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Housing Bond: Officials say they're serious, and will soon have a chance to prove it

A $50 million housing bond may be a big step in addressing housing affordability — but could zoning code changes make just as big of an impact? Wilmington-area developers seem to think so. Now it's up to officials to take action.

During yet another ad-hoc committee meeting elected officials gathered stakeholders of all kinds to discuss housing affordability. They felt the need to bring in experts to the May 26 meeting after two prior meetings with county and city staff alone.

Wilmington Councilor Clifford Barnett, Sr. asked the gathered non-profit heads, developers, and realtors to tell him the unvarnished truth about housing in Cape Fear. “We've gathered here today because we really want to hear what we need to do, not what we want to hear,” he said, “so don't hold back.”

And they didn’t hold back. Advocates suggested both a 1-cent tax for affordable housing and a $50 million housing bond, though the former appears to be more politically viable than the latter.

Developers kept coming back to several key roadblocks that stop them from building more housing: a lack of infrastructure like water and sewer hookups, for one. They cited a lack of roads as an expensive problem that stops many from developing undeveloped land.

Developer Cameron Moore also sees limited profit potential because of low-density zoning in certain areas of the city and county.

“The city of Wilmington is going to be much more difficult because you've got small parcels,” Moore said. “It's hard to develop on those. Now, you may get more out of those, if the diversity is there, and the density is there to allow for more units on those parcels.”

While new infrastructure is expensive and could drain a lot of the $50 million dollars from the proposed housing bond, zoning changes only cost staff time. And they might solve the infrastructure problem on their own, by spreading the cost of infrastructure across more units.

“The whole northern tier of New Hanover County is R-15, it's a sea of yellow, if we develop as R-15 is the worst thing to ever do in this county,” Moore said.

R-15 residential zoning in New Hanover County only allows a single home or a duplex to be built on a lot. In Wilmington, not even duplexes are allowed. That zoning is a legacy from when those homes were built off the grid, with their own septic tanks, but developers would prefer to link that land with existing infrastructure, then build more densely.

New Hanover County Planning Director Rebekah Roth said there are two main changes that could accelerate development of affordable homes in the unincorporated county.

“One is to make sure that there's something in our code that would provide some sort of benefit for projects that do have an affordability component,” she said. “And then also to make sure that we have the right scale of zoning in place.”

Low-density zoning is not just a problem in the far-flung reaches of the county, Roth said.

“Along a lot of our corridors, we still have low-density residential zoning, which doesn't make sense for an area like Market Street or Carolina Beach Road,” she said. “You're not going to have a single house fronting that roadway built today, it just doesn't seem like it would make sense.”

There’s also the question of how to use the $50 million that may be generated in a housing bond. Elected officials seemed very interested in using it to purchase existing homes, fix them up, then rent them out or sell them below market rate. Patrick Brien, CEO of Cape Fear Collective, developed that model. He has experimented with buying and repairing two homes so far.

“It's not your silver bullet in terms of naturally occurring, affordable housing,” he said, but those homes at least have remained affordable.

They’ve been handed over to Good Shepherd Center, which has used the homes to provide housing for the homeless.

Executive Director Katrina Knight said one of the buildings has been converted into a shared living situation for numerous single individuals, “and one we were able to give to a homeless family to end their homelessness. It's an affordable rental for them.”

Knight added, “they're having their first child and that child's not going to be going to the shelter straight from the hospital.”

Were the local governments to Brien’s model for housing, it would cost them perhaps $100,000 to buy each home, then $40,000 to repair it, Brien said. Then the city or county could sell the building to a low-income owner at cost, or keep it in the portfolio as a rental.

Katrina Redmon from the Wilmington Housing Authority also suggested using the funds to tear down and rebuild existing public housing, some of which is old and in disrepair. “I’ve put so much lipstick on this pig I don’t even know what color it is anymore,” she said.

Rebuilding Hillcrest, for instance, could double or even quadruple the number of affordable housing apartments on the same plot of land. Developers in the room seemed eager to work on such a project.

Public officials heard a lot of ideas and a lot of details, and finished the meeting by asking whether they should be hearing from anyone else.

Developer Dave Spetrino answered that some people working on housing wouldn’t be willing to meet with them: “They’re not willing to introduce themselves and step up and put forth the effort on their own end until they know you’re serious.”

Councilor Charlie Rivenbark responded, “I hate to hear you say that, Dave. It needed to be said. But I really hate that. I hope that everybody out there knows I'm serious.”

Getting the housing bond to pass, however, will take education, advocates said.

Sharm Brantley, a member of the city-county workforce housing committee, said her own children have struggled to find housing they can afford in Wilmington. She said the stereotypes about “affordable housing” aren’t realistic.

“We really need to be able to have that conversation and change the narrative,” she said. “The people we're talking about are my daughter-in-law who teaches your children and your grandchildren Spanish, we're talking about my son-in-law, who's a firefighter.”

She had one child move to Pennsylvania to find housing the family could afford, and another adult child is living in an accessory dwelling unit in her backyard to save up to buy a house. “I’ve got four more kids, they can’t all build a house in my backyard,” she said.

Even those living in public housing aren’t the stereotype a lot of residents may imagine, Redmon said. She has residents working three different jobs to make ends meet, and due to federal law, she’s forced to evict people who start making more than 120% of area median income. She called for more housing that’s affordable in that range, so residents who are upwardly mobile don’t end up struggling to find housing because they’ve become more successful.

Advocates at the meeting said they want to steer the conversation towards “achievable housing” instead of “affordable housing” to reduce that stigma.

The attending politicians insist that they have the momentum and the will to move this housing bond forward. They’ll have the opportunity to prove it, when they sell it to their full governing bodies at the joint city-county meeting on June 8.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on 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.