Will Raleigh Break its "Promise" on Affordable Housing?

By Brent Woodcox

At yesterday's Raleigh City Council meeting, funding for potential affordable housing projects was on the agenda. Among the projects to be funded included Beacon Ridge which is part of the Southeast Raleigh Promise project as well as the historic Sir Walter Raleigh Apartments that serve low income seniors.

A little bit of background on Southeast Raleigh Promise from the News & Observer...

... Located on 32 acres near Interstate 40, the 426-student elementary school should be open before the 2019-20 school year and will eventually include affordable housing, access to healthy food and a focus on healthcare programs. Called the beacon campus, the site is being built using a national model that focuses on revitalizing an entire community.

That’s part of the reason why the YMCA and school will share space within its building. The site will include a gymnasium, workout space, group fitness room, multipurpose space and an outdoor swimming pool. All of the children who attend the school will be given free swim lessons.

The YMCA is expected to serve more than 2,500 children and 8,000 YMCA members and program participants once it is open. The total project will cost just shy of $25 million, with $19 million already raised. ...
— Anna Johnson - N&O

The kerfuffle arose over the price tag of the development. Councilors questioned why the cost per unit of the project would be $180,000+. What was not mentioned is that the city would not be footing the bill for the entire $180,000 but only about 20% of the cost of each unit.

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So here you have a project in which the city of Raleigh alongside Wake County is an equal partner with the developer as well as the federal government. And if you take into account Wake County's funding of the elementary school on the site as well as the YMCA's fundraising campaign to build their facilities, it turns out that Raleigh is actually footing even less of the total cost of this project that has transformative potential for an area of our city that is currently home to many that are in need of these services.

However, some city councilors including David Cox, apparently are afraid that this project would be a "windfall for developers." 

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However, looking back at the staff report on the project, DHIC is the one who is working on the project and the city has had a positive relationship with them in the past.

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DHIC is a non-profit organization whose whole mission is to provide affordable housing in the community. The city partners with them all the time to fund projects like this one and they are lauded in the community for the facilities that they build and maintain. For David Cox to accuse them of being some "greedy developer" looking for profits out of this project is as asinine as it is offensive. That is the land of alternative facts, not objective reality.

It was also clearly explained to councilors that the reason this project was more expensive than others is because of the special nature of the situation. By trying to build all of these facilities together in a vulnerable community part of the land did not qualify for money from HUD so the locals as well as the developer were going to need to fill in the funding gap to make this project come to fruition.

As you can imagine, reaction by current and former elected officials who put the project together was swift and negative.

Whether the project will move forward remains unclear. What is clear though is that without the funding from the city of Raleigh, this affordable housing is unlikely to be built.

Turning to the Sir Walter Raleigh Apartments, you may recall that this building that has been home to affordable housing for seniors and is on the National Register of Historic Places was slated to possibly be redeveloped until two weeks ago when a new developer bought the building promising to maintain the units as affordable housing for seniors.

City councilors questioned the $250,000+ overall price tag for the 156 units to be included in the project but did not mention that the city was only expected to fund about 7.5% of the project.

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Once again in this case, councilors started in with questions about the value of keeping Sir Walter Raleigh Apartments in downtown but those questions really just displayed how little the councilors knew about the project.

What is potentially more distressing in this situation is that it seems like city councilors were incapable of doing the basic math required to understand how affordable housing units are funded and built. How can they make decisions about the value of these projects to taxpayers if they can't grasp the basic fundamentals when it comes to building affordable housing?

If we're going to make value judgments on which types of affordable housing units the city should support, then we'll need policymakers who are educated enough about the subject matter to understand how these projects work. It seems like right now we have some councilors who are more determined to increase the total number of units rather than understanding where affordable housing is needed and how it can be preserved and/or constructed. There is certainly a case for quantity when it comes to affordable housing but we shouldn't completely reject quality in that pursuit. These two projects are critical to serving vulnerable communities in our city and a true commitment to affordable housing requires making projects like these happen for the citizens who need them.

Lest we forget, these are our pennies that these councilors are suddenly so interested in pinching. It was the penny for affordable housing property tax increase recently passed by the council that funds projects like these. That tax was proposed to bring in about $7 million in funding for affordable housing projects this year. Coincidentally, these two critical projects come in at just about that price tag. The average homeowner in Raleigh is paying a little more than $50 each year to support filling that affordable housing need as a result of the increase in property taxes. We ought to get what we paid for.

It's time for Raleigh city councilors to put our money where their mouth is.

Brent Woodcox