One on One: Mayor Vi Lyles
The first-term mayor on affordable housing, the new council, and how HB2 raised Charlotte’s profile
Vi Lyles swept into office last year with a resounding win over her Republican opponent, City Council member Kenny Smith, and a mandate for change that also transformed the makeup of the 11-member council. Lyles had staked out her leadership role as mayor pro tem under former Mayor Jennifer Roberts, crafting a seven-point response to the 2016 Keith Lamont Scott demonstrations that led to a public commitment by the mayor and council to address affordable housing, policing, employment, and other civic issues.
Not quite six months in, her and the council’s efforts to honor that commitment—especially on affordable housing—have dominated her term, along with city efforts to keep the Carolina Panthers in town after Jerry Richardson, following public allegations of sexual harassment, announced he was selling the NFL franchise. Lyles, 65, has also earned national attention for her status as Charlotte’s first black female mayor. “It is historic,” Lyles told the online women’s magazine Bustle after she took office in December. “I accept and acknowledge that.”
I interviewed the mayor for a half-hour on May 1 in her office in the Government Center; transcript is edited for space and clarity.
Charlotte magazine: What’s surprised you most so far?
Lyles: I did not expect that Charlotte was recognized nationally for the work we’re doing in government and the private sector. I go places, and people ask me about Charlotte and how we’re doing things and the partnerships we’ve formed and the work we’ve been doing. I think Charlotte is a city that people see as a model for the future. The demographics reflect that.
It didn’t hurt to have the HB2 controversy, in the sense that people became very aware of what we were about, where we’re located, what we do. What do they say, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”? People remember the qualities we talked about in that debate we were having. So I think the awareness of the national stage in some ways got us to this place where we’re even being asked to bid on the Republican National Convention. I know it sounds odd, but it’s true—people are much more aware of the work we’re doing in this country, often more aware than I would have ever expected.
CM: What are you basing that perception on?
Lyles: A couple of things. As soon as I was elected, I went to Washington, and I saw people like senators in the hallway, and if they knew you were North Carolina, they recognized that we were there. The meeting with our colleagues at the National League of Cities and Conference of Mayors—I was invited to places where we were chosen because of the work we’re doing.
But I’ll tell you the real thing is the number of invitations that this council and this office gets to go and speak nationally, to be a part of Smart Cities, to be a part of affordable housing conversations. I just got an invitation to go to Los Angeles for Infrastructure Week. I’m not going to go, but the invitations involve valid questions about local government.
CM: And you think a lot of that comes out of the city’s part in the HB2 controversy?
Lyles: I don’t want to overemphasize that, but I think that debate was certainly one that was noticed nationally. But more than that debate, it illustrated the talent and private sector interest in our city. I actually think the recovery from HB2 has a lot to do with it—to have the NBA All-Star weekend coming up in 2019. We bounced back with great resilience. We showed it throughout that entire time, and I think people noticed that. They know we we’re working on a crisis of housing, and they knew we’re approaching that genuinely. The work we’re doing around Smart Cities, our environmental work—they’re noticing that. A lot of that is just a matter of our willingness to tackle tough issues in a systematic way for the benefit of people.
CM: Speaking of tough issues and the RNC, you and the city really seem to be sticking your necks out in lobbying for Charlotte to host the convention in 2020. Why?
Lyles: It goes back to the city’s values of being open about what we’re doing and inclusive of our private sector partners. We talked about it because we felt like this is not a political decision. It is a decision that will demonstrate the value of the democratic process, just like it did in 2012 (when Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention).
For us, we did the right thing. We don’t need to surprise our community when we start talking about how we’re going to create a place that’s memorable, how we’re going to encourage national and international media to come and cover what we’re doing, how we’re going to use this as a place where we can do more business recruitment. I think the citizens expect that of us. All those things can be accomplished whether it’s Democrat, Republican, or the National League of Cities coming here. That’s an expectation for us.
CM: So you’re saying there’s probably plenty of competition, but others aren’t being as transparent about it.
Lyles: Yes. We’re very open about this, and for valid reasons.
CM: You’re about five months into a new era in city government, with a mayor and council elected on a mandate for change. In general, what’s different about the way the city runs?
Lyles: It’s been a change on building on our values and things like our openness and access to government. I think we’ve been very successful in that. Livestreaming is accepted now. Of course, change is hard for all of us … As we’ve adopted those changes, I think they’ve really worked well.
I thought a change in our (council) committee system was really needed—that we needed to get more things defined before they went to committee so that the committee focused on what problem we were trying to solve. I think we’re getting there. We’re not quite there yet. I think our committees are often in a place where they want to examine the large picture, and we need to get some focus.
But I see the change in our council meetings, particularly when we have the council topics (during meetings). We’ve always used that as a way to inform the community about activities, whereas (now) sometimes we’ll have council members talk about philosophy and how they make decisions. I never knew that we’d have a podcast, R&D in the QC. I’ve participated in it twice, and I think it’s been a really good thing.
CM: So you’re saying in part that you’re trying to have staff narrow down concrete project specifics before they get to council committees, rather than have the committees spend months batting around ideas with no hard proposals attached?
Lyles: I wouldn’t use the word “concrete,” but I’d say “well-defined on impacting consequences.” Cost impact, feasibility—staff work is important, but even more important is, do you know what you’re going to ask?
CM: It seems like that’s the goal of instituting strategy sessions to replace the old council workshops—to kick things forward with projected deadlines rather than let them stagnate for months or years.
Lyles: Over the last two years, we had more than 40 items in committee that were information-only. Well, I think information belongs to the 11 council members and the mayor, and we all ought to share that, and we need it to move from information to getting the work done that the people elected us to do.
CM: Of course, I wanted to talk a bit about affordable housing.
Lyles: I could talk about that all day.
CM: I’m sure. Recently, you expressed some frustration when council members, on a night when they approved 11 new affordable housing projects, suggested the city wasn’t focusing enough on housing for the poorest residents—which the city’s affordable housing consultant, Enterprise Community Partners, has said is the biggest need. Why were you frustrated, and why isn’t the city focused on the kind of housing that’s needed most?
Lyles: This is a complicated subject, and I’m going to try to be as simple as possible. We had the Enterprise report, but we also had a meeting of our Housing and Neighborhood Development committee, where we had some local experts come in and, in some respects, say, “That’s not what we’re feeling.” The Enterprise report was months ago, and the development pressure has grown significantly. I think what I was trying to say is, in this country, living and affording a house is the number one major expense of any household, and if we can create places where people can work and go home to their families and get their kids to read and participate in their family life, that’s the economic mobility we need.
So it would be easy for me to say, “Well, let’s build for everything under 30.” (Ed.: By “under 30,” she means 30 percent of Area Median Income, the metric the federal government uses to determine housing subsidies. The Charlotte area’s AMI in 2017 was $70,700 for a family of four.) We need some more information about how to deal with under 30. Even the federal government, when you talk about public housing, they have been the traditional source of under 30. We haven’t taken the deeper dive into what our Housing Authority is going to do and how they can help us on this.
That’s why, when I think about this, the need is great at every level, and maybe it’s greater there. But we have a partner to work with there, and on many of the other spectrums, workforce housing and such, we don’t have a partner. So we’ve got to get in there and figure that out—but not at the expense of doing something that we know is readily available to us. That’s what I meant. Mobility comes from addressing the next generation, and the children in these households that are stressed by the lack of a home as well as having parents in stress over not being able to afford rent—I’m not going to separate those people. They all deserve the opportunity to have a stable home.
Workforce housing, I would hope, would be accessible. But when it isn’t, we’re locking out families that are making $40,000 and $50,000 in a community where the average income is over $70,000.
CM: And that potentially drives lower-wage workers out to, say, Gastonia for housing.
Lyles: We don’t have a bus system that goes to Gastonia to get them to their workplaces. And most people in that range, under 60 (percent of AMI), they can afford housing. But if they run into a crisis, like a hospital visit … The example I use is, you’re working someplace, and all of a sudden the guy says, “Well, you may have been doing 40 hours (per week), but we’re getting slower, and for the next six weeks, I need you to go to 30.” That is a housing crisis. Keeping those folks where they are prevents them from being under 30 (percent of AMI). We’ve got to have a balanced approach, especially for people who are working. I wish I could say wages are going to change for everyone. But my belief is that Charlotte is a better city, a more diverse city, and a place that shows that we can have every economic stratum, and they can live safely and in adequate housing.
CM: What do you think of Clay Grubb’s suggestions about a $250 million Housing Trust Fund containing public and private contributions?
Lyles: I read it and thought, “Come on, join us, we’re going to try to do as much as we can.” I’m grateful for him laying out a big vision. But I have been talking for the last month about a $50 million bond referendum, which is more than triple anything we’ve done in the past. I’ve also said that we do need a private equity fund, and I would hope that fund would match what government does. I thought there were some great ideas there, and I welcome them to the table. I’ll call him and ask how he can help. I think this community for the first time has galvanized around affordable housing, as we’ve seen it happen around the idea of light rail, creating road infrastructure—it’s time for it to be a first priority.
CM: Absent mandatory inclusionary zoning, which the city can’t do without unlikely legislative approval, what’s the incentive for developers to set aside affordable units and contribute to an affordable housing fund?
Lyles: When Mayor (Anthony) Foxx proposed the voluntary inclusionary zoning, it was a different time. He was mayor at a time when we were slower economically. It’s not likely under the current incentive program that there’s enough incentive for developers to do that. We’re going to have to look more carefully at buying down the cost of land. I thought Clay Grubb”s comment about the cost of housing and permitting—all of those are things we’re going to have to look at. But we’re going to have to figure out a different way.
CM: What might that be?
Lyles: Developers develop based on the economic well-being of a community. They’re creating the market for the businesses that are growing in this community, and I think the businesses recognize that not everybody’s making six figures, and they have people they want to show up to work on time every day who are in this income level. I think that’s where we will have the best discussion, between the private sector that creates jobs and opportunities, work with development communities to say, “I need housing for the people who work here.” That’s the approach I’m taking.
CM: So it’s mainly a matter of selling that idea to the development community?
Lyles: Not me selling it, but when we have developers and business owners—you know, Wells Fargo is one of the largest employers after health care. The health care people know—imagine if we had any emergency, how health care workers get to work. They have to be able to get here. We want our police officers to be able to get here, our firefighters. We as employers have a responsibility toward an affordable community where people can live.
City Manager Marcus Jones will present his office’s proposed 2018-19 city budget to the mayor and City Council at 5 p.m. Monday in room 267 at the Government Center, 600 E. 4th St. Lyles will preside over a budget public hearing in the council meeting chamber at 5:30 p.m. May 14. Agendas and related documents are available here.