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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

After key officials reverse course, a $50 million NHC housing bond looks to be back on track for the 2022 ballot

The Ad Hoc Committee meets at the New Hanover County Government Center on Dec. 15, 2021.
Kelly Kenoyer
The Ad Hoc Committee meets at the New Hanover County Government Center on Dec. 15, 2021.

After some political drama that almost took it off the table, a housing bond for New Hanover County is now back in the realm of possibility.

Wilmington’s housing crisis is significant and growing. More than 60% of residents are worried about housing costs, and there will be a gap of 12,143 homes for those earning below 80% of the median income in the county by 2030, according to studies conducted earlier this year.

But despite strong support earlier this year for a $50 million housing bond, the ad-hoc committee tasked with figuring out the details appeared ready to back out of it entirely last month. Every member except Councilman Kevin Spears said they were opposed to a housing bond after hearing from the Chamber of Commerce that there was only middling public support for it.

That political poll showed 48% in favor with 46% opposed, with a 5.7% margin of error, according to minutes from the meeting.

At a December 15 ad-hoc committee meeting, Chamber CEO Natalie English re-stated her case that the bond is an uphill battle.

"There's going to be the anti-tax people out there and all they have to say is 'no new taxes,'" English said. "It takes a lot to overcome a simple message like 'No new taxes.' And trust me, I've been there, it takes a lot of money and a lot of time trying to overcome that. ”

The county can’t legally advocate for a bond, so the chamber is a likely candidate for trying to ‘sell’ a housing bond to the public (and has taken on the mantle of supporting past bonds for the county). English says she went to the ad hoc committee to tell them it would be an uphill battle, in the midst of other work the chamber is doing. That message led to four out of 5 committee members opposing the bond last month.

But at the most recent meeting, Commissioner Jonathan Barfield came around to supporting the bond, and told English that the chamber might not be the best option to lead the education campaign. “We need to have someone that's got a full commitment on housing to lead this,” he said.

His comments, and change of heart, came after housing advocates attended the Dec. 15 meeting to fight to get the housing bond on the ballot. Cape Fear Collective CEO Patrick Brien kicked the meeting off by setting the stakes, outlining the gap in available housing, alongside previous surveys that show 78% of residents favor a housing bond.

"Let's have a chance as a community to have this conversation a little more in depth, to talk about the nuances of it, to put a face on it to make folks understand how it affects their lives, their kids lives, and their neighbor's lives," Brien said, "and then find the catalytic money required to kind of jumpstart this economic development engine so we can start driving in creating new units.”

A $50 million housing bond wouldn’t solve all of the problem, he said, but it could bring nearly 4,000 units online: filling a third of the entire housing gap.

A slide from Patrick Brien's Dec. 15 presentation shows how a $50 million housing bond could bring 3,845 affordable units online.
A slide from Patrick Brien's Dec. 15 presentation shows how a $50 million housing bond could bring 3,845 affordable units online.

Brien added that the bond wouldn't be the only investment. "This type of money could potentially unlock hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropic and private sector capital.”

Between housing advocates rallying for the bond and a new media spotlight on the story, several ad-hoc committee votes shifted, and three out of five now say they favor the bond. From city council, Clifford Barnett and Kevin Spears, with Margaret Haynes opposed, and from the county commission, Jonathan Barfield is in favor, with Rob Zapple opposed.

Barnett pointed out that the tax increase per year per household isn't that outlandish. “If I said if I said to folks, it's $50 a year, it's gonna help get people off the streets, and help get dads back to their families, and things like that, I don't think anybody's gonna really buck that.”

While city council members seem to be largely in favor, the most important votes are those on the county commission, as it would take three out of five commissioners to get a county-wide bond on the ballot in the fall. And only one of the two commissioners on the ad-hoc committee was in favor. Rob Zapple, previously a significant advocate for the affordable housing bond, has now pulled back from it.

Zapple argued that the bond would put too much burden on property owners, who already saw a tax increase from the county over the summer. He suggested a slower pace on the bond, starting with pilot programs with about a million dollars from the county.

"My biggest fear is passing a bond, and we’ve only created a few units 5 years down the line, and the money is gone," Zapple said. He added that the county doesn't have the employees or administrative infrastructure in place to manage a bond at this moment.

“I think I've been pretty vocal here about taking, again, a phased approach," Zapple said. "I still feel as if we could create more data and flesh out the personnel. I don't think we have the people in place now to run the bond and let alone the education part of it.”

Waiting for a year while running pilot programs would also put the bond decision after Zapple’s re-election race in 2022.

Margaret Haynes, on the other hand, wanted to seek funding from the New Hanover County Community Endowment instead of the bond, and worried that a failed bond would cause the endowment to not see housing as a worthy investment; the $1.25 billion endowment is expected to start making grants next year — ramping up total annual funding to eventually reach between $40 and $50 million.

“The money from the foundation would be available about the same period of time that this money would come forward. I think in two years," she said.

It’s a reversal from her position in June, when she said both bond and sales tax should go on the same ballot. She suggested then that having them placed together would increase the odds of both passing. But Haynes' new vision of seeking funding from the endowment is a similar view to the one Commissioner Deb Hays expressed in June.

Ultimately, the elected officials on the ad-hoc committee voted all in favor of the quarter-cent sales tax for public transit and bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure, and three out of five in favor of the housing bond. They’ll bring both ideas back to the larger elected bodies in January at a joint meeting — and advocates will wait with bated breath to see how the full membership of the county commission will vote. If approved, the bond is likely to appear on the ballot for the 2022 general election, where it would need a majority of voters' approval to pass.

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.