Monday, August 6, 2018

Should affordable housing be treated as basic city infrastructure?

Here's an interesting piece in The Washington Post today that should be provoking some discussion among people concerned with housing affordability: In expensive cities, rents fall for the rich but rise for the poor.

The conventional wisdom is that a housing oversupply will cause the costs to go down the famous law of supply and demand. If we just allow developers to build plenty of housing, rents will sink. But that appears not to be happening.

The article, which is pegged to information from Zillow, does not address Charlotte specifically. So while maybe the same is true here it′s also possible that given the growth pressures in this fast-growing city – named by Zillow as the nation's fourth-hottest housing market – the top rents here are staying high.

The most significant ponderable here, I think, is whether – if that old law of supply and demand appears not as reliable as we′ve been led to think – the free market on its own can provide enough housing at a price more city residents can afford. The City of Charlotte is helping with its housing trust fund, but it seems doubtful we can simply build our way out of the problem.

I was talking last week with a zoning and planning lobbyist in Charlotte – a guy whose planning background doesn′t stop him from generally hewing to a basic free-market approach. He said he′s starting to believe cities should consider housing affordability as part of the basic package of infrastructure the local government provides like streets, police and fire service, parks, public health services, etc. Maybe the city builds it, maybe it helps other people build it, maybe it helps people afford it, or maybe there′s another way to accomplish this, he said.

For a generally fiscally conservative guy to propose that speaks, I think, to the reality Charlotte and many other cities face: Too many residents don′t earn enough money to afford much of the available housing. And beliefs about how the marketplace can provide it may need some readjusting.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Want to know why Charlotte traffic is bad? One reason: You can’t get there from here

The lack of a connected street grid leads to congestion.
So there I was, heading to an 8:30 a.m. meeting near UNC Charlotte. Zipping up W.T. Harris Boulevard which I note is nothing like an tree-lined boulevard you might stroll down if you were a boulevardier I saw that ahead of me, traffic had stopped.

You expect it on some Charlotte streets Providence Road, for example, or I-77 at rush hour. But usually the drive up Harris Boulevard is smooth and, if not congestion-free, at least mildly and manageably congested. Not this day. My Google maps showed the section ahead as blood-colored, meaning extreme congestion. As I sat there, or crept forward, I watched the clock, fretting that I would be late for the meeting.

I cast about mentally for ways to get around the congestion. Being fully stopped, and not having reached the Old Concord Road interchange, I looked at the maps on my smart phone in search of escape routes.

There were none. My only realistic options were to get on Old Concord Road and drive far out of my way, braving either the morning university traffic or go even farther out of my way over to North Tryon Street with its multiple traffic lights, both options likely to make me arrive even later. (I screenshot the map at right about 10 minutes later.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

More parking? Less parking? The debate continues.

Tobe Holmes of University City Partners describes changes coming to the UNC Charlotte part of the city when a light rail extension opens early in 2018. In the background is a new parking deck with retail on the ground floor, built by the Charlotte Area Transit System. Photo: Mary Newsom 
In the playbook for transit-oriented development, as a city adds more transit service it needs less parking. Here's the reasoning: Building too much parking is an incentive to people to keep driving. Parking lots and decks create large, unfunded environmental and health costs, including but not limited to the heat island effect, water pollution from gallons of storm water runoff and the American obesity epidemic from too much driving.

As Charlotte’s Blue Line Extension light rail project nears completion (March 2018 is the projected opening), parking decks are rising along the line, including two huge decks near the UNC Charlotte campus where the line will end.  People who pay attention to such things ask whether we’re overbuilding parking. One recent example is this opinion piece from Charlotte Five – “It's insane to keep building huge parking decks along the light rail line.”

The piece responded to a previous article - “It would be insane for Charlotte to stop building parking for apartments — right now.”

Three thoughts about all that:

1. I think both arguments are right. We need less parking in the long run, but for now we continue to need parking. (There is a whole other topic to be addressed, not here and not today, on how to shrink the number of surface parking lots being built.)

2. In this case it’s not planners who should feel the most heat but lenders – who may not even know

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Eviction, Charlotte-style

Amid much local conversation recently about economic mobility in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, not much publicity has been paid to evictions, although sometimes it seems as if every civic leader you talk to has read, and is raving about, Matthew Desmond's book, Evicted. (See the PlanCharlotte.org book review here. And yes, I'm among the chorus of fans of the book.)

But at today's Housing Affordability Symposium, I just heard some eye-popping numbers from Ted Fillette, a long-time attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina who has worked for decades on housing issues. Some of what Fillette said:

  • Every year more than 35,000 eviction cases are filed in Mecklenburg County.
  • Those cases are channeled through small claims court. Three courts run concurrently daily, five days a week and 50 weeks a year. Each magistrate (the judge for these cases) is assigned 30 to 120 cases per hour.

“What does it take to assume you only need 30 seconds or 60 seconds per case?” Fillette asked. “The presumption is people will not know their rights, can’t find the courthouse, or won’t have a defense.”

Speaking in the small auditorium where I'm sitting, Fillette describes the process: “What happens when 80 or 100 people show up, in a room about this size, and a magistrate calls 100 names per hour?”

If the tenant doesn’t hear his or her name the magistrate writes on a notepad to enter a judgment against the tenant. The tenants aren’t mailed the judgment. The first time many people learn a judgment has been entered against them is when they get a note from the sheriff, and the sheriff’s deputies show up. “They have five minutes to get the kids, pets, medicine, anything they can carry, then the house is locked up,” Fillette said. They have seven days to retrieve their belongings. If they have no place to move their things, the landlord can sell, destroy or throw away all their belongings.

“And there’s a record at the courthouse that stays there forever. ... It’s as much of a permanent scar as a criminal conviction.” Being evicted makes it difficult to ever rent again.

Fillette said that of the 35,000 eviction cases a year, his office will represent about 400 -- and win 95 percent of those cases. “It’s the ones we don’t see that matter.”

Of the people in eviction court, 95 percent are African-American women, or disabled or elderly, he said.

“What’s happening to African-American men in the criminal system is happening to African-American women in the court system.”

Monday, December 12, 2016

The ever-present dilemma of paying for transit

The topic of transit – or the lack of it – arose during public hearings on the vast new River District development that won city approval last month. The almost 1,400-acre development will grow west of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in what today is a rural and thinly settled area.

The development is expected to generate 120,000 vehicle trips a day. That number got the attention of Charlotte City Council members, who talked about transit but did little beyond talk before approving the developers' rezoning request.  That's because the city's plans for transit to that part of town are, for now, vague and – like most of the 2030 Transit Plan beyond the Blue Line Extension – unfunded.

The city isn't allowed to impose impact fees without state legislative approval. And don't hold your breath for that. Further, state courts struck down some counties' attempts at adequate public facility ordinances – where developers either had to wait until local governments could afford to offer public facilities such as classrooms and police/fire service to serve the new development, or pay a fee to help the local government provide them.

So Charlotte can't do what Sacramento, Calif., is proposing: a transportation impact fee on most new construction to fund

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Trees, grass, drought and the future


Can lush lawns be sustained with future droughts and water supply issues looming? Photo: Mary Newsom
Water and our supply of it is on my mind this week, as a smoky haze drifts around Charlotte, reminding us of the wildfires in the tinder-dry N.C. foothills and mountains west of the city. It’s been abnormally hot and dry  for months in the Appalachians and the Southeastern U.S. Two Western North Carolina counties are now in exceptional drought and seven others in "extreme drought." 

In the Charlotte region we’re currently in Drought Stage 1 (moderate drought, voluntary watering restrictions). Boat ramps at lakes Norman and Wylie just outside the city have been closed. Some of our shrubs are succumbing. And my guess is we’ll move into Stage 2 (severe drought) shortly after the start of December.

The city's water-sewer utility, Charlotte Water, has a keen interest in encouraging people to conserve water, and not just in a drought, although they tend to concentrate the mind, so to speak.

Taking the long view, Charlotte Water officials see that relentlessly sucking more water from the local reservoirs – Mountain Island Lake and Lake Norman – is not a strategy that can sustain the area's growing millions of residents in future decades. Further, towns and cities downstream of Charlotte use the same river (dammed decades ago into a series of lakes by what's now Duke Energy ) for their water supplies, so draining it is not an acceptable option.

So Charlotte Water officials are eyeing the area’s beloved lawns as a way to reduce water use. On an average day, the utility pumps 100 million gallons of treated water each day, says Jennifer Frost, public affairs manager at Charlotte Water. But during the summer that’s been from 130 to 135 million gallons a day – due to people irrigating lawns. “I think we hit 143 one day in August,” she said recently.

But Frost notes that suggesting people reduce the size of their lawns in favor of more drought-tolerant plantings hasn’t, in the past, been a winning message. So she hopes the utility can, instead, join with local efforts to encourage more tree planting and better care for existing trees.
“Inherent to growing a canopy is that reduction in turf grass,” Frost says. And, she says, “We will not get to the next level of water conservation without reducing the level of irrigation that we use.”

For the record, here are the requested water restrictions for Charlotte, for now:
  • Irrigate only on Tuesdays and Saturdays between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.
  • Limit landscape watering to 1 inch of water per week, including rain.
  • Conserve water indoors and outdoors.
  • Refrain from outdoor water use during the day (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) to reduce evaporation losses.
  • Don't fill swimming pools, and top off full pools only on Thursdays and Sundays, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
  • Turn off water fountains and other decorative water features.
  • Use commercial car washes that recycle water, not your home hose.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Another Independence Boulevard – lost opportunity or potential future?

Bologna's Independence Boulevard on a Monday morning in October. Photo: Mary Newsom
On a recent trip to Italy, we stopped for a night in the northern city of Bologna, home to some famous pasta sauces, the world's first university and a basilica where, legend has it, a German priest was so disgusted by the church's opulence he went back to Germany and his name being Martin Luther
started the Reformation.

It's also home to an Independence boulevard.  I didn't capitalize "Boulevard" because the official name of the street is Via dell' Indipendenza. In any case, it's a powerful reminder that a busy city thoroughfare need not be ugly.

Photo: Mary Newsom
Under the arcade
I took these photos about 9 a.m. on a Monday, and I took them during breaks in traffic, so they don't accurately convey the traffic, although it's safe to say it's far less than Charlotte's Independence Boulevard, which carries more than 100,000 vehicles a day in places.

Our Indy Boulevard began life in the 1950s as a four-lane U.S. highway (U.S. 74) that sundered a white, working class neighborhood as well as the city's first municipal park and its rose garden. Today, Independence Boulevard in Charlotte is either a freeway-style highway lined with sound walls or, where the freeway hasn't been built yet, a seemingly endless strip of bleak, now-bedraggled highway commercial development that had its heyday in the 1970s and '80s.

But in Bologna, first settled about 1,000 BC, via dell' Indipendenza looks different. We arrived on a Sunday evening and the street was jammed with people, and no cars. The street and several others are pedestrianized from 8 a.m. Saturday to 10 p.m. Sunday.

The street itself, like many of the old streets in the city center, is lined with an arcade, which protects pedestrians in bad weather. Under the arcades, many with vaulted ceilings, the sidewalks are terrazzo tile, or something similar. No chewing-gum-stained concrete or crumbling asphalt.

Is there any hope for our Independence Boulevard? I confess to being a pessimist about that. Streets, I've observed, set a development pattern that's difficult to change unless the government decides to buy up all the land, tear everything down, and start over with new development. They have tried that before here, and urban renewal was a brutal disaster.

Charlotte's Independence Boulevard, 2014. Photo: Nancy Pierce