Is an end coming in January for what housing advocates call legal discrimination in Charlotte?

By Caroline Willingham, Queens University News Service

After two years of work by Charlotte affordable housing advocates, a campaign to end discrimination against renters based on the source of their income should reach a climax in the next two months. 

In 2019, a group of affordable housing organizations banded together to prevent landlords from denying housing to tenants who use government housing vouchers, disability payments, child support, veteran’s benefits, Social Security checks, and other forms of income to help pay their rent. 

In April 2021, the city named seven people to the new Source of Income Ad Hoc Advisory Committee to research the issue and make recommendations. The committee is supported by Pamela Wideman, Charlotte’s director of housing and neighborhood services, city attorneys, and Inlivian, formerly known as the Charlotte Housing Authority. The committee is scheduled to meet on Dec. 16, formalize its proposal, and then report to the city council in early 2022. 

In a meeting on Thursday, Nov. 18, Wideman reminded committee members of their mission. 

“The charge of this committee is to expand the use of rental subsidy, all forms of rental subsidies, in our community — certainly including the Housing Choice voucher,” Wideman told them. “You’ve heard from Inlivian, you’ve heard from several other of our voucher partners, if you will, about how they are using vouchers in this community.” 

Skepticism Among Affordable Housing Advocates  

Despite Wideman’s confidence in the ultimate outcome of the committee’s work, some housing advocates are skeptical. Of the seven individuals selected by city council, three are developers, and the president of the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association, Kim Graham, co-chairs the committee. 

“Developers still hold a lot of power in this town,” said Ryan Carter, a housing advocate who now serves as a program manager with Rebuilding Together of Greater Charlotte. He previously worked for Habitat for Humanity and the Charlotte Regional Partnership, and in 2016 served as a research fellow on public housing issues for the U.S. House Financial Services Committee. 

Income discrimination is often an issue in cities experiencing rapid urbanization and increased density, Carter said, exemplified by Charlotte’s rapid population growth. This red-hot real estate market, he said, reduces the incentive for landlords to accept alternative forms of income because they know they can attract “ideal” renters and skirt housing protections already in place. Because the issue occurs in specific urban regions, it is usually handled by local governments.  

Progress in Other Cities 

Although Charlotte’s focus on the issue tightened in the last two years, it’s not a new problem, Carter said. Atlanta, for example, passed an ordinance prohibiting source of income discrimination in February 2020. The Atlanta ordinance stated that the pattern discriminates against low-income renters and segregates people to low-income and high-poverty areas. It also cited a resolution by the American Bar Association urging municipalities to prohibit the practice, and listed multiple states and cities that have already enacted these policies. 

Opposing Perspectives of Renters and Landlords 

Lacking these protections, Charlotte renters with assistance or vouchers face long wait times for application acceptance, with some applying to dozens of housing units, and paying hundreds of dollars in non-refundable fees without being accepted. Carter described the practice as a form of legal discrimination. Ninety-one percent of housing voucher recipients in Charlotte are unmarried Black mothers, Carter said. 

“By saying ‘We don’t accept vouchers,’ that wipes out four protected classes all in one fell swoop,” he said. 

In a 2020 survey conducted by Inlivian, Charlotte property owners cited prior bad experiences with process and tenants, excess paperwork, lengthy inspections, lack of accountability of tenant and voucher programs, less profitability, loss of autonomy, and other reasons. They also said they can easily find tenants that don’t require the lengthy voucher inspection process, a period when landlords receive no rent.  

Nonprofit Solutions 

Some nonprofits have already created programs to address housing gaps for voucher recipients. Families Together, a program run by YWCA Central Carolinas, is an 18-month, referral-based program that partners with Inlivian to provide affordable housing to homeless families with children. The program provides the family with a townhouse on YWCA’s Park Road property, and provides resources for budgeting and goal setting. If families pursue employment and complete a year of the program, they are provided a federal housing voucher and support while they pursue independent housing.  

Kenya Henderson, director of Families Together, said clients have been able to secure housing with  vouchers upon completion of the program, but lengthy waiting lists are getting worse. She expects more challenges because of Charlotte’s booming real estate market. She said a key barrier for renters is the income level standard many landlords and developers have in place, such as income being three times rent. Even with vouchers, she said, many working families are unable to meet these standards. The challenge isn’t usually money or vouchers — it’s getting them accepted, Henderson said. 

She said housing assistance recipients bear a mythical stigma that needs to be dispelled, and many tenants are essential workers simply being pushed out of their communities. Absent a broader, more comprehensive solution, nonprofits like YWCA and local churches are developing their own affordable housing solutions.  

Publicly Funded Housing Will Require Income Protections 

Housing developments that receive public funding are one of the key issues for source of income protection. Charlotte has invested in multiple affordable housing developments and is working to stipulate source of income protections as a requirement for funding. In the Nov. 18 meeting, Wideman pointed to projects financed through the city’s Housing Trust Fund that will be required to accept all forms of rental subsidies. These include Varick on 7th, an apartment complex scheduled for completion in 2023 with 105 units, 50 of which will be income-restricted for households earning 30%, 60% and 80% of area median income. Fifty-five units will be rented at market rates.  

Making Income Protection a Campaign Issue 

As residents await government action, Carter encourages voter action. “We need this to be a campaign issue,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of open city council seats. Next year is just going to be a wild year at the ballot box…. If you’re going to work for a candidate, ask them about it. If you go to candidate forums, ask them about it.” 

He said public focus on affordable housing issues is waning, and it’s easy to generalize voucher recipients into an “abstract other.” 

“This issue can’t go away. There are some real demoralizing stories of people who just call and call and call and nothing ever changes.” 

Caroline Willingham of Durham, North Carolina, is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication, which provides the Queens University New Service in support of local community news. 

The Charlotte Journalism Collaborative is supported by the Local Media Project, an initiative launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems.