Three ways to address affordable housing beyond subsidies

Charlotte is in the midst of a major affordable housing crunch, and though the city has substantially increased its subsidies for building leaders acknowledge there’s no way to fund the tens of thousands of units we’d need to meet demand.

The city’s Housing Trust Fund bonds have been increased from $15 million to $50 million every two years, and the Foundation for the Carolinas has led a private effort to raise another $53 million. There are more than 1,500 new units underway now. But the affordable housing shortfall totals more than 34,000 rental units, according to a study by Mecklenburg County and the Urban Institute.

And housing disparities, especially lower homeownership rates among minority groups, can reverberate for decades.

“We’ve denied families of color access to generational wealth,” said Laura Belcher, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of the Charlotte region, speaking at the group’s annual Building Futures event this week. “I want to do it faster, but it’s hard to unwind decades of policy.”

Here are three strategies the Charlotte region could use to boost access to affordable housing options besides subsidizing new construction:

End source-of-income discrimination

In North Carolina, it’s legal for landlords to refuse to rent to people who have housing vouchers or other forms of assistance. They might not want to deal with the red tape that can come with accepting such forms of payment — or they might view tenants with vouchers as unsavory, a stigma that housing advocates have tried to fight.

Inlivian (formerly the Charlotte Housing Authority) has extended the time tenants have to find housing with a voucher from 120 to 180 days because of the difficulty of getting a landlord to accept it for payment.

[Charlotte Observer: Housing groups want to ban this ‘unnecessary hurdle’ for renters with vouchers]

David Williams, Policy Director at Harvard-based Opportunity Insights (which the Urban Institute is partnering with on economic mobility work in Charlotte), said working with landlords to erase “the stigma” was part of a successful effort to increase economic mobility in the Seattle area. Voucher holders were much more likely to move to “high opportunity” areas, where children have better odds of getting out of poverty, when the group worked with local landlords.

Loosen zoning rules

Charlotte Deputy City Manager and Chief Planner Taiwo Jaiyeoba pointed out — as he’s done many times over the past year — that about 84 percent of the city’s land area is zoned exclusively for single-family homes.

Jaiyeoba pointed to the history of zoning rules based around the idea that “people should live where people of their kind live” as a major factor in Charlotte’s largely segregated present-day appearance. Addressing that is one of the goals of the city’s current comprehensive plan and unified development ordinance rewrites.

“We talk about this arc and the wedge,” Jaiyeoba said of the city’s stark yet familiar patterns of race, income and other socioeconomic factors. “We wanted equity to drive the comprehensive plan.”

[Read more: Let’s steer clear of the “D-word” when it comes to housing]

To that end, the city is looking to loosen rules on what people can build, and where: More duplexes, triplexes and accessory dwelling units on lots that are currently exclusively reserved for single-family housing, for example. But Jaiyeoba also said he doesn’t think simply building more housing will solve the problem on its own, if builders focus on upscale or luxury units.

“Another mantra is build, build, build. When I hear that, my next question is what are you building?” he said. “If we’re building something that’s out of reach for most people, that’s really not a solution.”

[Read more: Can we build our way out of the housing affordability crisis?]

Expand public transit

Another paradox Jaiyeoba pointed out: Much of the region’s cheaper housing is located far from mass transit, or served only sporadically by bus lines, with wait times of 45 minutes or so common. Instead of subsidizing more construction, Jaiyeoba floated the idea of investing more in transit, especially improved bus service, to make the affordable housing we have more accessible.

Jaiyeoba said local governments and developers should get creative. In addition to increasing bus frequency and improving service, he also suggested more innovative solutions, such as offering free or discounted passes to people who live along certain transit corridors. Those could be factored in as part of a new development’s perks, Jaiyeoba said.

The average annual cost of operating a small sedan in the US is $7,114, according to AAA. A medium SUV runs $10,265. Removing the need to own a car could be an effective way to help many low-income families, Jaiyeoba said, especially in auto-dependent Charlotte.