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Former Charlotte, N.C. Mayor Brings an Insider’s Perspective to the Affordable Housing Challenge

May 14, 2018 | By

“Solving the puzzle of affordable housing can best be done when public and private groups come together,” says Jennifer Roberts, former Mayor of Charlotte, N.C.

A lifelong champion for education and equality, Roberts has a rich history of advocating for affordable housing, stemming from her days as chairman of the (N.C.) Mecklenburg County Commission, where her duties included overseeing the Department of Social Services (DSS).

That’s why she was gratified to join the Expert Advisory Panel, a group of industry leaders, who are working with Fannie Mae on its Sustainable Communities Innovation Challenge. The Challenge is a two-year, $10-million initiative designed to garner innovative ideas from a wide variety of stakeholders to address the affordable housing crisis in America.

Jennifer Roberts with community volunteers.

The need is only increasing, and the just-released study Housing Underproduction in the U.S. underscores the importance of identifying solutions. It found that 22 states and the District of Columbia built too little housing to meet the needs of growing populations, falling 7.3 million units short between 2000 and 2015. The impact of such a housing shortage can cause concentrated poverty, negatively affecting the community as a whole – its residents, school systems, and the overall quality of its neighborhoods.

Lack of Affordable Housing Causes Great Impact

“The concept of affordable housing involves far more than just a place to live,” Roberts says. In fact, society as a whole suffers when affordable housing isn’t available near good jobs and schools.

“When there is concentrated poverty in one school, it’s that much harder for those students to be successful and gain the skills they need to eventually get the jobs that will keep them out of poverty and break the cycle,” notes Roberts. “Having access to a solid education and good mentors can show kids what’s possible and what they might imagine for themselves one day.”

She’s also seen the negative effects on professionals, like teachers and police officers, who have been priced out of the market. One of her children had a teacher who lived in South Carolina, where housing was more affordable.  However, she struggled with a 23-mile commute that routinely took her more than an hour to get to work each day.

In Roberts’ experience, inadequate housing affects people’s health, which impacts their ability to work, which impacts business productivity, which becomes a cycle that feeds on itself.

Energizing Various Stakeholders to Get Involved

As mayor, Roberts was able to bring together diverse groups – from legislators to developers to concerned citizens – to address the issue of affordable housing.

The city received a wakeup call in 2014, when a study released by Harvard University and U.C. Berkeley ranked Charlotte last on a list of the top 50 largest U.S. cities for “economic mobility.” This concept relates to whether a child whose parents are in the bottom 20 percent of the national income distribution has sufficient opportunities to improve their path and eventually rise to the top 20 percent.

In response, Mayor Roberts spearheaded the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, supported by local citizens and the business community, to discuss changes that were needed to improve local economic opportunities.

As one byproduct of this increased public awareness about contributors to economic mobility, the city plans to seek $50 million in affordable housing bonds in the fall 2018 election, which will more than triple the current amount of money available for affordable housing.

Another key component of the solution is to work with developers to encourage them to embrace mixed-income housing. In Charlotte, citizens attended zoning meetings to express their interest in this type of housing, which convinced developers of the community’s need and appetite for diverse housing options.

As one example, a developer who received approval on the west side of Charlotte for more than 4,000 units agreed — with no incentives or requirements — to develop 8 percent of the new River District master planned community as affordable units, yielding a total of 320 new affordable units.

That’s the type of multi-pronged approach she hopes The Challenge will uncover.

Sharing Best Practices to Find Better Options

According to Roberts, the state of North Carolina has fewer tools available for building affordable housing because of a lack of inclusionary zoning; yet she has discovered ideas that other municipalities are testing and experimenting with that may help diminish the barriers. It’s always a hot topic at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, for example, where attendees share how their communities are successfully closing the economic opportunity gap.

“Knowing that states have different rules and regulations, it’s important to view the affordability challenge from a global perspective and learn to identify  best practices that may be  emulated where you live,” she says. “When we share ideas, we can discover state laws or local ordinances that could be changed for the better.”

And no matter where the compelling ideas originate, people need to stretch their imaginations to explore the possibilities; for example, tiny houses are a solution found to work for many communities. “Let local folks decide what fits their culture, climate, and economy, and let innovation thrive,” she says. “We need to give communities the tools they need to flourish by solving problems locally.”

As we place more emphasis on innovative thought and practices to reach the best solutions that will truly impact people’s lives in positive ways, affordable housing is something that can’t be ignored. “It’s exciting to see what is waiting to be uncovered by The Challenge,” Roberts says.

To learn more about The Sustainable Communities Innovation Challenge, visit our website.

Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer who writes for The Home Story as well as for The Oregonian,,, and other online and print publications.






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