to wrestle with balancing residents’ needs against a complex set of issues.

“We have decisions to make,” Harlow said. “Our council has really said let’s not go where it’s cheapest or incentivize where it’s cheapest. In fact, let’s incentivize where we want the best mobility outcomes, where it might mean you get fewer units but you get significantly better tong-term outcomes.”

Part 1: The 'new urban renewal'


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