Jack Swinson ’21 (he/him), Staff Writer
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted America’s housing crisis as households already struggling to afford rent or mortgage payments face work shortages. In Charlotte, this was apparent as people experiencing homelessness gathered outside of the Urban Ministry Center and created a “Tent City” — a clear indicator that the city and country do not have enough affordable housing. According to Harvard University’s “State of the Nation’s Housing” 2020 report, “One in 7 households” are “spending half or more of their income on housing.”
Something is wrong here. Affordable housing is considered any residence that costs less than 30% of a household’s income. When more than a third — let alone half — of a household’s income goes towards housing, families must decide what needs they will forego in order to pay their other bills. As saving becomes a secondary concern, many of these families face tenuous situations: an increase in rent, a lost job, or a health crisis that could force them out of a home.
In Davidson, 41% of renters and 19% of homeowners pay over a third of their income on housing, highlighting the financial toll on Davidson residents. Davidson also struggles with zoning codes that prioritize single family homes: in 2017, the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute found that 64% of “Davidson’s housing units are detached single-family homes.” This poses a problem, because these detached homes take up large amounts of space that could be multi-family units. This inefficient use of space reduces the housing supply. In addition, of the 1,400 units that were planned to be completed at the time of UNC Charlotte Urban Institute’s study, almost half of them were single family homes, perpetuating the issue.
President Biden has proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that dedicates over $200 billion towards the housing crisis. The federal government would distribute these funds to local governments in two ways. First, $40 billion would be dedicated towards restoring existing public housing across the country. However, many Democrats argue that these funds would hardly be enough to update housing in New York City, and Republicans claim that $40 billion is far too much.
The rest of the funds allocated towards housing would be used to incentivize towns and cities to make zoning laws more favorable to affordable and multi family housing. Zoning laws are key to the affordable housing crisis because they restrict what types of buildings can go in the very limited space; they often prioritize single family homes, as is the case in Davidson.
So how would this plan impact housing in Davidson? Town Manager James Justice reinforced the fact that Biden’s plan must be approved by Congress, leaving much to be known. However, Justice explained that the town “will work to offer up eligible projects that may be close to shovel ready when the time comes.” In addition, Justice showed excitement at the idea of federal aid. He cited the recent development of Hoke Townhomes — which offers eight affordable housing units as a result of work by local nonprofits and the Town of Davidson — as an example of “other worthwhile projects” that could be realized with federal support.
As for the plan’s incentivized rezoning, right now, zoning laws in Davidson require developers to make 12.5% of new housing units affordable. However, as is the case in many communities, developers sidestep this requirement by making Payments in Lieu (PIL) to the city. As the Development Coordinator at the Davidson Housing Coalition — a nonprofit that has spent the last 20 years working to address affordable housing issues by providing affordable rentals and financial education — Anthony Ryback oversees the group’s grant and fundraising efforts. He explained that developers in Davidson seem “more incentivized to just pay into the payment in lieu fund and not worry about including affordable units in their developments.” Ryback points out that “max[ing] out the value of your development, especially in Davidson” seems to outweigh the over $30,000 PIL charge.
When asked about Biden’s infrastructure bill, Ryback said that the “zoning portion of his plan would help incentivize the building of various types of affordable housing in Davidson, but planning for more inclusionary zoning, or changing zoning laws, may be a larger struggle,” citing recent resistance to altering exclusionary zoning in Charlotte as an example. Ryback’s hesitation echoes the national conversation: many critics argue that Biden’s housing plan cannot be based off of the “carrot or stick” but both. Here in Davidson, it seems that the allure of lucrative rentals outweighs the penalty of PIL payments. If incentives in Biden’s plan don’t compete with these gains, then stronger penalties must be tacked on to his approach, otherwise zoning to include more affordable housing units will not become a reality.