RALEIGH, N.C. – Michael Watkins knows all too well what life is like without a home.
For 20 years, Watkins lived in Raleigh without a permanent address. Some nights he would sleep in a shelter. Other nights found him on the doorstep of a church, using cardboard or newspapers as a mattress.
He still remembers the day he finally signed an apartment lease.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” he said. “I was so happy.”
Watkins spent 10 years at the apartment he leased, but briefly became homeless again this summer after his landlord refused to renew his lease.
He then secured another apartment in southern Wake County. He still uses rental assistance programs to make his payments.
In addition to a jam-packed ballot filled with presidential, legislative, judicial, and Council of State races, Raleigh voters will determine the fate of an $80 million bond meant to fund the development of low-income housing. If approved, it would join similar voter-approved bond issues in Greensboro, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and Durham.
Exact figures on homelessness are difficult to pin down, but the federal government estimated some 9,300 people in North Carolina were homeless at any given time in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available.
Sometimes, people with low incomes feel the problems their housing presents don't justify the cost.
That's the case with Andre Culley, who left a $600-a-month apartment this summer due to pest problems, crowding, and rowdy neighbors. Culley is employed, but a large portion of his income goes to child support payments.
He said he felt he was better off on the street and saving what he can.
“It shouldn't be a long process. Let's get these people off the street. Let's make it affordable for them, let's give them all the resources that they need,” Culley said.
Twenty-eight million dollars would go toward programs meant to help chronically homeless people secure housing, while another $24 million would finance low-income housing tax credits, which incentivize the construction of low-income housing. The city council would have to increase property taxes to pay for the bond.
The median value of a home in the city of Raleigh is $255,744, so this would mean an additional $20.07 per year.
The plan has attracted some criticism from both the left and the right.
Housing advocates such as the Wake County Housing Justice Coalition have expressed concerns the money would end up going to fund more moderate-income housing. That group has urged a “no” vote on the bond. Meanwhile, the John Locke Foundation's Mitch Kokai said the money won't do any good without regulatory changes.
"You need to relax the zoning restrictions and other regulations that make it harder to build affordable housing," he said. "While $80 million is going to accomplish something, it's not going to solve the problem, and it's basically telling taxpayers to spend some money and basically you're going to have the same problem you're trying to address."
Former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker is leading the effort to get the bond issue passed. He said the concern over the share of low and moderate-income housing is valid, but the bond will primarily go toward low-income housing.
Meeker said gentrification has driven out affordable rental housing due to the proximity of central city properties to public transit and employment. Further, he said housing prices have continued to rise even though many people have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watkins has spent the past few weeks transferring all of his belongings to his new apartment. He hopes he doesn't find himself homeless yet again. That's where he says the bond could come into play for people in his situation, who have homes but could potentially lose them again.
“It would prevent, for instance, what happened to me, from happening again to me or to somebody else,” he said.
Watkins said he doesn't like the idea of people paying additional property taxes, but he'd rather see taxpayers foot the bill for housing than for jails and other places where the homeless might otherwise end up.
Early voting continues through October 31 and Election Day is November 3.