The Fayetteville City Council on Oct. 24 unanimously approved an affordable housing plan for the wider Murchison neighborhood, the first step in a potentially long federal approval process. The plan consists of renovating 110 units at Elliot Circle and the 60 at Murchison Townhomes. The townhomes are over 50 years old, and the city considers them to be in poor condition.
The plan is one of the initial steps in a long process with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — a process that could take until 2024 or beyond to complete. The approved housing plan could result in renovations at properties on Elliot Circle and public housing units at Murchison Townhomes.
The city formed the plan after several community meetings in the neighborhood, said Chris Cauley, Fayetteville’s economic and community development director. Based on this community feedback, the city decided to invest in affordable housing units and improve existing low-cost housing.
In 2020, HUD awarded Fayetteville, along with just 10 other cities, a $450,000 planning grant under the agency’s Choice Neighborhoods program – an annual award given to local governments, housing authorities and nonprofit organizations with the purpose of improving public housing and creating affordable housing. In this case, the grant was awarded to the city of Fayetteville and the Fayetteville Metropolitan Authority.
Use of the $450,000 included coordinating a plan for affordable housing, infrastructure improvements and free community Wi-Fi for the Murchison Townhomes.
As it pertains to the renovations, the funding was only for the planning, which means community members will not see any improvements yet. To see the plan put into action, the city and the housing authority will need to apply for the implementation grant within the HUD program or receive money from some other funding source to cover the costs. Cauley said the city and the housing authority intend to apply for this implementation grant, the amount of which can range from $30 million to $50 million.
“We can’t do it without money,” Cauley said. “If we get the $30 (million) to $50 million, this is the plan that we will be executing.”
The grant was awarded to focus on affordable housing in the Murchison Road Corridor, a neighborhood that city staff who completed the HUD application referred to as the historic center of African American culture in the city. It is also home to Fayetteville State University, a historically Black university founded in 1867. The neighborhood has public schools, community medical clinics and is near downtown.
But it is also one of the poorest communities in Fayetteville.
The household median income in the census tract that makes up most of the neighborhood is just over $26,000, about three-fifths of Fayetteville’s figure of about $46,000, according to Census Reporter, a project out of Northwestern University that analyzes population data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The majority Black neighborhood has a poverty rate just under 40%, about double that of the whole city’s. Sixty-nine percent of children in the Murchison census tract live in poverty.
The affordable housing plan, whose research the grant funded, focuses on building lower-cost units in the neighborhood, as well as improving affordable units that exist already.
Cauley said that after each renovation to both the Elliot properties and the Murchison Townhomes, the complexes must, per HUD requirements, have the same number of units that will be affordable afterward, meaning that families making 60% or below the AMI must be able to afford to live there.
For the Murchison Townhomes, the 60 units would have the housing authority’s voucher system, as they do now.
For current residents of both sets of units, the city would be required to provide housing that meets their needs, such as staying in their child’s school district. The residents also have first claim on the units after renovation.
Cauley said that depending on other factors, such as cost, the properties may be expanded beyond their current count to include units for moderate-income families, up to 80% AMI.
Beyond funding the affordable housing plan, the grant could fund, upon HUD approval, the building of little free libraries, streetside cabinets that contain books for members of the community to take home and read. The grant could also fund infrastructure improvements such as enhancements to bus stops.
But this is all in the planning stages since the funding Fayetteville was awarded in 2020 was to start planning for ways to increase housing affordability.
To make the plan a reality, the city and housing authority would need to be awarded HUD’s $30 million implementation grant, which is highly competitive. HUD only awards the grant to about four cities nationwide each year, Cauley said.
The deadline for implementation grant applications is in January. But it’s a lengthy process to finalize an application, Cauley said. The housing authority wouldn’t submit an application until January 2024 at the earliest. To make themselves more competitive, he said some communities make locally funded investments before applying for the implementation grant.
“Communities can sometimes spend millions of dollars on revitalization efforts in order to be competitive,” he said, referring to what Fayetteville could hypothetically do to increase its approval odds. “We would be looking to execute some projects … like community centers, like mental health centers and teen and youth enrichment centers before we even apply for the grant.”
There are currently no plans in place to do the things that Cauley shared as examples.
If the city is not awarded this grant it would need to find funding from other sources to move forward with the changes in the plan.
The city and the housing authority are required to submit the final implementation plan to HUD by Dec. 29. Cauley said the city plans to apply for the implementation grant to carry out these activities by 2024 at the earliest.
Murchison is just one neighborhood in Fayetteville that lacks affordable housing.
Three-quarters of city households that earn 60% or below the area median income are cost burdened, meaning they spend 30% or more of their annual income on housing costs, according to an affordable housing study the city conducted last summer.
That study also found there is a shortage of 20,000 affordable housing units in the city.
“Those households are paying way too much,” Cauley said. “It is precluding them from building a savings account, from paying bills on time.”
In recent years, rents have skyrocketed in the area, as reported by Apartment List, a service that tracks local rent data nationwide.
Last month, the average rent in Cumberland County was over $1,400 a month. A year ago, it was $1,333. Before the pandemic in September 2019, the average rent was $965.
Across the state, in cities such as Asheville and Charlotte, communities are dealing with a similar problem with affordable housing. They are coming up with solutions to tackle this problem.
According to a 2019 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 41% of low-income renting households in North Carolina are cost burdened. Low income is defined as an annual income anywhere from 51% to 80% of the AMI.
And there isn’t a clear way to move forward, according to Cauley.
“At the end of the day, this is one of those big issues,” he said. “We call it wicked problems, and there’s not a lot of easy fixes.”
Ben Sessoms is a Carolina Public Press staff writer based in Fayetteville. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to contact him.
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