The Raleigh Affordable Housing Bond is the last item on the November 2020 ballot, but for many on the brink of homelessness, it is the most important.
There is potential for real, equitable change to occur in our capital city. There is opportunity for Raleigh to be an example to the country of finding creative solutions to difficult challenges related to displacement, gentrification, and homelessness. But up to this point, Raleigh has chosen profit over innovation, and the housing bond feels like déjà vu.
The bond is currently a blank check with a wish list of five areas of desired spending: land acquisition, owner-occupied home rehabilitation, down-payment assistance, private-public partnerships, and Low Income Housing Tax Credit-gap financing. I am the first to admit that the housing crisis Raleigh faces is daunting. But my concern is that instead of facing it, city leadership is attempting to redefine it.
It is well documented that Raleigh has an ever-increasing homelessness issue. Hotels across the city are occupied almost exclusively by unhoused people. Local shelters are struggling under the weight of the need for shelter and the demands of safety in the age of COVID-19. You can’t begin to measure this phenomenon with the area median income. The “area” in AMI actually accounts for Raleigh and Cary, which renders it useless for measuring Raleigh’s housing needs. Also, our homeless residents make below minimum wage if they are making anything at all. Since a large portion of them are single mothers, and schools are closed, many parents have to make the tough decision of leaving jobs to attend to their children.
According to Housing and Neighborhoods Director Larry Jarvis, there are nearly 5,000 people on the waiting list for Section 8 housing assistance vouchers. These vouchers allow a family to pay a portion of their rent while HUD pays the rest, essentially allowing landlords to earn market rate while housing low-income families.
But in North Carolina, landlords can choose not to accept a Section 8 voucher, and many are opting out. Only a small percentage of voucher-holders find housing before the benefit expires.
Instead of making the housing bond about this issue, the city has decided to redefine our housing crisis. Instead of making the goal to house the unhoused, the new definition of the crisis is that there aren’t enough units on the market for entry-level buyers.
This redirection effort explains why the building and development community is campaigning for the bond to pass. Local construction companies, architects, design firms, nonprofits, real-estate professionals, and even one of Raleigh’s former mayors have all used their voices, influence, and wealth to encourage Raleigh to vote “Yes.”
Jarvis made it clear to city council last week that focusing on building units at 30 percent of Raleigh’s AMI would mean far fewer units can be built overall. More units overall, the council argued, is much more important than building as many units for the most vulnerable as possible. It seems like Raleigh builders and developers completely agree, and they stand to make a shit-ton of money if the bond passes.
But what will happen to those who won’t find affordable housing in this plan? What will happen to those who will be displaced while the city goes on its land-acquisition shopping spree through our most vulnerable communities? And as Raleigh welcomes more and more families fleeing natural and unnatural disasters, what will happen to those who can’t compete with their cash offers?
Raleigh’s affordable housing bond has been publicized as “creating more housing options for all,” which translates to, “If you aren’t lucky enough to get into one of the few low-income units we choose to build, here are some lovely shelters we can direct you to until you find a place outside the city limits.”
Down-ballot voting is one of the most potent tools we have to effect real change in our community. When too many Raleigh residents are unhoused and many more are on the brink, it is not the time to redefine this crisis in a way that wins the support of the building and development class.
If Raleigh wants to use this critical point in our country’s history to make change in housing, then it must center those with the greatest need. Otherwise, it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars. When at-large council member Nicole Stewart said that the city isn’t in the business of helping residents build wealth, that should apply to the millionaires, too.
COURTNEY NAPIER is a Raleigh native, community activist, and co-host of the podcast Mothering on the Margins. Comment on this column at email@example.com.
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