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Paradigm Shift: New Hanover area will address all housing needs, not just workforce housing

Katrina Knight in her office at Good Shepherd Center
Kelly Kenoyer
Katrina Knight in her office at Good Shepherd Center

Much of Tuesday morning’s joint meeting between Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County Commission was a rehash of known problems, but it did lead to one key paradigm shift. County and city officials are now willing to ditch the “workforce housing” terminology and fully commit to serving the poor, and not just the middle class.

That’s after the Workforce Housing Advisory Committee Chair, Dave Spetrino, pointed out that focusing on so-called workforce housing excludes anyone making less than $18 an hour.

“I gotta tell you, man, unless you're making $18 an hour in your community, you’re housing challenged,” Spetrino said. “And that's not just some of your workforce, that's about 40%, maybe even half of your population.”

He then asked the pointed question:

“Do you want our group, when we meet on May 5, to focus on an entire reach of all of our residents? Or do you want us to focus on people who make $40,000 to $45,000 a year to $90,000 to $95,000 a year?”

It made an impact. Commissioner Jonathan Barfield and Mayor Bill Saffo both agreed they’d like to focus on the full spectrum of housing needs.

Councilor Charles Rivenbark said, “This is more important than any soccer field, than any park. It's people's lives. And I've sat in these similar meetings like this for 20 years, and we hear the same stuff.”

Another member of the Housing Committee, Good Shepherd Center Director Katrina Knight, was relieved to hear that level of support for the poorest residents.

“I think a bond is necessary regardless. No, it was, it was really heartening to see and hear pretty much universal support for that broader definition [of affordable housing].”

Focusing on the lowest part of the income spectrum should still qualify as “workforce,” she said, because so many in New Hanover County earn so little. While minimum wage in North Carolina is $7.25/hour, MIT’s living wage calculator says single adults need to make $14.26/hour to receive a living wage.

Knight said the emphasis on the poorest residents will help focus efforts, while still serving higher earners: a rising tide lifts all boats.

As for next steps, the Workforce Housing Committee is set to meet on May 5, with the knowledge that they can make recommendations for the lower income spectrum and expect to be heard.

As Councilor Kevin O’Grady said, “The upper ends of the market, they solve the problem themselves, the market settles itself. It's the lower end of the market. And that's below 60% of ami. That's where the problem is. And that's where we should be stepping in.”

Knight said the committee’s recommendations will range from expanding land-use codes to allow more density to passing a $50 million housing bond, which could be leveraged with state and federal dollars into $100 million. Such bonds have passed in other cities, she added. Despite the sticker shock, Knight said a big housing bond necessary when half the renters in the county are struggling.

“Our gap isn't like a couple hundred units or several hundred units, it’s in the thousands,” she said.

Part of the county and city negotiations will surround what, exactly, that housing bond should fund. Knight hopes to see a menu of several projects for the bond to fund.

“It's not just about development of new units, it's not just about preservation, we're going to have to do some of several things, just to stop losing as much ground, let alone to gain ground.”

A small group of councilors and commissioners, including Commissioners Rob Zapple and Deb Hayes, and Councilors O’Grady, Rivenbark, and Clifford Barnett, agreed to meet sometime after May 5 to discuss the recommendations and next steps. That group then will present to the full Council and Commission on June 10 to make clearer plans, before either body votes on their 2022 budgets.

Editor's Note: The county initially stated that Commissioner Jonathan Barfield would work with the small group on recommendations. It was later corrected to Commissioner Rob Zapple.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.