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Affordable Housing: living on a teacher's salary and homelessness after a house fire

 Experts say about 50% of renters are cost-burdened – which puts people at higher risk of homelessness. So who are all these people living beyond their actual means?  You probably interact with them far more often than you know. 

Amanda White teaches chemistry at Hoggard High School.  

"I know as a single individual, I actually took a $2,000 pay cut to be here…$2,000 a year is a lot of money to not have."

White was working as a teacher in Greensboro, and she had to seriously consider the pay cut and the higher rents. 

"But I also had family support here. I knew that, like, if I needed to spend a month or two saving, I could stay with my family… I wouldn't have actively chosen to just move here on my own as somebody who had taught under five years, who was making under 40,000."

Lori Hayes works part-time in the bakery at a local Food Lion.  Well, technically part-time.  She says she usually works 40 hours a week -- just without full-time employee benefits like health insurance and paid time off.   

"I’m trying very hard to obtain a full-time position that is available. But my manager wants me to be able to do, I can run both sides, the deli and the bakery. I'm the only one that decorates their cakes."

Amanda White considers herself lucky on the housing front.  She found a deal – and she has local family support.  But she says many younger teachers aren’t so fortunate. 

"I would say if like, you're probably under like 10 years of teaching, can't really afford a place on your own in Wilmington, which is part of the issue. So people will rent or they'll have roommates, or may end up marrying somebody or, you know, living with their significant other and that’s sort of how they pay  for their place."

Affordable housing is often an idea that casts a wide net.  It can mean so many things.  Sally Learned, Executive Director of the Brunswick Partnership for Housing, says the formula is simple. 

"If you are paying less than 30% of your income in housing, then it is deemed to be affordable. So obviously that means the lower your income, the more subsidy there has to be to make that housing affordable, because you're not going to be able to pay 30% of market rent right now in Brunswick County.  Over 50% of the households are considered to not be living in affordable housing."

And when a person isn’t living in housing that’s affordable, they’re at much higher risk for a single life event to push them into homelessness.

"There is a general narrative and it usually has to do with the fact that these families have been working."

But they’re not working at high-income jobs.  

Sally Learned:


"They may be part-time and have no benefits, or it may be one person cobbling multiple part-time jobs together. Something has happened."

Lori Hayes: 


"A fire took our home. We lost everything March the second, last year to a fire.  Actually, that is when Chris was admitted with pneumonia. We were at the hospital and they had just moved him up to his room and we got the, he got the phone call that our house was on fire."

Chris, Lori Hayes’ husband, has also battled liver cancer.  It’s why he had to stop working.  And of course, no work, no income.  Lori and her husband, teenage grandson, and adult daughter were living in a mobile home – using owner financing for the home and the land underneath it.  Because the deal didn’t go through a bank, there was no one to require homeowner’s insurance.  

"Well, I was just in the process of getting it and have not, I was going to make the payment Friday and it burned down on Tuesday."

They lost everything.  

Sally Learned says the lack of affordable housing in the Cape Fear region – and specifically Brunswick County is partly because the economy has thrived thanks to affluent retirees drawn to the coast.  But as the region continues to see explosive growth, Learned says that has to change.   

"And I would say Brunswick County has probably ridden that wave and crested on that for quite a while. When you look at that three mile stretch along the coast, you see a high affluent area in the coastal communities. You see a lot of retirees that have moved in and you see high wealth housing, and you see high median incomes in those little pocket areas, but you go three miles inland into the County, or you scratch under the surface in those coastal communities, and there's a whole other population that's living in a whole different set of demographics."

Going forward, Learned says coastal counties could serve not only at-risk populations by developing more affordable housing stock; they would also feed their own economic growth by luring larger companies.  

"Should they want to start up in this County, part of the attraction package, just like the quality of public education is the availability of stores, everything else, tax, rate, incentives, everything else that goes into packages for businesses to come in. Part of that is housing. Do we have housing for workers? Is it affordable? Is it close to where they're going to be employed?"

In the meantime, Lori Hayes has plans.  

"...Continue paying my mortgage… We have spent the last nine months really working on trying to figure out how to rebuild on this lot. And we have had contributions from people through PayPal. We have had contributions from at least one major company, and I think we're close to the point of being able to start."


Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.