More funds urged for affordable housing

By Laura Newman

RALEIGH, N.C. — With less than a month to go before state lawmakers convene in Raleigh, affordable-housing advocates have stepped up their year-long campaign to increase state financial support for the N.C. Housing Trust Fund.

Based on last year’s campaign, lawmakers increased to $8 million from $3 million the state’s annual contribution to the N.C. Housing Trust Fund, short of the $50 million advocates wanted and still are seeking.

On April 10, more than 100 affordable-housing advocates and experts attended a luncheon workshop co-sponsored by NC Policy Watch, a watchdog group, and the Campaign for Housing Carolina, a coalition of government agencies, businesses and nonprofits.

Almost 750,000 North Carolina households cannot afford a safe and stable home, panelists at the workshop said.

Paying for a two-bedroom apartment at market rate requires average hourly pay more than twice the minimum wage of $5.15.

With $50 million, the Housing Trust Fund would provide housing for over 6,000 families a year, panelists said

Panelists included Chris Estes, executive director of the N.C. Housing Coalition; Hope Connell, chair of the N.C. Bankers Association and executive vice president of First Citizens Bank; and Ron Penney, chair-elect of United Way of North Carolina and chair of the department of public administration at N.C. Central University in Durham.

Providing safe and stable homes, panelists said, is critical to addressing problems ranging from homelessness and substandard housing to poor school performance, crime, domestic violence and mental health.

“How can we expect a child to concentrate on homework when they have to worry about a home place?” Penney asked, citing studies linking secure housing to educational advancement and the risk of childhood violence.

Affordable housing benefits an entire community, panelists said.

“We all benefit when families can live in a stable environment,” Connell said.

Yet while the marketplace on its own will not produce affordable housing and needs subsidies to cover the costs of developing and maintaining it, Connell said, state investment in the Housing Trust Fund makes “economic sense.”

An annual investment by the state of $50 million would create over 3,000 jobs a year, increase local and state tax revenues by over $30 million a year, and leverage an additional $200 million in funds for affordable housing a year, she said.

Affordable housing is out of reach not only for the unemployed, panelists said, but also for many with low-paying jobs, including service workers, teachers, police and firefighters.

Over two million North Carolinians live in homes they cannot afford, according to the Campaign for Housing Carolina.

Furthermore, more than one in four renters cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rates, Estes said.

To afford a place to live, he said, many North Carolinians must go without medicine or food, or make do with substandard housing.

“Neither of these is a good solution for them or their communities,” he said.

State Rep. Deborah Ross, a Wake County Democrat and an early supporter of the effort to increase spending for the Housing Trust Fund, said at the luncheon that while lawmakers like the Trust Fund, advocates must persuade them to increase the state contribution to it.

“No one is against this,” she said. “Everybody loves it.”

The problem, she said, is that not enough politicians make it a priority.

The Housing Trust Fund, founded in 1987, has won national awards and been a model for other states, but it needs more funding to reach its full potential, Estes said.

Trust funds in other states are bigger, he said, including $50 million in Ohio, $100 million in Washington and $263 million in Florida.

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