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Gimme Shelter

by Jill Walker

February 4,2005

I have a brother who followed his dream one year, and skied right through an entire winter in Colorado. After freezing in his car for the first week, he skidded his way to the local library, checked out a book on igloos, found himself a quiet spot in the woods somewhere, and started stacking up blocks of snow. He lived in his homemade igloo until he was able to move into an apartment.

My other brother lived mostly on a sailboat, except for a brief time when he undertook the renovation of a dilapidated Airstream trailer and decided he liked the idea of living on the job site.

Not to be outdone, I spent the last two months of my senior year in college in a tent in upstate New York. Due to some minor “administrative errors” in the handling of our rental payments, my three roommates and I had received an eviction notice in our mailbox one day and suddenly found ourselves, with our suitcases and our albums, scrambling for shelter.

Two of us found refuge in a tent we set up on someone’s property in a rural part of town. We called it home until graduation day. Other than a few pretty cold nights and the midnight howling of the homeowner’s Australian Singing Dingo dog, the experience was not unbearable.

The common thread in all three of these unconventional habitats was that they were, for the most part, ours by choice. And, they were very temporary. This is not the case with the vast number of Americans today who face seemingly insurmountable barriers in their struggles to secure one more month of mortgage, of rent, or of shelter. At each stage, their sleepless nights are consumed by a treadmill of worries that has no off switch.

What was once the American Dream for most average citizens has morphed into a nightmare for a growing number of people. The combined effect of a stagnant minimum wage and increased cost of living has resulted in a larger portion of a low-wage earner’s income devoted to housing. Additionally, here in the South, we dedicate 20.2 percent of our total household expenditures to transportation (the most of all regions).

Charlotte, as every other city, has attacked the need for affordable housing from all sides. Millions of dollars have been released in subsidies, loans and vouchers to homeowners, renters, and developers as well. Many flagship initiatives have been developed here, in addition to the federally subsidized programs, in response to concern for affordable housing. The problem has always been that for many of the well-intentioned subsidy plans, there are unintended negative consequences that result from their abuse.

The Section 8 voucher programs can inflate rental rates and concentrate low-income housing in one area, Hope Six projects can incur huge costs and sometimes result in fewer affordable units, and the Low Income Housing Tax Credits can mean the loss of tax revenue far in excess of any derived benefits.

None of this is meant to imply that our efforts to cope with this problem should stagnate. In fact, there is always a place for hope here in Charlotte. Several years ago, following a provision included in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, Charlotte placed time limits on using public housing to incent individuals to move toward self-sufficiency, and our city is often cited for this initiative. We are also seeing new mortgage benefits offered to homebuyers who purchase close to a CATS route or the new rail line. Charlotte’s Habitat for Humanity program has a stellar record of success. And David Furman’s project, Wilmore Walk, shows promise from the private sector.

This year kicks off the Campaign for Housing Carolina, a collaborative effort to conquer the inadequate supply of affordable housing by providing $50 million on an annual basis to the N.C. Housing Trust Fund. This fund will augment the development of projects that probably would not occur otherwise.

Options for shelter run the gamut from the Sultan of Brunei’s 2,152,782 s.f. residence, the largest in the world, to the Japanese ‘capsule hotels,’ which are just a shade larger than a casket. In between these two extremes, lie a vast number of possibilities.

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