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Déjà vu: Affordable housing study tells officials what most already know, so now what?

Katrina Knight in her office at Good Shepherd Center
Kelly Kenoyer
Katrina Knight, executive director of the Good Shepherd Center.

The findings of a recent housing study are surprising to few: the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County are verging on a housing affordability crisis. But advocates say the report may act as a catalyst for new housing policies in the region.

The study set the stakes quite high: more than half of New Hanover’s renters are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing, and little housing is available that’s affordable for low-wage earners.

Katrina Knight, executive director of Good Shepherd Center, has been talking about a crisis in affordable housing since she came to Wilmington in 2004. She advocated for the study as a member of the ad hoc committee on housing several years ago.

“The study, again, it’s not news, but I think [it's] bolstering a growing sense we've had for many years. That as Wilmington and New Hanover County grow, there's actually a shortage of housing at all income levels.”
Katrina Knight - Executive Director of Good Shepherd Center

Knight hopes the survey and study will help public officials understand the problem and how they can act on it. According to Bowen National Research, which developed part of the housing report, the city and county should expect a combined 8,000 new households to move in during the next five years. Such an increase in population when there’s already little available housing stock would worsen the affordable housing crisis, researcher Patrick Bowen said.

While well-off residents are generally happy with their housing options, Bowen said those making less than the area median income are often less happy with the quality of their housing. They’re also facing more of a pinch in the market, particularly as the vacancy rate in subsidized housing is below 1% and heavily waitlisted.

Knight agrees that the problem is worse for the poor and the middle class: “We can see, there's some need at every income level and we are going to experience even more growth going forward. But the acute need is at the lower end.”

“What’s driving housing affordability and housing need in the area is population growth,” said surveyor Stephen Sills, Director of the Center for Housing and Community Studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

One respondent told Sills, “You can sell a house in New York or in another part of the country at a nice price, and come and buy something in the Wilmington area that is considered affordable and luxurious.”

Existing residents end up paying more for less as new residents move into the area. “A bidding war has ensued because there is so little housing stock,” Sills said.

Knight said the expensive housing is pushing further and further out of downtown.
“Just in the last six to 12 months, I can see it getting closer and closer. Even a neighborhood that I kind of took for granted as being almost exclusively affordable housing no longer feels that way. So it's almost like there's no safe part of Wilmington," Knight said.

Even smaller, older houses are getting bought up, flipped, and sold at a higher price, she said, which erodes “naturally occurring affordable housing” throughout Wilmington. The median home price on the market is now close to $300,000, according to the housing report.

In the Cape Fear Region, spending for public health has been dropping for close to a decade. Some of the reasons that account for this are the decrease in program offerings and the rise of private and non-profit health services, but some officials would like to see funding boosted.

"I'm sure we already knew"

The city and county have now been told in explicit terms what they already suspected or knew: that housing affordability is verging on a crisis in the Cape Fear region.

County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said, “the county and city have come together to put this together to give us information that I'm sure we already knew, in terms of the lack of. But now it's time to not just have this report and take it and put it on the shelf somewhere. But to me, it's time to make sure that we work this report and find ways to implement the changes needed here.”

Sills and Bowen shared several recommendations, including zoning changes to allow for higher density, targeting infill sites in disinvested neighborhoods, legalizing Accessory Dwelling Units, and incentivizing the development of affordable housing. They also direct suggested payment assistance, rehabilitation loan programs, or a revolving loan program.

But advocates are most in favor of one particular recommendation from the study: a housing bond.

Steve Spain, former Executive Director of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, said the biggest hurdle for a housing bond is defining what it will pay for. After all, specific plans to place affordable housing in one neighborhood could lead to “100 no votes from that neighborhood.”

Spain said one big question will be whether to try to pass the bond in the city or in the entire county. He said such a bond is more likely to pass in Wilmington than in all of New Hanover County, but added that the buildable land is largely out in the unincorporated county.

“To me, it's logical to have a countywide bond, but it is a little bit more risky, because people in the county don't necessarily feel the same pain,” he said.

Public support for a housing bond

He did receive some good news on that front. The housing survey found that residents overwhelmingly support the idea of a housing bond: 78% of respondents were in favor.

Knight agrees that a bond is a good pathway forward, and she suggested treating it as an omnibus, with many different strategies tied under one bond. Such a strategy would pull in voters who care about different aspects of affordable housing, whether it’s helping the homeless, servicing veterans, or helping firefighters and police officers become first-time homebuyers.

For her, it’s key that any intervention focuses resources on the neediest in the community: those making below 60% of area median income (AMI)

“The acute piece is at the lower end, and the same strategies that could move the needle for that 60 to 120% area median income group. Many of them would also serve our folks at say 30 to 60%.”

Spain agrees, and said it’s a mistake for the county to focus exclusively on those making close to the area median income.

“They want absolutely no discussion of housing for people under 60% of AMI, because they say that's not workforce housing. Well, 60% of AMI, in New Hanover County equates to $20 an hour. So it sure as hell is workforce housing.”
Steve Spain - Former Habitat for Humanity director

Large swaths of the local economy rely on those workers, he said, particularly for the tourism industry.

“That’s everybody who draws your blood at the hospital. That's everybody who provides you food at a restaurant or a cafeteria or at your college. That's everybody who cleans your offices or cleans the college or cleans the restaurant where you go to eat,” he said.

The Joint City/County Workforce Housing Advisory Committee is now formulating recommendations based on the housing study. It will present policy ideas at the joint city/county meeting on April 27.

Below: The housing study from UNC Greensboro.

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.