On Cochrane Drive in the Nevin area of north Charlotte, a small plot of previously unused land serves as the foundation for what grassroots organization Home Again Foundation (HAF) believes can be the solution to Mecklenburg County’s affordable housing crisis.
In partnership with Kris Axhoj of Axhoj Enterprises, HAF has constructed and signed leases at eight “true” affordable housing units on two parcels of property that would have otherwise been used for one or two single-family homes. The homes are just the beginning point in a larger mission for HAF, which aims to find a 30-acre plot of land where they can build an affordable housing community housing 560 residents.
The community plans include 300 homes, an outdoor theater, 24-hour child-care services, arts and crafts centers, workforce development programs, fitness centers, a commercial kitchen, community gardens, a chapel and a community center, all of which HAF says it can build for just 17 to 20 million dollars.
The community homes will be built using the same model as the eight that are already constructed and ready to move into on Cochrane Drive, which could be considered a pilot program for the planned community. Of the eight existing houses, two are one-bedroom, efficiency-built homes and the rest have two or three bedrooms. Rents range from $480 to $1,045 a month, with all utilities included.
Visiting the newly constructed community of sleek, modern cottages, one would assume these homes were part of a gentrification push into the area, but they are actually quite the opposite.
“What we recognize is that housing is housing,” says Vickie Craighead-Davis, chief housing and program officer for HAF. “We’re not going to put anybody in anything that we don’t want to live in, so we want the dishwasher, we want the AC, we want the countertops.”
Inside the homes there are countertops that look like granite, German-based air conditioners built for efficency, tankless water heaters and tall windows that nearly reach to the 9-foot ceilings, allowing for plenty of natural light. The framing is built from recycled automobile steel made to withstand the weather and maintain stability well into the future. The construction of these homes make them cost a fraction of a regular house, with fundraising for the new community already begun through a capital campaign called Promise of Tomorrow.
“We’re making sure that, one, [these people] have something that they can afford, that they can sustain and maintain and then, two, we are building hope and commitment through self-sufficiency programs that are wrapped into the residence,” Craighead-Davis says.
Breaking down the barriers
The most recent data from the 2020 State of Housing Instability & Homelessness Report shows that nearly 30,000 households in Mecklenburg County live with an income at or below 30% of area median income (AMI), with just over 15,000 affordable housing units available for those households. According to the report, the county has over 3,000 people experiencing homelessness with more than 500 experiencing chronic homelessness, meaning they have either experienced homelessness consistently over a 12-month period or had multiple experiences of homelessness over three years.
Barriers to housing range from bad credit history or not enough income to physical or mental health issues and addiction to not having the required documents. The issue of homelessness in our community is often glossed over, though recently it became front and center as more than 200 residents living in a tent encampment in the Uptown area were moved to a hotel shelter last week. The solutions provided have mostly been temporary and emergency-related.
HAF offers housing with a low-barrier approach and maintains that the only two things that disqualify an applicant from signing a lease would be if a potential resident is a registered sex offender or has a history of arson, for the safety of fellow residents.
Craighead-Davis has a social service background and worked as a shelter staff member, case manager and director of shelter services at the Men’s Shelter, and was the director of neighbors services at Urban Ministries, now Roof Above, the preeminent local homeless services organization, until April 2020, when she joined Home Again Foundation. The organization was founded by Rick Gilbert, who founded and led the Room in the Inn winter shelter program in Mint Hill for 24 years before deciding he wanted to do more.
Craighead-Davis says the goal is to consult with each individual tenant one-on-one regarding their housing needs and any issues they are dealing with.
“We are not asking people to change their lives. What we’re asking our residents to do is commit to their self-sufficiency. Our self-sufficiency program that we have is an individualized program, and we know that not all people are the same. There is not a ‘one size fits all,’” Craighead-Davis says. “We know that everyone doesn’t have the tenacity to go out and navigate the resources, and it’s really hard to navigate resources here in Mecklenburg County if you’re not aware or you’re not mentally stable enough to do so,” she says.
By offering services and using self-sufficiency assessment matrices to connect people to other services, HAF has a goal of making productive citizens no matter how different that looks case-by-case.
“We are serving the regular people and when we say regular, we don’t have a cap. We don’t have incarcerated or this income or this AMI, we have individuals that are experiencing homelessness or are at imminent risk of homelessness that only have the capacity to afford what they can afford,” Craighead-Davis continues. “We know that we have people that are suffering in poverty, that are living in poverty, and could possibly maintain on their own with their Bojangles job or their McDonald’s job or their gas station job,” she adds.
Affordable housing in rapid time
Kris Axhoj has been working on affordable housing solutions through logistics on land development and best-practice construction techniques since 2004. While the Home Again Foundation focuses on wrap-around services and individual case management, Axhoj Enterprises focuses on sustainable and cost-effective solutions to constructing modern affordable housing.
Axhoj Enterprises and Home Again broke ground on Cochrane Drive in July of last year, with Axhoj paying for many of the costs out of pocket. The most difficult part of construction was clearing and preparing the land to be built on, he says.
Tapping into water and sewage alone cost $53,000 at full market price with no assistance from the city.
“This project here is our Gen. 1. We are learning an awful lot on this project so we know how to do it faster and better on the next project,” Axhoj tells Queen City Nerve. “We had a problem with this one because, when COVID hit, it took our financing away. I’ve been getting financing from people for years and all of the sudden it tightened up. I had to finance the whole thing, and to figure out how to do that was really tough.”
The property was originally made up of two lots that Axhoj and his surveyor were able to break up into four separate parcels by moving property lines. Each parcel consists of a primary unit and an accessory dwelling unit, which technically is a detached apartment half the size of the primary unit.
Construction time and efficiency are the goal in affording people the opportunity to live within their means and Axhoj works hard to accomplish both.
“These houses are virtually maintenance-free and are high-performance,” he says. “Everything is thermally broken up and there is insulation all on the outside of the house, so it’s basically like living in a cooler. Our utility bills should be extremely low. We’re taking every aspect of construction and rethinking it.”
Axhoj notes that, through a special component-built system, the eight original houses were constructed in just nine days. At his Monroe factory, Axhoj’s staff pre-panelized the walls and trusses, which were then shipped by flatbed to the location. The framers removed the pieces from the truck and screwed them together.
“You don’t have to snap lines or level anything out because everything is already level,” Axhoj explains. “Everything is already squared from the factory so you just take it off the truck and screw it together.”
Not far from the goal line
The search for a 30-acre property isn’t necessarily a county-wide scavenger hunt, as there is a 28-acre property immediately across the street on Cochrane Drive that HAF and Axhoj are already hoping to build on. They are currently working to partner with the Diocese of Charlotte to purchase the land.
“There are 28 acres right there,” Axhoj says. “It’s a really nice property … That’s a buyable project. If they [Charlotte Diocese] say ‘Yep, we’ll fund you’ then we’re on it,” Axhoj says.
A majority of the cost burden comes from property development. Axhoj is optimistic at his ability to produce cost-effective homes to be erected on ready-to-build property in minimal time. Their only barrier is money, as neither HAF nor Axhoj Enterprises have received any funding from local government to produce these properties, despite the high priority of affordable housing for city planners.
“We are pure,” he says. “We really haven’t gone out there and solicited funds yet. As a builder-developer, I just want this to get out there. The more it gets out there, the better we are.”
As the city continues to fund and offer tax incentives to developers that promise to make a certain percentage of new developments affordable, they often overlook grassroots organizations that come up with actionable solutions.
The city did contribute 30 million dollars in 2020 to support initiatives in sheltering community members experiencing homelessness, but solutions like the one on Cochrane Drive provide permanent and supportive sustainability in a fraction of the time that other large affordable housing projects take to even get off the ground.
Who can apply and how do they afford it?
HAF assists people in the 0-60% AMI range, not just focusing on the 30% AMI level that most city planners use to define those in need. Craighead-Davis says the organization is working to help everyone they possibly can. There are no strict criteria or long wait times for applications.
“Those are the individuals that with the proper help, with the proper support, they can transition from one state of life to the next and we want to give them the opportunity,” she says. “We want to get the community where it needs to go. We want to move the Charlotte community forward and not keep them in this state of perpetual depression feeling like they’re not worthy because ‘I did this, I have this problem or my income is not enough.’”
HAF plans to offer points and rewards toward rent for residents that choose to work in the community that they live in. By volunteering to assist in services inside the community, a resident will get credit toward their rent.
Issues with supportive housing include long-wait times, sometimes having to wait years to even apply for the limited affordable-housing options available in the city. Oftentimes people may not go to hotels and shelters because losing your homelessness status may take you out of the running for permanent supportive housing. “So many people constantly say ‘No I’m not going to go into housing, no I’m not going to go stay with my friends because if I do I am going to lose my [unsheltered] homelessness status.’ That is literally the criteria,” she explains.
Home Again Foundation is creating homes for people to live in forever, with no strings attached. If your income is at a certain level or a fixed rate, there is no end date on your lease. They only ask that you work to be self-sufficient, though there are no set timelines for doing so.
“We figured out a solution because we are tired of waiting for people to go through emergency shelter. We’re tired of people waiting to be approved for permanent supportive housing. We’re tired of waiting or trying to find those landlords that are willing to rent to people with risqué backgrounds. We’re tired of all that,” she adds.
“We have the solution. We are ready to go. What we need is land,” Craighead-Davis continues. “We need donations so that we can continue to build.”
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