by Eric Ginsburg
As affordable housing stock in Greensboro shrinks, residents share their ideas for alleviating the problem at a series of meetings hosted by the city and a local foundation.
At first blush the statistics might not look that staggering, but when you put them together, an alarming picture emerges; More than a quarter of Greensboro’s residents are cost-burdened when it comes to housing.
The figures, compiled by city staff on a handout distributed at recent meetings on affordable housing, underscore the city’s income gap and the rising lack of affordable housing. Nearly half (48 percent) of all residents are renting, and of those, more than 50 percent are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income towards housing, the city data reports.
The other statistics included aren’t any more comforting: Median income of owner households ($60,827) is more than double the median income of renter households ($27,897), 26,340 renter households are cost-burdened, and the percentage of affordable units recently dropped by 5 percent while the percentage of “higher-priced units” has increased by 33 percent.
The upshot is that Greensboro is becoming a less affordable place to live.
And that’s why the city and the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro scheduled four recent meetings to discuss the depth of the problem and possible solutions with residents, most recently on Feb. 4 at St. John’s United Methodist Church on Merritt Drive in west Greensboro. About 40 people, including three city council members and numerous city and nonprofit staff, turned up for the brainstorming and visioning session.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Councilwoman Sharon Hightower joined Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann, who represents the district where the final meeting was held last week, at the session. The trio split up amongst some of the half-dozen tables to listen to feedback, each chiming in at separate points to answer questions and offer input.
The mayor sat next to Brett Byerly, the executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, and the two talked about the importance of wage growth and not just new job creation.
“And of course the thing that solves all of this is better-paying jobs,” Vaughan said, followed by Byerly wondering aloud how many people wouldn’t be housing cost-burdened if they made $2 more an hour.
Byerly also said at the table and later to the full group that agencies are often protective of their revenue streams and if they could communicate better with each other, more people could be helped with things like emergency housing-related funds. By tracking the people who rely on different organizations for support, Byerly said the agencies could identify a smaller pool of individuals who drain a disproportionate amount of funds and thereby prevent others in need from accessing rapid assistance.
Knowing murmurs following his remarks to the full room seemed to underscore his point.
At his table, residents that included a local pastor offered several suggestions aimed at gathering more information, tracking progress and defining the problem. Like other attendees, they asked what rental rates are considered affordable, but only received rough estimates. More explicitly defining who struggles with affordable housing and what exactly that term means is a first step, a few people said, adding that they preferred the term “cost-burdened” to affordable housing because of an existing stigma and the term seemed more clearly defined.
In her breakout group at the table, Vaughan said that the city does have the more detailed information that people are seeking but said the handout was designed to give a snapshot. She encouraged people to attend an upcoming Feb. 24 housing summit, and while it costs $65 to get in, Byerly said people could contact him about potential scholarships.
As people generated feedback about the problem and possible solutions, someone at each table printed the ideas on sticky notes to be placed on posters along the side of the room. After dedicating most of the two-hour meeting to brainstorming, city staff asked people to stand up and present each table’s input.
One of the most clearly articulated ideas emerged in two groups: a roommate-matching database. People latched on to a prominent stat on the handout everyone received — that 42 percent of renter households are just one person, but only 23 percent of rental units are one bedroom. Finding a way to connect individuals looking to rent could greatly increase the chances that people would find an affordable housing they could afford, attendees posited.
Other ideas focused on incentivizing developers to build multi-family complexes and incorporate more one-bedroom units rather than single-family properties. Residents addressed housing-code enforcement, and repeatedly raised the idea that teaching people to be good tenants and helping renters understand what is expected of them could alleviate unforeseen problems for renters.
Another attendee said the city needs a good Samaritan law that would allow people like him to help a neighbor with repairs, such as fixing an electrical problem rather than requiring a more costly electrician. Or there could be some sort of consortium of pro bono skilled home labor to assist housing cost-burdened residents.
Amy Murphy, an outspoken homeless advocate and activist said the city desperately needs to redirect funds from policing and jails to 24/7 mental-health resources, suggesting subsidized housing that costs $200 a month and includes mental-health caseworkers on site.
A few people mentioned tiny houses as a way to provide entry-level housing for people experiencing homelessness, adding that the city could change zoning ordinances to help. Raising the minimum wage came up at least twice in separate groups.
The turnout mirrored that of the preceding events held across the city, beginning at McGirt-Horton Library in northeast Greensboro on Jan. 25; Councilwoman Sharon Hightower said 125 people had attended the first three events total, and Byerly commented that familiar faces from city and nonprofit staff populated the meetings. Now that the sessions are over, city staff will compile the feedback about issues, barriers, concerns and solutions around affordable housing.
At the outset of the final meeting, Hightower expressed an eagerness to act on the issue, adding that to creatively address the problem, city staff and council hope to build on the ideas they collected. Mayor Vaughan has said the city may need to consider an affordable-housing bond to fund the implementation of some solutions. But either way, council members said, this is a good first step.
The Greensboro Housing Summit 2016 will be held on Feb. 25 from 8 a.m. — 3 p.m. at George K’s Event Center. Call the Greensboro Housing Coalition at 336.691.9521 for more details.