Last month, the Building Bridges blog launched a new series devoted to unpacking some of the most commonly misunderstood housing and homelessness terms and concepts. Earlier posts in the series covered the topics of “Housing First;” Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing (or NOAH); and the role of supportive services in the work to end and prevent homelessness. Last week’s post focused on the first of five common myths and misperceptions about affordable housing: “Does affordable housing mean loss of neighborhood character?”
These posts are inspired by the 2025 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing & Homelessness Strategy (CMHHS), which was launched in April 2021. The 2025 CMHHS represents the first time that the public and private sectors have come together to comprehensively address the entire housing continuum, from housing instability to homelessness, in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Advancing widescale solutions – even the ones backed by research and data – also means overcoming obstacles that have historically gotten in the way. Some obstacles take the shape of myths or misconceptions.
This week’s post focuses on the second of five common myths and misperceptions about affordable housing, and ultimately, what correcting these misunderstandings can mean for the work to end and prevent homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
DOES “AFFORDABLE HOUSING” MEAN….?
There are multiple myths and misconceptions regarding affordable housing. Many have been around for a long time and are revived whenever there is a new development or policy proposed. (To read last week’s post, which includes an introduction on the definition of affordable housing, please click here.)
It is important to note that these myths are not limited to Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
While this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, outlined below are five of the top affordable housing myths; this blog post will focus on the second of the five, unpacking the myth, itself, and highlighting examples from other communities that have attempted to reframe and reclaim the truth:
TOP 5 AFFORDABLE HOUSING MYTHS
- MYTH 1: DOES AFFORDABLE HOUSING MEAN….LOSS OF NEIGHBORHOOD CHARACTER?
- MYTH 2: DOES AFFORDABLE HOUSING MEAN….UGLY BUILDINGS?
- MYTH 3: DOES AFFORDABLE HOUSING MEAN….LOW QUALITY?
- MYTH 4: DOES AFFORDABLE HOUSING MEAN….HIGHER CRIME RATES?
- MYTH 5: DOES AFFORDABLE HOUSING MEAN….LOWER PROPERTY VALUES?
MYTH 2: DOES AFFORDABLE HOUSING MEAN…UGLY BUILDINGS?
What do you picture when you think of “affordable housing?” The term conjures up all kinds of images and stereotypes, such as “the projects,” or high-rise public housing developments like Cabrini-Green in Chicago. But “affordable housing” actually exists in multiple shapes, sizes, and structures. And, more importantly, “affordable” refers to the fact that whatever form said housing takes, it is something the tenant or owner can occupy without being cost-burdened. In other words, it’s a math problem that has only to do with cost. To be “affordable,” a home should not cost a household more than 30% of their income for all housing-related expenses.
And, for households across the country, housing has become less and less affordable. According to the new “Out of Reach 2021: The High Cost of Housing,” report, released last week by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an employee working minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) would have to work more than 3.1 jobs (or 124 hours per week) to afford a 2-bedroom unit at Fair Market Rent ($1,151) in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg metro area. This is up 11 hours from last year’s sum of 113 hours per week at minimum wage. The hourly wage necessary to afford that same 2-bedroom unit is $22.13 (up from $20.44 last year). While Fair Market Rent has continued to increase (from $1,063 to $1,151 for the 2 bedroom), minimum wage has not changed.
So, using this definition, “affordable housing” can exist in any type of structure, including a single-family home or a single unit in a multi-family building. Why, then, do we continue to see affordable housing as a specific type of (ugly) building? We can tackle this myth by reviewing the history (and evolution) of affordable housing in the United States.
Many of the affordable housing mental models we have today were shaped by images of what’s known as “public housing” developments and, worse, preconceived notions of who lives in them. The history of public housing, though, sheds a different light on this socially constructed shadow. This except from an NPR interview with author Richard Rothstein entitled “A ‘Forgotten History’ of How the U.S. Government Segregated America” provides an overview of how public housing began:
“Public housing began in this country for civilians during the New Deal and it was an attempt to address a housing shortage; it wasn’t a welfare program for poor people. During the Depression, no housing construction was going on. Middle-class families, working-class families were losing their homes during the Depression when they became unemployed and so there were many unemployed middle-class, working-class white families and this was the constituency that the federal government was most interested in. And so the federal government began a program of building public housing for whites only in cities across the country. The liberal instinct of some Roosevelt administration officials led them to build some projects for African-Americans as well, but they were always separate projects; they were not integrated. […]
The white projects had large numbers of vacancies; black projects had long waiting lists. Eventually it became so conspicuous that the public housing authorities in the federal government opened up the white-designated projects to African-Americans, and they filled with African-Americans. At the same time, industry was leaving the cities, African-Americans were becoming poorer in those areas, the projects became projects for poor people, not for working-class people. They became subsidized, they hadn’t been subsidized before. […] And so they became vertical slums that we came to associate with public housing. […]
The vacancies in the white projects were created primarily by the Federal Housing Administration program to suburbanize America, and the Federal Housing Administration subsidized mass production builders to create subdivisions that were “white-only” and they subsidized the families who were living in the white housing projects as well as whites who were living elsewhere in the central city to move out of the central cities and into these white-only suburbs. So it was the Federal Housing Administration that depopulated public housing of white families, while the public housing authorities were charged with the responsibility of housing African-Americans who were increasingly too poor to pay the full cost of their rent.”
The first federal public housing project (depicted below), Techwood Homes in Atlanta, was constructed in 1935. A timeline from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that, to build the 604 units in a whites-only neighborhood required the eviction of thousands of families, including hundreds of black families. Furthermore, income requirements meant that many of the lowest-income white and black households could not afford to live in Techwood Homes.
Given what we (now) know about the evolution of affordable housing, and what it (can) look like today, perhaps the myth, then, has less to do with the structure, itself, and more to do with conceptions of the people living inside. Affordable housing was originally designed for white, working class Americans, and even used as a tool to further segregationist policies. Today, the lack of affordable housing perpetuates the inequities baked into its design.
Dispelling this myth requires, first, calling out the flaws in the frame. Next, communities must call for changes that rectify or address historical and existing inequities. Finally, it is necessary to embrace the idea that everyone in the community has intrinsic worth, and is deserving of housing solely on the basis of our shared humanity.
Stay tuned for future posts covering common housing and homelessness-related misconceptions and myths. And, please consider signing up for one of the upcoming CMHHS Focus Groups in July and August to learn more information and provide feedback. To register, click this link.
Courtney LaCaria coordinates posts on the Building Bridges Blog. Courtney is the Housing & Homelessness Research Coordinator for Mecklenburg County Community Support Services. Courtney’s job is to connect data on housing instability, homelessness and affordable housing with stakeholders in the community so that they can use it to drive policy-making, funding allocation and programmatic change.