Charlotte must not squander $700 million in pandemic relief money

Charlotte must not squander $700 million in pandemic relief money
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From piloting a universal basic income program to purchasing hotels to house the homeless, cities and states are coming up with new ways to spend $350 billion in aid from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Charlotte has the opportunity to do the same.

But how big will leaders dream?

What’s happening: Mecklenburg County, the city of Charlotte and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools received $674.5 million in relief funding collectively from the legislation, the stimulus package passed under the Biden administration.

Why it matters: The infusion of cash has presented Charlotte with the resources to address our biggest problems, from educational inequity to housing.

  • Governments have a longer timeline, and much more flexibility with spending the money from the latest bill than with previous COVID-19 relief money.
  • And while it may not be enough to fix generations of systemic issues, it is certainly a start, and a chance that won’t come around often.

Now, local officials are embarking on the difficult task of figuring out what priorities to fund. Some, like the city council, have approved specific allocations, while the county is still developing its proposal.

  • “This is a once-in a-career, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Michael Bryant, deputy county manager, tells me. “And we don’t want to squander it.”

Yes, but: Some community advocates fear that leaders will do just that.

Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, says she’s frustrated that the people who are making the decisions are the ones who have historically caused harm to marginalized communities.

  • “You have politicians making decisions for communities that they don’t even engage with,” she says.

Here’s what we know so far about how the three entities are planning to spend the money.

City of Charlotte

Charlotte already received $71 million from the federal government, and will receive the second half of its money in 2022, for a total of $142 million.

City Council voted at their retreat in Winston-Salem last month on a broad framework to allocate $60 million, or the remainder of the first tranche of money (the city already spent $11 million on city operations).

The framework covers three main categories:

  • Housing ($17 million): This will focus on anti-displacement strategies.
  • Workforce development/employment ($16 million): Includes programs like hotel relief, hiring grants and business innovation.
  • Community vitality ($27 million): Includes digital inclusion, grassroots nonprofit support, public safety, arts and culture, food insecurity, and YMCA programming.

But little detail was given at the time it was approved beyond those descriptions around what those programs could like.

  • “It’s just a wishlist,” says Ismaail Qaiyim, chairperson of the political education and policy committee at Charlotte’s Housing Justice Coalition. “And it has the potential to turn into a slush fund.”
Data: City of Charlotte; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Between the lines: In response to a request from Axios Charlotte, Shawn Heath, special assistant to the city manager, provided additional information on each of the categories.

  • Anti-displacement includes a focus on “staying in place” efforts that are being piloted in three neighborhoods: Hidden Valley, Washington Heights and Winterfield.
  • The city is engaging with those neighborhoods to figure out what residents need to remain in their homes. It also could include investing in home repairs and rehabs.
  • The city also wants to revive several programs that were funded with CARES dollars, including those focused on small businesses and hiring incentives for local businesses to expand their workforce.

What they’re saying: In an emailed statement, Heath said that input from the task forces the city set up that helped influence CARES money spending also helped shape the American Rescue Plan proposals.

There was also a public survey for the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, which asked residents what the city should prioritize when spending stimulus aid. The top answers were rent and utility support, help for small businesses and digital inclusion.

  • Throughout the pandemic we have relied on public input to help direct funding of federal stimulus dollars,” he said.

The other side: Republicans on council have been critical of the level of information provided and have asked that council members have a say in the specific programs that get funded with the money as the plan is fleshed out.

Council member Tariq Bokhari said he’d like to see more money allocated to small businesses, because they employ the majority of the city’s workers. He believes helping small businesses would address the underlying cause of many of the issues the city is facing, and that programs like rental assistance only address suffering in the short-term.

  • “We for some reason are allergic to going after the root causes,” he tells me. “We only focus on the easy, low hanging fruit of handing out bandaids for symptoms.”

Mecklenburg County

The county’s building out a recovery plan, which will be finalized in the next 30 days, Bryant says. That will include goals to guide the investment decisions for the $215 million in rescue plan money (it has already spent about $15 million on operational investments).

The proposed framework for the remaining $200 million focuses on seven areas, Bryant said:

  • access (such as to things like food and internet)
  • child and family stability
  • college and career readiness
  • environment
  • homeless services
  • mental health
  • workforce development

What they’re saying: Autumn Weil, executive director of nonprofit International House, addressed the commissioners at a public hearing in October and asked them to establish a coalition of nonprofits, neighborhood leaders, small businesses and others to make recommendations on investment decisions.

She’s worried that otherwise, there will be winners and losers in who receives funding.

In a follow-up interview, she said she wants to see more attention dedicated to addressing the roots of systemic issues.

  • “We’re thinking really small when we have an opportunity to think bigger than we ever have before because of the funding thats available,” she says. “I’m okay if it takes a while to get the funds out the door if it means that we have better practices that will lead to sustainable solutions.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

The second-largest school system in N.C. received $317.5 million from the rescue package, and has approved spending a little over a third of that so far, according to the latest update in September.

That covers seven areas: Equity and additional resources based on need is the largest, at $67.5 million. The others are:

  • Health and safety
  • Social emotional learning and mental health
  • Virtual and remote learning options
  • Teacher professional development and support
  • Indirect costs/grant administration
  • Staffing incentives

You can view the full list of what each of those categories entail here. The biggest investment so far is a $50 million tutoring program for 42 low-performing schools.

What they’re saying: Katie Sunseri, executive director of federal programs with CMS, says the school system is taking a slower, methodical approach with spending the funding to balance short- and long-term needs.

  • “That funding is available to us through 2024,” she tells me. “And we want to be really intentional about what some of those longer-term decisions look like.”

    CMS american rescue plan fund

    Courtesy of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

What should we prioritize?

The school district is not alone in striking that balance. Many local governments are faced with weighing short- and long-term recovery, says Joseph Parilla, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Brookings Institution.

Lori Thomas, interim director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, said the money presents both an opportunity and a risk.

  • “If you rush through and use existing structures to try to quickly alleviate … the worst of the economic impacts, you can really exacerbate economic and racial inequality,” she said. “As frustrating as it can be for folks on the ground, I think there’s a real danger for us to really rush through.”
  • She said there’s early promise in the investments outlined by the city, but the details will determine how transformative they will be.

Community ideas: Mack hopes the money will be used to address upward mobility and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on residents of color. She said she’s encouraged that county leaders are being more deliberate with decisions around the money.

  • Homelessness, re-entry for those formerly incarcerated and domestic violence are some of the issues Mack believes city and county officials should prioritize.
  • We need to deal with the foundational human needs like housing and health care,” she said. “Those things need to come first.”

The Housing Justice Coalition is pushing for new ideas around anti-displacement, like the right to representation in some eviction cases. Neighborhood advocates in marginalized communities also have asked for resources to prevent longtime residents from being pushed out.

  • Lisa Mayhew-Jones is president of the Smithville Community Coalition, which represents a historically Black neighborhood in Cornelius. The group is asking the county commissioners for some of the funding to help the neighborhood with a plan it has developed to build affordable housing and provide loans to homeowners for improvements.

“Now is the time, because Smithville and I’m sure the other towns, we don’t have very much time to wait,” she said. “If not, we are going to be gentrified, without a doubt.”

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