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Wilmington Losing Affordable Housing

By Megan Williams

Wilmington, NC – When Wilmington's point person on poverty talks about the city's working poor, she's not just thinking about McDonald's fry cooks. It's a term that's becoming more and more applicable to rookie cops and first-year firefighters.

According to Community Development planner Emilie Swearingen's figures, a living wage for a two-person family, parent and child, in Wilmington is around $30,000 a year, more than the starting salary for many local government jobs. With Wilmington's housing costs among the highest in the state and the number of subsidized units dropping, Swearingen says wages just aren't keeping pace with the rising cost of living.

"We are so tied to low-paying service jobs that our median income will always be low," she points out. It's a split that's putting pressure on city services; waiting lists are growing for both public and Section 8 housing.

Swearingen spent the last several months reviewing the city's policies and projects to create a comprehensive snapshot of Wilmington's poverty programs, and the demands on them. The plan is required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides annual funding to the city.

Her thoughts after compiling the 152-page document? "We need to think seriously about poverty in this community."

City Losing Subsidized Housing

Included in Swearingen's report are calculations from the Wilmington Housing Authority showing that the city will lose 353 units of elderly and low-income housing in the next five years. WHA is in the process of re-developing three of its projects: Taylor Homes, Solomon Towers, and Nesbitt Court. In every case, the new developments will have fewer subsidized units than the ones they replace.

Adding to the problem, Swearingen says it's getting harder for groups to build new low-income housing. While land and building costs are high, she points to less tangible factors, like growing opposition from the established neighborhoods where developments might be located. Swearingen says her agency often encounters a Not-In-My-Backyard attitude among existing homeowners.

"[It's] NIMBY-ism not against so much the extremely poor or our homeless, but now NIMBY-ism against affordable housing, period," Swearingen says. "People don't want that housing in their neighborhood I think partly because they don't really understand who the homeowners would be."

In many cases, Swearingen says, those residents could be firefighters, garbage collectors, or teachers. According to Wilmington's Human Resources Department, two-thirds of city workers currently live outside of the county.

At the lowest end of the economic scale, Swearingen is also concerned that the city could be losing eighteen units of transitional housing. Rising rents are forcing Good Shepherd Ministries to close its Fourth Quarter facility off Shipyard Boulevard.

Hilton Head. Aspen. Wilmington.

Swearingen says the loss of lower-income residents could have a wider impact, making life difficult for local employers as service workers are forced to look further and further afield for affordable rents and mortgages.

She points to resort communities like Hilton Head, where service workers often commute hours by bus from surrounding communities. In Swearingen's eyes, the day isn't too far off when Wilmington businesses might have to seek their employees in Bladin, Duplin, or Columbus counties.

Swearingen says it all comes down to how far apart the living wage is from what so many Wilmingtonians actually live on. The biggest surprise in her report is simply local working people and "how little they really make compared to what they need to meet the basic needs for their families."

Follow the link for the text of Wilmington's Five Year Consolidated Plan

Do you have a personal angle on this story? Please let us know at news@whqr.org