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After the fall 

Affordable housing is hard to find

Finding a home when you're near the bottom of the economic food chain isn't unlike playing a game of musical chairs. The music stops, and the extremely poor can't find a seat. It stops again, and the really poor are left standing. Stops again, and not-quite-as-poor are out of luck. Slowly, as affordable housing disappears, more people feel the squeeze.

It's all about supply and demand, affordable housing advocates say, although in this case supply comes nowhere near to meeting demand, and the market isn't balancing things out. In 1970, about 300,000 more affordable housing units nationwide were on the market than were needed, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Fast-forward 35 years, and there's a shortage to the tune of 4.4 million affordable homes.

Charlotte is far from immune. According to a draft 2006 plan that local officials submit annually to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Mecklenburg County needs 11,272 more affordably priced units to house families with incomes of 80 percent or less of the median income. That's hardly the poorest of the poor -- slightly more than half of Mecklenburg County households are among that group. But only about 5,800 affordable units are slated to be repaired or built in Charlotte -- not nearly enough to meet the demand.

Build enough homes, so the gospel goes, and you could end homelessness immediately. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, about 80 percent of people can get back on their feet quickly if they get a rent subsidy or have help finding housing.

But builders don't make profits on affordable housing, or else the problems would be solved. "They just can't do it and meet their construction costs," said planning consultant Carol Morris, whom local officials have asked to help draft Charlotte's 10-year plan to end homelessness.

To make a profit, developers must appeal to higher income groups. As a result, many cities have a glut of housing out of reach for the poor. Charlotte, for instance, isn't even facing a housing shortage overall. The area may need thousands of affordably priced units, but, according to real estate research firm Carolinas Real Data, Mecklenburg County has more than 6,300 apartment vacancies.

Many families who leave Charlotte Emergency Housing pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent, according to shelter documents. Even affordable housing built with tax credits and other incentives can't keep rent low enough to serve many of these families.

Affordable housing is one challenge that Charlotte's 10-year plan to end homelessness will strive to address, said Chris Wolf, director of A Way Home, an agency that advocates for the homeless. One goal of the plan, Morris said, might be to build a specific number of affordable housing units. "It will be getting very specific," she said.

Money isn't the only challenge to affordable housing. Often would-be neighbors protest such construction, fearing their property values will go down. Morris cited as an example McCreesh Place, single-room occupancy transitional housing in NoDa that was met with mixed feelings from residents and business owners. "To make it part of the neighborhood, the folks who built McCreesh Place had to do a lot of work, in order to get neighborhood support for that," she said. "Transitional housing may even be more of a challenge."

Kirsten Sikkelee, director of the YWCA's Women In Transition program, says the outpouring of support after Hurricane Katrina showed people do care enough to help. She observed the giving with mixed feelings -- glad that the evacuees were being helped to find local housing, but sad that local homeless weren't getting a similar reception. "There were people already here who would have loved to been sponsored with an apartment," Sikkelee said.

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