Rising rents have residents worried, but some wins in Austin could boost local organizers’ efforts

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As Charlotte looks for ways to address its affordable housing crisis, officials may want to swipe an idea from Austin, Texas, where the community is battling gentrification and rising rents.

Charlotte is growing and so is its development and need for mobility, but there is fear that all the growth could fast track gentrification and push out long-time residents. 

“We need some protection,” organizer for Action NC, a grassroots community organization, Jessica Moreno said.  

Moreno says she’s worried that prices will continue to increase and drive out more people. Take South End for example, as the city rolled out the Blue Line, new development displaced many who once lived there. The area now caters to residents — mostly renters — who can afford to pay some of the city’s highest prices. 

“Development is good, every city needs development but what we don’t need is development on the backs and blood of the community members who are the most vulnerable,” Moreno said.  

So how do we prevent displacement of the residents who built Charlotte to what it is today?  

Take a look at Austin. 

There, voters issued a bold call to action when they approved funding for a multi-billion-dollar transit plan that includes $300 million to help residents who may be forced out of their homes.  

The money will go towards affordable housing, businesses owned by people of color, and strengthening tenant and homeowner rights within areas around the new transit most at risk of displacement. 

“Tenants have power, tenants have rights,” Interim Executive Director of Austin Tenants Council Aja Gair said. 

Austin Tenants Council is one of the organizations that received some of the funding. It will try to alleviate pressures of displacement.

Some examples include, ensure fair housing, address any issues with living conditions, and offer counseling and education to tenants.  

“Having someone in your corner as an advocate who can help assert those rights sometimes it’s not safe or you don’t feel safe when your housing is at stake, to challenge a landlord or raise a red flag, but when you have an entity that can do some of that advocacy that is extremely beneficial for tenants,” Gair said.  

The Austin City Council authorized a one-year contract with the Austin Tenants Council on October 13 to fund and administer a Tenants’ Rights Assistance Program. It is designed to deliver community education and information about tenant protection laws. 

Jessica Moreno, Housing Justice Organizer, Action NC, right, talks with renter Bekai Cole about the needs for a national tenants union on Saturday April 23, 2022. Moreno and her team spend the day canvassing the neighborhood. On the left is Pattache Roper, a volunteer. Photo by The’ N. Pham tpham@charlottteobserver.com.

It’s that type of advocacy that Action NC and the Housing Justice Coalition is pushing for here in Mecklenburg County.  

They recently submitted a proposal for new policies underpinned by the recognition that housing is a human right. 

They asked the city and county to increase funding for programs that are preventing displacement such as RAMP, tax relief and others. 

The city’s attorney sent Action NC and the Housing Justice Coalition a response saying, “The city is re-evaluating its aging in place program and other anti-displacement initiatives are under consideration. The issue of tax relief has legal obstacles that we are trying to work around by carefully tailoring programs to address the needs of low-income residents.” 

“For a city that claims that they want to work on upward mobility and economic development for its citizens, their response doesn’t show that,” Moreno said. 

Even with some evidence of a recent slow down, rents have skyrocketed the past two years. According to Redfin, year over year median rents rose last month by 8.9 percent in Austin and 7.2 percent in Charlotte. 

Most states have laws that ban cities and counties from passing rent control measures, something advocates have pushed for in both states. Both North and South Carolina passed rent control bans in the 1980s. 

In Austin, there are still challenges that housing advocates face, like keeping clients safe, helping tenants get help in a timely manner, and the need to reach younger renters, but Austin tenants believe leaders are taking displacement seriously by devoting money to community-initiated solutions.

Cover illustration by Mariano Santillan

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