Since the earliest days of the republic, Americans have taken great pride in the vision of a broadly middle-class society. While we hold no aversion to wealth and success, we reject the idea of a permanent, idle aristocracy — a prominent feature of the countries many of our forebears left behind. Similarly, while we stop well short of guaranteeing everyone a comfortable life, we also reject the Old World notion of a large, permanent underclass of citizens with no hope of social mobility.
Instead, Americans aspire to the best of both worlds. On the one hand, a society that offers opportunities for individuals to go as far as talent and hard work will carry them; on the other, a powerful spirit of collective responsibility that seeks both to prevent abject poverty and to ensure that those at the bottom (or at least their children) have a realistic prospect of building comfortable, even prosperous lives. Much of the amazing success of the American experiment over the past two-and-a-half centuries is a function of the interplay between these two competing yet often complementary ideals.
In North Carolina, however, the rapid changes now overtaking our state — a fast-growing population, the disintegration of the old manufacturing base, and a growing income gap — are mounting a new challenge to the critical balance of these forces. Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of affordable housing, where the transformed economic landscape has ushered in some harsh and dangerous realities: Incomes are down; housing prices are up; foreclosures are skyrocketing; and decent, affordable apartments are virtually impossible to find in many areas. According to census statistics, about one-quarter of North Carolina households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. A recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed that a full-time employee in the Asheville area must earn $11.54 an hour — 200 percent of the minimum wage — to be able to properly afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rate. At $5.15 an hour, it would take a 90-hour work week to afford that same apartment. That kind of burden leaves little money for other family essentials. It also has a ripple effect on the broader community.
No single factor has a greater and more immediate impact on people’s well-being than their ability to find a safe, decent, affordable place to live. What’s more, access to affordable housing is crucial to families’ ability to save and to generate wealth in this country. And then there’s the considerable impact that home and apartment construction have on employment and overall economic activity. For all those reasons, affordable housing arguably dwarfs all other issues on which state policymakers can have a major impact.
In 2005, elected officials in North Carolina will debate a new series of proposals for the state’s Housing Trust Fund. To date, this multiple-award-winning program (which puts 100 percent of its money toward bricks and mortar) has worked wonders on very small appropriations. Last year, the fund received just $3 million out of the state’s $15 billion budget. (By way of comparison, consider that Asheville and Buncombe County — one of 100 counties in the state — put a total of $900,000 into their respective local housing trust funds.)
But this year, affordable-housing advocates are pushing for a dramatic increase in state-level support. Backed by a rapidly growing coalition of foundations, business interests and nonprofits, as well as the examples of states such as Florida and Ohio (which are earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars for their trust funds), North Carolina housing advocates are pushing for an annual appropriation of $50 million.
These funds would go directly to four proven programs that expand the stock of decent, affordable, privately owned housing (the trust fund doesn’t support public housing). Each year, according to the best expert estimates, the proposed appropriation would generate more than 3,000 jobs, expand the tax base for state and local government by more than $30 million, leverage more than $200 million in other resources for housing, and immediately assist 6,000 people of modest means. In a state that’s reeling from the effects of the global economy — and where one person in 10 pays more than half their income for housing — where else could policymakers find such a logical and ready-made vehicle for tackling both problems so directly?
Besides producing an immediate, concrete and measurable impact on the lives of thousands of families and scores of communities, such a bold step by state leaders would also advance an even larger objective: It would signal a renewed and substantive commitment to preserving the kind of broadly middle-class society envisioned by our founders. Like the visionary actions of those who built a nation devoid of aristocrats and peasants, a large recurring appropriation to the North Carolina Housing Trust Fund would demonstrate that state leaders are serious about preserving the critical, historical balance between economic opportunity for every individual and widely shared prosperity for society as a whole.
The time to act is now, while the ideal of balance remains a common value — not just a faded memory.
[Chris Estes is executive director of the Raleigh-based North Carolina Housing Coalition. He holds master’s degrees in social work and in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill.]
The United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County is meeting with the local legislative delegation on Friday, March 4, to urge support for the affordable-housing agenda. For more information, contact Ron Katz at United Way at 255-0696.