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); the role of supportive services in the work to end and prevent homelessness; and most recently, common myths and misperceptions about affordable housing.
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 third 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.
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 first 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 3: DOES AFFORDABLE HOUSING MEAN…LOW QUALITY?
To effectively unpack this myth, we need to explore what “low quality” means. Quality can refer to a number of factors, like size of the unit; amenities and finishes; design; and materials. Like Myth #2 (that affordable housing means ugly buildings), this myth is connected to the historical, negative connotations of affordable (and especially “public”) housing. However, affordable housing units today look much different.
According to an interview on affordable housing design with an architecture firm that has designed over 20,000 affordable units across New York City, “the design features, amenities, and materials found in market-rate residential buildings [are] increasingly utilized in affordable multifamily designs. In many instances, […] market-rate and affordable designs are increasingly difficult to distinguish in some of these aspects.”
In addition to comparable features and amenities, many present-day affordable housing developments integrate sustainability in both design and construction. The Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Initiative, housed within North Carolina State University, was created to provide educational resources for leaders in government, non-profit organizations, and the community to further innovative housing and planning solutions facing the state. Their white paper entitled, “Sustainable Design and Affordability,” provides several examples from land use, to materials, to placement of units.
Finally, affordable housing design and construction has started to focus on harmonizing with the surrounding landscape and environment (like design standards for any other buildings), as well as meeting the needs of the community that will ultimately inhabit the units. Architizer recently featured 10 beautiful affordable housing developments from around the world to showcase this evolution and “[provide] inspiration for future developments.”
It is important to point out that a key component of this myth is the misperception that the term “affordable housing” only pertains to the physical unit, itself, such as an apartment or house. But “affordable housing” also exists when a market rate unit is made to be “affordable” by using a subsidy to gap the difference between what the unit costs and how much a household can afford.
In theory, subsidies (whether short-term, like rapid re-housing; or longer-term, like a Housing Choice Voucher) enable households to select a market rate unit in a neighborhood of their choice, thereby reframing “affordable housing” to be no different than any other unit of housing. To further unpack this aspect of the myth, it is helpful to understand what is typically involved with subsidies.
Funded by the public and private sectors, subsidies can vary in amount and tenure. Some, like rapid re-housing, can last up to 2 years; whereas others, like Permanent Supportive Housing and Housing Choice Vouchers, are intended to last until the household no longer needs it. A single individual with income at or below 30% of Area Median Income can afford at most $443 per month in rent (without being cost-burdened) whereas the Fair Market Rent for a 1-bedroom unit is $1,010. Similarly, a four-person family with income at or below 30% of Area Median Income can afford at most $663 per month in rent (without being cost burdened), but the Fair Market Rent for a 2-bedroom unit is $1,151.
Subsidies not only close the gap in rent for tenants; they also provide a guaranteed source of income for landlords, even when a tenant faces an economic hardship. During the pandemic, for example, as many tenants (at all levels of AMI) were unable to pay their rent, landlords who received subsidies as a part of the rent still had some consistent income.
Depending upon the funding source, subsidies must be used with units that meet specific standards. In fact, a barrier to finding landlords willing to take subsidies can be the repairs required to ensure that unit will pass the necessary inspections. Furthering this logic, subsidies actually provide a safeguard, ensuring that a unit will be both of quality, and affordable for the tenant.
Whether by the support of a subsidy or through the unit, itself, affordable housing need not look or feel any differently than any other housing unit, single or multi-family. Reducing cost to produce or preserve a unit as “affordable” does not have to equate to a drop in quality, sacrifice in size, or reduction in basic amenities. Finally, affordable housing can be just as beautiful and contextual as higher-end market products, providing value for the surrounding neighborhood and the community as a whole.
It is, therefore, critical that communities facilitate increased access to affordable housing in all shapes and sizes – by subsidy and otherwise.
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 for the focus groups on August 12 (focused on “what” pillars of (prevention; temporary housing; permanent, affordable housing; and cross-sector supports), click this link; to register for the focus group on August 19 (focused on the “how” aspects of the strategy: unified policy advocacy; coordinated funding alignment; innovative data analytics; effective communications; and ongoing strategy support), 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.