Is Matthews Affordable?
Natasha is a registered architect in the state of North Carolina and a member of the Town of Matthews Planning Board. She and her husband, Chad have two children, Ethan and Abby, and can often be found exploring the Four Mile Creek Greenway together.
Last summer a select group of Matthews planning board members took the initiative to look into affordable housing in the Town of Matthews. We had seen numerous new housing developments come in for re-zoning over the past couple of years, and almost all were priced at what seemed to be out of the range of current Matthews residents. Most if not all were above $300,000. We felt that we were pricing many people and families out of our town.
We wanted to take a more in-depth look at our existing housing stock and determine if we are supporting all members of our community with quality housing at affordable prices. I believe that for a truly well-balanced community, we need a diverse group of people from different backgrounds, occupations, ages, and ethnicities to live and work in our town. We asked several other community members those who either worked or lived in Matthews and had an expertise in some aspect of affordable housing to help us with our study. Long story short, we determined that Matthews is indeed short on homes that are priced for what the average family in Matthews can afford.
While this issue is not unique to Matthews now that we have some research and data we can begin to come up with ways to create or redevelop properties for people of all income levels. To determine whether or not Matthews has “affordable housing” we first had to define what exactly that is.
We chose to use the federal government’s definition which is 30% of a family’s gross income should go towards housing. This covers not only the cost for mortgage or rent, but property taxes, home insurance, utilities, and home maintenance. That being said “affordable” is relative to your income. For example, someone who earns 1 million dollars a year can afford to spend $300,000 a year on these expenses while someone who make $50,000 can afford about $15,000 a year.
After collecting our data from various sources, we found that half of the families in Matthews earn less than $76,000 per year. This is often referred to as the median family income or MFI. Based on 2017 data for Matthews 55% of renters and 45% of home owners who make under $76,000 a year are considered to be in poverty, near poverty, or house poor.
They are financially strained because such a large portion of their income goes toward housing. This is quite a large portion of our Matthews community.
Who needs affordable housing? So, who in Matthews cannot actually afford to live?
There’s a lot of misunderstanding at who needs affordable housing. It’s often portrayed as a fault of the family or worker: those who choose not to work and are living off government assistance to get by. But our findings show that this is not the case in Matthews. For example, the largest demographic of those who live in poverty in Matthews are white women between the ages of 25 -34. Many are single mothers who are taking care of their children and may be working an hourly job to get by. The next largest demographic group living in poverty in Matthews are white women between the ages of 55-64.
We also found that those who work for the town and provide essential services to our community typically do not live in Matthews and based on what they earn, and available housing stock cannot afford to live in our town.These include firefighters, emergency medical technicians, police officers, and other town positions.
Also, there are teachers, nurses and other essential providers, who work in Matthews but do not live in Matthews. High housing costs are definitely a factor of why that is.
Many seniors are also losing the ability to age in place. For those that own their home and are 55 or older and on fixed incomes are having to leave because they cannot afford the maintenance costs. Others who rent cannot afford the escalating costs because rents are getting more and more expensive. We are experiencing a growth in senior communities, but the majority of them are very expensive and out of reach for many.
After we gathered our findings, we looked into ways we could create more affordable housing or help those in our community who qualify for financial assistance find homes at an affordable price. We looked at other communities within North Carolina for ideas and found that they shared several common factors. Some have a dedicated staff member within the town to work with developers, residents, and partners in managing funds and housing inventory. Others mandated affordable housing in new developments via inclusionary zoning and incentive-based programs.
We presented many short- and long- term considerations to our town commissioners for their review. Among the short-term considerations, we suggested that the town council improve the tools that our residents have available to them such as financial counseling and assistance and provide more information on qualified homebuyer programs. We also suggested taking an in-depth look at the town’s Unified Development Ordinance to make sure it aligns with affordable housing goals.
Also, we asked them to consider ways to preserve and protect the existing housing stock and make the community eligible for federal funds for upcoming years. In addition, we asked them to consider establishing a qualified homebuyer program with an outside partner such as a faith-based organization, a non-profit, or a financial institution for town employees and others.
There are several long-term considerations we asked our town council to consider. While I’m not going to go into depth about each one, I found some of these to be the most interesting.
First, Matthews should develop a comprehensive affordable housing program that aligns with our town’s master plan. Without incorporating some sort of program within our UDO there is no real way to require a developer to provide any affordable housing within a development.
Another long-term consideration is to have the town acquire land or use already acquired land for development that includes affordable housing.
The town has acquired land for park space in the past why not do the same to provide affordable housing?
And feeding off that idea, why not have the town purchase vacant homes or foreclosures and revitalize these homes and sell them to qualified homebuyers? While the town is not currently in the development business as our town attorney often reminds us, this does not mean that it isn’t a possibility.
Finally, we asked our commissioners to consider looking at partnerships with outside entities to help develop mixed income residential housing.
For example, in High Point, the development team of Laurel Street alongside the High Point Housing Authority re-developed a piece of property where the former Clara Cox Homes stood. This now demolished public housing facility has been turned into an award-winning affordable housing community made up of apartments and townhomes in the heart of High Point.
A need for affordable housing is not unique to Matthews or North Carolina. This is truly a nationwide problem and quite truthfully a worldwide problem with so many complexities, that it’s not going to be solved overnight. Our hopes with our study was not only to provide data and come up with ideas on how to resolve the housing issue but what I think may be the most important part is to destigmatize who needs affordable housing and why.