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GCAA Exec Director Responds to Recent Trash Debate in Charlotte

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In response to recent consideration by Charlotte City Council Members and City Staff of eliminating trash collection service for multifamily residents, GCAA Executive Director Ken Szymanski sent the letter below to Mayor Roberts and members of the Council. 

City of Charlotte Solid Waste Services to Residential Housing Types: Disparities in the Development of Public Policy, Single-Family vs. Multi-Family

I am now in my 30th year in Charlotte as a housing/community development professional (previously worked for 11 years in Texas and Ohio, including for local units of government) and I’d like to share my perspective about solid waste. I have been part of the community dialogue concerning the trash issues in Charlotte and it has often been a bruising debate. I have been in the housing field for over 40 years and my formal training is in city planning, land economics, and public administration – so I am qualified to comment and feel compelled to do so. Going back several decades, the City of Charlotte’s officially adopted solid waste services policies - regarding solid waste collection, disposal, container provision, yard waste, and white goods - call for a disparity in service levels between single-family and multi-family housing types.

A national problem across urban America - We have studied the practices of the Top 50 cities in the USA and there is a very clear pattern of municipalities’ trash service exclusion to multi-family housing in urban America. Most cities don’t provide the service. While there are no clear stated reasons for the exclusion, I would venture that some reasons are: most municipalities do not have a fleet of trucks to serve the containers that serve higher-density housing; the political constituency for multi-family rental housing is not vocal enough to counter this (lawful) discriminatory treatment; and cities have grown accustomed to balancing their municipal budgets “on the backs” of this housing type and these consumers – and going forward as apartments continue to form a greater share of urban housing over time, it will be increasingly difficult for the municipalities to reverse their fiscal field and devise an equitable policy approach that in fact serves all residential types. There is a dearth of fiscal planning.

Basis for Exclusion - The current "basis for exclusion" of this core residential municipal service in Charlotte is housing type, but it could just as easily be geography, income strata, or ethnicity. Each basis is as arbitrary as the next.

Owner-Occupied vs. Renter-Occupied Housing –The preliminary City proposal for FY2017 would eliminate the service to multi-family housing. The current City policy and prospective discussion has been about “housing type”; there has been no mention of whether these dwellings are occupied by owners or renters – so-called “housing tenure”. In fact, a substantial share (around 20%) of single-family housing in Charlotte is renter-occupied, and conversely a significant percentage of multi-family housing is owner-occupied. Thus, if the intent of the current City policies is to somehow reward residential owner-occupants or be punitive toward renter-occupants (over 350,000 in the City), they fail. There does not appear to be a rational basis for the current policy disparity and the proposal for FY17 would only make it worse. It may be that there is a bias against multi-family rental housing because of a belief that this housing “is a business” (see below) but it is important to understand that the trash generated out of multi-family rental housing is in fact residential trash. It is also important to understand that current (and proposed) City policies shift solid waste costs to the multi-family housing consumer and adds to their housing costs.

Demographics of Housing Dwellers – The irony of the current City policies is that, on average, multi-family dwellers have lower incomes than single-family dwellers. Charlotteans whose household income is 40%, 60%, or 80% of Area Median Income are more likely to be multi-family dwellers than single-family dwellers. The preponderance of very low-income dwellers reside in multi-family housing. People with lower education levels, people who use public transportation, and most of our burgeoning Latino population are more likely – far more likely – to reside in multi-family housing. It’s also important to understand that on average, Charlotte single-family dwellers have slightly more than double the annual income of multi-family dwellers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Thus, the current City trash service policies are regressive. There does not appear to be any understanding of this fact by senior City staff. And it’s especially ironic given the City’s considerable pushes for Affordable Housing via Bond Referendums, Housing Endowments, and others.

“Apartments are a Business” - It is important to understand that in an owner-resident relationship, the resident pays for all expenses. Apartment residents in the City of Charlotte currently collectively pay about $80 million in property taxes. A discontinuation of trash service would mean that these residents would also be shouldering the costs of paying for private solid waste service – effectively paying twice for the same service. City staff seem to view the discontinuation of trash service to multi-family housing as “municipal savings” but really it’s just a transfer of an expense. It is hard to understand why the City would take a punitive approach toward the most efficient housing type in the provision of all municipal services - including solid waste. The City currently expends $186 on solid waste per single-family dwelling annually, compared to $55 per multi-family dwelling. Higher-density housing is fiscally good for the City, and we shouldn’t do anything to discourage it or the consumers who occupy it. The service-exclusion argument that "apartments are a business" is ironic because the City in fact would be relying - in response to a service elimination - on that very business relationship to ensure that sanitary conditions in residential environments are provided. In housing environments without professional management - such as most single-family housing - the community has no assurance that sanitary conditions would result from the City's discontinuation of services.

Current Trash Contract – While imperfect in some ways, the current contract between the City and a private hauler to provide trash service at 100% of the multi-housing communities in Charlotte has a clear public benefit: it drives down the per-dwelling unit collection and disposal cost. The per-unit cost is much lower than individually negotiated contracts would yield. So, the current contract is a “win-win” for the municipality, the housing consumer, and the housing provider in keeping trash service costs down. Some have extolled the benefits of privatizing these services in Charlotte, but using the term “privatization” in this policy debate is a misnomer. Privatization means going into the marketplace for more efficiencies than in the government world. It does not mean abandoning a public service and suggesting to the former service recipients, "deal with it".

Conclusion – Solid waste collection/disposal is a true core “Basic City Service”, along with Police and Fire Service. Of the three basic services, solid waste is the one that is the most visible to the greatest number of Charlotteans each and every day. For Charlotteans who reside in multi-family housing, the set of current public policies about solid waste collection, disposal, container provision, yard waste, and white goods - arrived at over many years and numerous City Councils - are largely inadequate and add to housing costs. Now City Council is considering a service elimination. To be candid, prior Charlotte City Councils balanced their annual Budgets at the expense of multi-family housing via a chipping away of services; while there historically has been some empathy among Council members about the impacts of disparate policies by housing type, in the end Council voted to sustain inequitable policies. And, because of the historic reliance on the shift of solid waste costs from the City to the multi-family housing consumer in balancing City Budgets, it is appealing to each new City Council to further reduce or eliminate service levels come Budget time. And while it is true that most cities in North Carolina and in the USA do not provide trash service to multi-family housing, and it is also true that they balance their budgets on this housing type and these consumers.

Sincerely,

Ken Szymanski, AICP
Executive Director
Greater Charlotte Apartment Association