Meck­len­burg plans to spend mil­lions for rental sub­si­dies

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY LAU­REN LINDSTROM llind­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Meck­len­burg County plans to ex­pand its role in af­ford­able hous­ing over the next year by al­lo­cat­ing mil­lions for rental sub­si­dies for the first time. Now of­fi­cials must de­cide how the fund­ing will get into the hands of county res­i­dents.

Com­mis­sion­ers ap­proved $22 mil­lion Tues­day for af­ford­able hous­ing — in­clud­ing $11 mil­lion for rental sub­si­dies — as part of the county bud­get.

But the county hasn’t de­ter­mined how the sub­sidy pro­gram will be struc­tured, in­clud­ing whether the county or non­prof­its will ad­min­is­ter the pro­gram. Also up for de­bate is whether the money will go first to those with the low­est incomes or to a mix of incomes.

Com­mis­sioner Mark Jer­rell said Thurs­day the al­lo­ca­tion demon­strates com­mis­sion­ers’ commitment to af­ford­able hous­ing.

“I char­ac­ter­ize (the fund­ing) as a re­flec­tion of the need of the com­mu­nity, and the board is re­spond­ing,” he said. “This is­sue is not just a city is­sue, it’s a com­mu­nity is­sue. It’s im­por­tant that we step up and we lead.”

Jer­rell, a District 4 Demo­crat, said it will be critical to connect par­tic­i­pants with ex­ist­ing county pro­grams and so­cial ser­vices to

en­sure they can be fi­nan­cially in­de­pen­dent af­ter re­ceiv­ing sub­si­dies.

“It’s not just keep­ing peo­ple sub­si­dized for­ever. That can’t be the ap­proach,” he said, not­ing an ex­cep­tion for se­niors. “This is a way to lift peo­ple out of th­ese cir­cum­stances. So, what other ser­vices can we pro­vide cou­pled with this pro­gram to help lift them out of be­ing per­ma­nently sub­si­dized by Meck­len­burg County tax­pay­ers?”

He’d like to see most of the money go to those mak­ing up to 50% of an­nual median in­come, or $37,050 for a fam­ily of four. That could in­clude teach­ers, first re­spon­ders, and pro­fes­sion­als with sim­i­lar incomes who, Jer­rell said, are of­ten priced out of the city they work in.

Jer­rell said he ex­pects county staff to rec­om­mend pro­gram pa­ram­e­ters that com­mis­sion­ers ul­ti­mately will ap­prove. He wants the county to be ag­gres­sive.

“I don’t want to just be con­ser­va­tive and nit­pick at the prob­lem,” he said, adding he’ll be espe­cially focused on the pro­posed scale of the pro­gram and how many peo­ple can ben­e­fit.

“This is go­ing to be the air let out of the bal­loon if we can­not help a sig­nif­i­cant amount of peo­ple,” he said. “That’s what you’ll hear me ad­dress­ing. I want to see the data and the num­bers of who we can im­pact.”

Char­lotte would need roughly 34,000 more units of af­ford­able hous­ing to meet the need, mostly for fam­i­lies and oth­ers who make less than $25,000 a year, ac­cord­ing to a city re­port. Pro­po­nents say rental sub­si­dies would pro­vide im­me­di­ate as­sis­tance be­fore more hous­ing could be built.

County Man­ager Dena Dio­rio said in a state­ment the county will con­sider other pro­grams it pro­vides, such as child care and work­force de­vel­op­ment, to of­fer “a com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach to serv­ing fam­i­lies” in ad­di­tion to the rental sub­sidy funds.

“Our af­ford­able hous­ing strat­egy is de­signed to plug-in and add value where re­sources are cur­rently not be­ing deployed,” she said. “We will an­a­lyze all the rental sub­sidy pro­grams across Meck­len­burg County, de­ter­mine if there are un­der­served pop­u­la­tions and de­velop a pro­gram ac­cord­ingly.”

OTHER SUB­SIDY PRO­GRAMS

Meck­len­burg County joins sev­eral other lo­cal gov­ern­ments of­fer­ing rental sub­si­dies. A 2014 study by the Na­tional Low In­come Hous­ing Coali­tion found more than 150 sta­teor city-funded rental as­sis­tance pro­grams, which vary by el­i­gi­bil­ity, struc­ture and fund­ing model.

In no­to­ri­ously ex­pen­sive Seat­tle, a com­bi­na­tion of levy dol­lars and city gen­eral funds pro­vide rental as­sis­tance for tenants most at risk of home­less­ness.

A city re­port there shows the pro­gram helped more than 700 house­holds last year avoid im­mi­nent evic­tion or move into a rental unit from a shel­ter, ve­hi­cle or the street.

De­cid­ing on a tar­get pop­u­la­tion is im­por­tant when build­ing a rental sub­sidy pro­gram, said Jess Chow, a plan­ning and de­vel­op­ment strate­gist for home­less strat­egy and in­vest­ment for the city of Seat­tle.

“That’s where agen­cies and ju­ris­dic­tions can re­ally strug­gle. You’re say­ing, ‘yes’ to one group, you’re say­ing ‘no’ to an­other group in need. How are they go­ing to get sup­port?” she said. “You have to be will­ing and able to have hard con­ver­sa­tions.”

The Seat­tle pro­gram uses a rubric to de­ter­mine who is at high­est risk of home­less­ness. Par­tic­i­pants must be at 50% area median in­come or be­low and are el­i­gi­ble for up to six months of sub­si­dies within a 12-month pe­riod. That cap has proven suf­fi­cient, she said, as most par­tic­i­pants use the sub­si­dies for about 90 days.

HOW TO STRUC­TURE MECK­LEN­BURG’S PRO­GRAM

Com­mis­sioner Su­san Har­den said she’s lis­ten­ing to lo­cal af­ford­able hous­ing groups for guid­ance on how to struc­ture the pro­gram.

“One of the big ques­tions out­stand­ing is: do we de­cide to cre­ate a self­fund­ing mech­a­nism like an en­dow­ment with a bond pre­mium or do we use the en­tire $11 mil­lion and ex­pense it?” she said.

Hous­ing ad­vo­cates of­fered ben­e­fits and draw­backs to each method. An en­dow­ment model en­sures avail­able fund­ing that grows for years to come but less money is im­me­di­ately avail­able. Treat­ing the fund­ing as a bud­get item to be spent in its en­tirety could fund more vouch­ers but would have to be sus­tained through ad­di­tional county in­vest­ment or other means.

Angie Forde, a long­time af­ford­able hous­ing ac­tivist, lauded Meck­len­burg County’s bud­get al­lo­ca­tion, call­ing rental sub­si­dies an “ex­tremely valu­able op­tion,” to im­me­di­ately help close the gap be­tween avail­able hous­ing and those who can’t afford it.

“It is to me such an ob­vi­ous ad­di­tion to the things we’re al­ready do­ing,” she said of the sub­si­dies. “We can­not build our way out of (the prob­lem).”

As county of­fi­cials discuss how to ad­min­is­ter fund­ing, Forde pointed to ex­ist­ing pro­grams like A Way Home as in­spi­ra­tion. A five-year pi­lot pro­vided rental sub­si­dies and sup­port ser­vices to 114 fam­i­lies to move into mar­ket rate units.

The pro­gram tracked the fam­i­lies’ progress for two years af­ter the twoyear sub­sidy pe­riod ended. About 75% are pay­ing rent with­out as­sis­tance, main­tain­ing em­ploy­ment, and have not had a sub­se­quent evic­tion.

Judy Seldin-Cohen, board chair for A Way Home, said the group is in con­ver­sa­tions with the county, call­ing it “a great part­ner” in the pi­lot pro­gram.

“The county has been ea­ger to be in part­ner­ship with us to fig­ure out how to best use this new fund­ing stream,” she said. “The county un­der­stands the value of uti­liz­ing in­fra­struc­ture that is al­ready in place.”

Seldin-Cohen said she is in fa­vor of an en­dow­ment model.

“We are al­ways go­ing to be faced with the is­sue of home­less­ness, which is sad but it’s re­al­ity,” she said. “The beauty of a trust or en­dow­ment is that they grow over time. It is truly a vi­sion­ary mo­ment where we can pro­vide for the fu­ture.”

Peter Kelly, co-founder of af­ford­able hous­ing ad­vo­cacy and ed­u­ca­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion Eq­ui­table Com­mu­ni­ties CLT, said the prob­lem is too dire to wait for an en­dow­ment to earn in­ter­est.

“I have a strong be­lief that if we’re in an af­ford­able hous­ing cri­sis, act like it,” he said, though he stressed the im­por­tance of a long-term fi­nan­cial commitment from the county to con­tinue pro­vid­ing sub­si­dies.

Set­ting pro­gram pa­ram­e­ters won’t be easy, Kelly said, which is why he ad­vo­cates for county of­fi­cials to take 60-90 days to hear from lo­cal ex­perts and form a de­tailed plan.

“Th­ese are tougher ques­tions we haven’t dealt with,” he said. “I don’t think any­one should make a long-term pol­icy de­ci­sion off the cuff.”

This work was made pos­si­ble in part by grant fund­ing from Re­port for Amer­ica/GroundTrut­h Project and the Foun­da­tion For The Caroli­nas.

JEFF SINER [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Meck­len­burg Com­mis­sion­ers ap­proved $22 mil­lion Tues­day for af­ford­able hous­ing— in­clud­ing $11mil­lion for rental sub­si­dies — as part of the county bud­get. There are some is­sues still to be ironed out, how­ever.

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