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Wilmington and New Hanover officials want to spend $50 million on affordable housing, but don't quite know how yet

Ad hoc meeting on housing 5 19 2021
Benjamin Schachtman
The ad-hoc housing and transportation committee (from left to right around the table): Councilmember Charlie Rivenbark, Commissioner Deb Hays, Commissioner Rob Zapple, Councilmember Kevin O'Grady, Councilmember Clifford Barnett, Sr.

A recently formed ad-hoc committee on housing and public transit met again this morning. At the meeting, the city council members and county commissioners who make up the committee nudged forward plans for a housing bond.

The ad hoc committee heard from staff about four possible buckets of money that the $50 million housing bond could go into: developing affordable housing, public-private partnership, homeownership, and rehabilitation.

Benjamin Schachtman
An introductory suggestion on how a $50 million bond might be broken down.

Related: Wilmington could soon see a housing bond. How has it worked in other NC cities?

That's serious funding, on par with the seriousness of the housing crisis. But details were sparse.

Commissioner Rob Zapple expressed concern over the lack of details, saying he wanted to get the most "bang for the county's buck" if the bond went through.

“The thing that gives me heartburn about this is the concept of, we put together a bond for $50 million, and we burn through it through all these programs and get a little bit of return, you know, through the revolving [fund]," Zapple said, referring to options which could see tenants paying rent or repaying loans backed by the city and county.

"And then how many people have we actually served? Which is the question I asked before, you know, we've helped maybe at the most 1,500 people," Zapple said.

While that's not a small number of people, ad hoc committee members know that 30,000 households in New Hanover County are 'housing burdened.'

After a protracted but vague discussion about housing, the committee decided to convene again next week. This time, officials will meet to discuss options alongside the full Workforce Housing Advisory Committee.

Not to be confused with the ad hoc committee of elected officials, the workforce housing committee was founded several years ago, and recently delivered a presentation to a joint meeting of Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County's Board of Commissioners. Chair David Spetrino delivered that presentation, during which he took officials to task for ignoring residents making under $18 an hour when planning their approach to affordable housing — in other words, the vast majority of the service industry. Spetrino told officials the housing committee couldn't deliver concrete options until they decided who, exactly, would be the focus of the push for more affordable housing.

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

Officials agreed to include the demographic Spetrino was advocating for, but next steps remained unclear.

During today's meeting, ad hoc committee members, including Commissioner Deb Hays, reflected on that lack of direct guidance. The solution? Try the meeting again, without revisiting Spetrino's original presentation, and try to reach more definitive answers.

“I think that's something that we need to pull together and put in a room with everybody," Hays said.

In that room will be ad committee members — Zapple, Hays, and Wilmington council members Kevin O'Grady, Clifford Barnett, Sr., and Charlie Rivenbark — along with
Spetrino and the rest of the workforce housing committee. Officials also asked that other housing advocates — including a representative of Habitat for Humanity — be there, along with developers, and even some residents representing the housing-burdened community, a suggestion made by Barnett.

It's not clear exactly what will come out of that crowded room, but the ad hoc committee expects to bring a more clear set of proposals to a joint meeting of the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County on June 10.

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.
Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.