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Eric A. Johnson: The new face of the changing public housing realities

CHARLOTTE – If you want to put a face on the seismic changes in public affordable housing, go visit Eric Anthony Johnson, chief real estate development officer for the Charlotte Housing Authority.

Johnson

Johnson

He’s a new face at CHA, too, at it for only seven months. At a nimble 48, he’s adapted quickly to the shifting sands of Charlotte’s housing needs.

Johnson knows what he’s doing.

He began his career in 1996 as a presidential management fellow and community development analyst for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, and did two stints at Harvard, graduating from both Real Estate Management and the Government Public Trust Executive Leadership Training programs. He earned his Ph.D. in urban affairs and public policy from the University of Delaware.

He is a member of Urban Land Institute, CEO’s for Cities, the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties
and the Congress for New Urbanism.

His wife’s name is Franna, and he has two children, a 13-year-old daughter and a son, 2 ½.

One the level found him in his office on East Boulevard, on the phone and behind two desktop computer screens and an iPad.

What exactly do you do? I lead a staff of real estate professionals, seven people, to look at ways to develop quality workforce housing in Charlotte, stay abreast of opportunities and challenges, adapt to meeting needs, further our partnerships locally, regionally and nationally. The world is changing and resources are not as good. We have to think more collaboratively and ask ourselves, “How do we look at our mission through a different lens?”

And there is a whole lot changing, in the country and especially in Charlotte. What’s happening is that Charlotte is a growth market. It’s a quality place to live. Existing residents are in need of ongoing, quality service. The number of people projected to come here continues to grow, the opportunities for land shrink, and the price-point for housing continues to rise. The need for workforce housing is expanding while the resource base is shrinking. Resources for families are not keeping pace, and that’s true across the spectrum of incomes. Can a teacher afford market workforce housing anymore in Charlotte? What we’ve done in the past is not going to work, in the present or in the future. It’s a challenge here. Every day.

People are moving to Charlotte without jobs because if you’re unemployed and looking, you might as well live somewhere nice where there’s job growth. You just described what is the new world order. People will located to places and say, “I’ll figure (a job) out when I get there.” Place matters. The whole new wave is about quality of life in an urban area: the retiring boomers, the global generation – they are interested in the core of the city, where prices are highest and land is scarcest.

Public housing has a bad rep. It’s just not true anymore, but those old perceptions die hard. Like a private developer, we offer mixed-use developments. Our newer developments are LEED-certified. If anybody wants to see the quality of our work, how it compares with private commercial development, go see the Renaissance project on the site of the old Boulevard Homes. It compares with commercial developments. It was funded by a $21 million HUD Hope VI grant, will have an educational village, walking paths, senior living and apartment units. And we have plenty of others too. That old perception is just wrong because our vision is so different.

Who is your clientele? Here’s the thing, the need hovers right around 80 percent of the area median income, about $52,000 for a family of four – there is a real need there. Most of the workforce income hovers right around 60 to 80 percent, and goes as low as 30 percent – that’s our target market, that’s the range in which we subsidize rents. To be able to do that, we develop and build projects that are mixed income, with 80 percent of the units market-priced and 20 percent workforce. They’re the same units, but some are subsidized on a sliding scale, and most aren’t, and the market-priced ones help subsidize the others. And it’s better blend, socially, economically and for the community.

You’re pretty new to have this place pretty well figured out. I have a real history here. I was real estate manager for the city of Charlotte from about 2006 until 2008, and then I left to work for Cleveland Port Authority. They recruited me to come back here earlier this year.

Cleveland. Were you there when the FBI hauled Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora away in manacles in one of the farthest-reaching local political corruption scandals in recent U.S. history? Let’s just say it was a challenging environment. But, truthfully, that’s why I went. There was a real need there, and it was challenging, creating a new waterfront plan for a big urban area. I came back here because this housing authority is one of the best in country, unlike many others. We have a great staff, local government officials and employees, board members. We have the respect of a lot of agencies around town, and with developers and builders locally statewide and regionally. We have good relationships all around.

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