Lizzie Kane ‘22
In light of the October 29th town-hall-style event on “affordability and community justice” with the candidates running for town board and the mayor, The Davidsonian decided to investigate affordable housing in the Town of Davidson in a 2-part series.
Many cities throughout the United States—like Charlotte—are experiencing affordable housing crises, but small towns like Davidson are not exempt from the issue either. According to a 2017 Housing Needs Assessment for the town, the median sales price for houses in Davidson was $385,000 compared to $265,000 and $185,000 in Cornelius and Charlotte, respectively, in 2015 and 2016.
Rewind to the late 20th century, and affordable housing was abundant in Davidson, yet the town still had stark racial and economic divides. “Most of Davidson used to be relatively affordable; it didn’t matter where you were in town,” said David Boraks, a reporter at WFAE, Charlotte’s public radio station, who has covered affordable housing in Mecklenburg County for over a decade. “It is true that the west side of Davidson has traditionally been the lowest priced housing in town, but there have been small and inexpensive houses all over town.” West Davidson is the historically African American community in town, a neighborhood across the train tracks behind Main Street.
However, Davidson has become a hot spot for newcomers as more people are moving to the Charlotte area as a whole, causing the prices of property to skyrocket. “In a few short years, housing values have, in many cases, doubled,” Boraks said.
“The west side remained one of the only places in town where the housing pressures have been lower, but that is gone now. As the entire community prices have gone up, that has raised the value of all those homes on the west side,” Boraks said, noting that the pressure to sell is “intense” if a family owes nothing on their house because they will get “top dollar” for it. This makes neighborhoods like West Davidson lose their historic character and pushes out families who have lived there for generations.
Marcia Webster, Executive Director of the Davidson Housing Coalition (DHC), a local nonprofit, agreed with Boraks’ analysis and has dealt personally with the phenomena of rising housing prices. Two years ago, she suggested that the town buy a house in West Davidson, but it was in “really bad shape” so the town could not afford to buy and renovate it. The owners—investors living in Clover, South Carolina—had purchased the home for $80,000 and were asking for $150,000 less than a year later after making minimal renovations. Nevertheless, someone purchased the home.
“That is how the houses get swallowed up over here,” Webster said. “Before you know it, an investor can have three to four low-income houses, they haven’t done anything to make repairs, and then one day the houses are not affordable.”
In spite of these economic realities, the town has made efforts to build affordable housing. DHC was formally established as a 501c3 in 1997 after the town’s affordable housing task force concluded in 1995 that there were not enough “truly affordable dwellings” and “we were losing our economic and racial diversity,” said Webster. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, housing is considered affordable when residents spend less than 30% of their income on it.
Now, after more than 20 years of operation, DHC has 75 units of affordable housing, ranging from houses to rentals to specialized housing for the disabled or veterans. In order for homebuyers to qualify for these units, they need to make 80% or less of the area median income (AMI). For renters to qualify, their income must be 50% or less of the AMI. As of 2017, the AMI in Davidson was $105,000.
Asked about her experience buying a home through DHC, Melissa Scott, Director of Volunteers at the Ada Jenkins Center, an area nonprofit, said, “They are great. I have always worked for nonprofits, so when I found myself in a situation when I needed to utilize a nonprofit for services, it was challenging at first, but [Homebuyer Education and Financial Literacy Counselor] Gail [Brooks-Lemkin] and [Town Attorney/Affordable Housing Manager] Cindy Reid really made the process seamless.” She noted, however, that this is not the case for a lot of people because they do not have her same background knowledge about the process of buying a home. Scott has lived in her house in Summers Walk, a Davidson neighborhood, for almost five years now.
The Ada Jenkins Center has also been able to provide housing assistance through their Hope to Home program, a partnership with Hope House Foundation and Habitat for Humanity. According to Georgia Krueger, the Executive Director of Ada Jenkins, it is a “progressive teaching model” in which Ada’s client-partners can apply for up to two years of housing; the goal is for the family to either earn a Habitat house, find a third-party affordable mortgage, or obtain an affordable, long-term rental while temporarily housed.
Assistant Town Manager Karen Whichard and Reid both claimed that among small towns in North Carolina, Davidson has the highest number of designated affordable housing units.
“The way North Carolina government is structured, states and towns don’t really have any authority that’s not delegated to them by the state,” Whichard said. “From a housing standpoint, jurisdictions in North Carolina are limited by the tools that we can use, but Davidson is unique.” She described the town’s “inclusionary zoning,” which mandates that developers either make 12.5% of their properties affordable or make a payment in lieu, which amounts to $35,260 per unit. Davidson and Chapel Hill are the only towns in North Carolina with this ordinance.
Asked how Davidson is able to have an inclusionary zoning policy, Whichard said the town is “waiting to be sued” by the state government.
The payment in lieu funds go towards “targeted rehab,” a program in which the town partners with Habitat for Humanity to help people “age in place” by making accommodations to their homes, according to Whichard.
Amid Davidson’s strides to integrate affordable housing options into the fabric of the community, attitudes of NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard)—the pushback against affordable housing within the confines of one’s community—persist. NIMBYism can mean that some residents don’t want affordable housing within the confines of their community.
“I think anytime you go into a new neighborhood, and you say ‘We are going to build affordable housing here,’ people don’t know what you are talking about,” Reid said. “They conjure up images of what it is not, rather than what it is,” noting that she has addressed NIMBYism by making an effort to educate people about affordable housing, including the neighborhood in the conversation before any groundbreaking.
“People worry about property values; there are stereotypes about affordable housing being Section 8 housing [government issued vouchers that subsidize rental units] or that people will not care for their homes because they can’t afford to take care of their homes,” Scott said, adding that only a couple of people out of 300 have vocalized these types of concerns about affordable housing in her neighborhood of Summers Walk.
“Most people in affordable homes are new homebuyers; they don’t know they have to do things like power wash their house every year,” Scott continued. “We should come together as a community to educate our neighbors just like any neighbor, not just judge the affordable housing because everyone has these pitfalls when they move into their house.”
Boraks pointed out that the town also needs to build more housing to drive down costs.
“Housing economists tell us that if we had more supply, then the housing prices and rental prices wouldn’t rise so fast,” Boraks said. “This is true throughout the Charlotte area; this is not just a Davidson problem.”
However, he noted that the town board has made statements about not wanting the town to develop too much more housing. These sentiments did arise at the recent forum on affordability.
“I think the town needs to take a look at those issues and consider whether there are some modern housing policies that they can look at that would ensure that the same kind of people who live here now get to keep living here,” Boraks said.