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To meet affordable housing need, city may shift strategy 

Housing first

Two years ago, a coalition of housing advocates hoped the city's Housing Trust Fund would give money to rehab Sandhurst Apartments and turn the aging west Charlotte complex into an affordable housing venture. That effort failed, but it looks as if the idea — renovating existing apartments to fill a need for lower-income housing — might be gaining traction among Charlotte City Council members.

Council members are expected to decide June 9 how much in affordable housing bonds to put on the November ballot. While the trust fund's Advisory Board pushed for $30 million, City Manager Curt Walton's proposed 2009 budget recommends $10 million.

Some council members are gunning to get the final budget number closer to $30 million, but others -- tired of seeing low-income housing concentrated in their districts and concerned the bonds aren't the best way to address affordable housing -- are resisting the move. "For the most part, people are happy with the way the manager has constructed the budget," said at-large Councilman Anthony Foxx. "I'm going to try to fight for as much affordable housing ... as we can do."

City housing officials more than three years ago estimated that the city lacked 11,000 affordable housing units for people making 24 percent or less of the area's annual median income of about $65,000. They projected the need would grow to more than 17,000 units by 2010. The Housing Trust Fund estimates that it would cost $75 million a year to address 50 percent of that gap. "Obviously, with market conditions today, the need is probably going to grow beyond that," Foxx said.

Housing is defined as affordable when occupants are paying no more than 30 percent of their adjusted gross income for housing costs, including utilities. Although Charlotte has no shortage of vacancies, rental costs are often out of reach for low-wage earners. And landlords can't cover their costs with 30 percent of a low-wage earner's income.

Councilman Michael Barnes, who has supported affordable housing in the past but worries about their concentration in his northeast Charlotte district, said he's comfortable with City Manager Curt Walton's $10 million recommendation. The lack of affordable housing, he said, "won't be fixed in one or two bond cycles."

"Clearly everybody needs some place to live, but I think that some government subsidies are actually crippling," Barnes said.

Barnes, however, did suggest at a council budget meeting last week that the budget include an additional $5 million for rehabbing existing housing -- something Chris Wolf, executive director of A Way Home, an affordable-housing advocacy group, said is sorely needed.

Wolf, who's been lobbying council members, believes $10 million isn't enough, but says $30 million "with some change in procedures" would be a good starting point. Wolf was behind the effort to buy Sandhurst two years ago, and he argues that one answer to the affordable housing crunch is buying cheap apartment complexes.

Such complexes, whose upkeep is often costs more money than rent can bring in, can be turned into service-enriched housing -- housing with on-site social services in which residents are asked to play a role in the building's upkeep.

Foxx said council members are interested in exploring how the Housing Trust Fund can use existing housing to meet the need.

Wolf wants the trust fund's priorities to change so nonprofit groups can compete more readily with for-profit developers. He thinks the fund's application process should give extra weight to nonprofits whose proposals meet needs outlined in the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness, including ventures such as service-enriched housing. Such housing supports low-income residents with on-site social services and asks tenants to play a role in property's upkeep. "You can't expect the city to pony up everything," Wolf said. "We've got to look at new methods."

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