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A Fight for Progress in the 'New South'

Charlotte’s path forward will require a plan that lifts up all citizens in order to live up to its progressive image.

Protesters take to the streets of uptown Charlotte during a peaceful march following Tuesday's police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Weeks after the September 20th police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and a subsequent uprising, a sense that local leadership must immediately focus on the city’s most pressing social issues persists. Protests, resident upheaval at city council meetings, and ongoing public discourse on the state of Charlotte’s division among class and race, have dominated the city since Scott was killed. But how did Charlotte’s local leaders—who pride themselves on fostering a progressive political environment as much as a competitive corporate landscape—miss so many signs of displeasure for so long?

Despite Charlotte’s notable economic rebound compared to the rest of the country following the Great Recession, gains have not been felt across racial lines. Black unemployment stands at 8.8 percent, nearly twice that of the city’s white population. A dive into Charlotte’s socioeconomic disparity reveals an increase in concentrated poverty in majority black and brown communities. According to a study conducted by the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund at the University of North Carolina School of Law, over 70 percent of black households earn less than $60,000 per year compared to 59 percent of white households who earn $60,000 or more annually.

In its pursuit of progress, the “New South” has in large part failed to include its most vulnerable residents. But meaningful—albeit fragmented—progress has been made thanks to local organizations and social entrepreneurs committed to addressing the city’s most pressing social issues, often times with very few resources.

Henry Rock, for example, leads City Startup Labs, an accelerator and business training program for young black men hosted at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Since launching the program in 2014, Rock has seen more than 30 young men matriculate through the program.

Incubators like City Startup Labs are a direct response to the city’s need for workforce development and addressing disinvestment in building up local talent within the black community. “We’re in need of practical ways to address systemic issues while we’re waiting for the policy changes,” says Rock. “One of those things is getting folks involved in changing and establishing economic revitalization in our communities and understanding how that bleeds out into the larger community.”

Despite best effort by leaders like Rock, support for these types of solutions lag behind nearby cities such as Raleigh and Atlanta which continue receive national praise for their favorable startup environments and ongoing investments in local entrepreneurship.

Where other cities have found ways to scale and spur the type of activity City Startup Labs and other local entrepreneurial hubs have sought, Charlotte has puttered. Its 2013 commitment of $500,000 to help spark high growth entrepreneurial activity has seen virtually no movement. Managed by the Charlotte Regional Fund for Entrepreneurship, the money has been tied up for the last three years as a result of little direction on how funds would best be distributed.

Charlotte’s promises to do better are met with growing concerns over its slow and siloed responses to how it will produce tangible outcomes. On October 3rd, Charlotte’s eleven City Council members wrote a letter to the community promising to work collaboratively together to “enact policies,” “initiate programs,” and “collaborate meaningfully,” in order to move forward together. Meant to assuage community concern following several weeks of protests, the gesture provides limited insight or sense of urgency towards mitigating the need to prevent more displacement.

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city has crept up to over $1,000, up from $938 in March of last year. Nearly all of the estimated 25,000 apartments under construction in the region today are market-rate. A study revealed that 34,000 units of affordable housing would need to be built to meet the needs of working class and lower-income families, including the city’s growing senior population. The city council’s letter only reiterated what had already been on the books: developing 5,000 units over the next three years.

“If we’re serious about [developing] mixed income housing, and believe it’s a strategy for economic mobility, it’s going to require additional funding,” says Julie Porter, President of the nonprofit development agency Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership.

CMHP is behind various developments in Charlotte’s most disinvested neighborhoods. Of note, the organization’s development of the Brightwalk community serves as a model Porter hopes to replicate. The $125 million mixed-income urban community is set on over 64 acres of land close to Charlotte’s Uptown city center. The area was once distinguished by crime, poverty, drugs, and crumbling housing infrastructure. Now, roughly 80 percent of the development is complete and has attracted people of varying incomes to purchase multi-story, single-family homes, below or at market rates.

CMHP is now in the process of developing 70 units of affordable apartments on Weddington Road in South Charlotte toward a more affluent part of the city. The project is not without its fair share of backlash from neighbors balking at the $11 million project which will require nearly $3 million of public funds to bring to fruition.

Adding stabilized housing means Porter’s group faces unique challenges in the form of land that’s expensive and in short supply as well as resistance from wealthier neighborhoods to host these units. In order to make these kinds of projects more feasible, local officials will have to form a long-term vision for sustainable and favorable financing incentives that can protect against resident displacement as a result of rising living costs.

One route to greater equity in housing development could take root if current laws were changed to force a percentage of all housing developed to include a certain number of dedicated units for affordable housing. This method has been in use in municipalities like New York City which boasts one of the most rigorous mandatory inclusionary policies in the country.

In Charlotte, developers can elect to participate in the city’s Voluntary Mixed Income Housing Development Program which will award them with density bonuses. This method has proved to be ineffective since it was created in 2013.

North Carolina law prevents mandatory ordinances requiring developers to create affordable units. When the city of Davidson attempted to make developers dedicate a percentage of their units, they were sued by the developers. A newly minted ordinance now allows developers to pay the town $26,000 for every price-controlled home it would have been required to build.

Without state support, Charlotte faces very few legal options for increasing economic housing diversity, and will need to rely on creative routes to funding more affordable housing.

Charlotte must also define what areas of equity will be be the most important in developing a strategic path forward. Bruce Clark, digital inclusion project manager at the Knight School of Communications at Queens University of Charlotte, points to inadequate internet access as an area of concern that directly affects economic mobility. Nearly 20 percent of Charlotte’s residents lack basic digital literacy skills and immediate access to the internet. This lack of access further drives the wedge of inequity, compromising vulnerable residents’ ability to participate in the local economy. Clark and roughly two dozen organizations have established digital literacy training and device recycling in an effort to create a path to employment, literacy, and civic engagement for disconnected communities.

Charlotte’s next move to correct its social issues will be critical. Officials will need to define what investment actually means for the city and how to measure progress in order to actualize a fair and inclusive New South.

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