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Previously unreleased Chamber polling sheds more light on how New Hanover County voters feel about housing bond

Wilmington Chamber of Commerce

The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce initially declined to share details of its polling on a potential housing bond and sales tax increase for public transportation with the public. The Chamber later shared an executive summary containing more data with elected officials — painting a more nuanced picture of how the public might vote.

Last summer, after a series of joint meetings between Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County commissioners, officials voiced their support for moving forward with a $50 million bond to support affordable housing and a quarter-cent sales tax increase to support public transportation.

Since state law prohibits the county from advocating for a bond item, the Wilmington Chamber was likely to be tapped by officials to help educate the public on the bond and promote its passage at the ballot. While there was a considerable amount of research on the bond — including two studies, one from Bowen National Research and one from UNC Greensboro — the chamber conducted its own polling more narrowly geared towards potential voters and with a specific focus on increased taxes.

Related:City, county leaders back away from $50-million housing bond after third-party polling by chamber of commerce

The result was, effectively, the death of the housing bond — the subcommittee tasked with working out the finer points of crafting and successfully passing the bond ended up backing away from the idea, although there was no formal vote by county commissioners, who have the final say about whether or not to place the item on the ballot. After media reports about the decision, some officials changed their minds — but more recently a majority of county commissioners have said they will not support a housing bond. In language echoing that of the Chamber polling, many — including Chair Julia-Olsen Boseman, Vice-Chair Deb Hays, and Rob Zapple — said they would not support a tax increase.

Coverage of the bond's rise, and fall, and rise, and fall:

After media reports on the subcommittee’s reaction to the Chamber’s polling, Chamber President and CEO Natalie English sent a results summary to members of Wilmington city council and New Hanover County.
That summary shows a number of more detailed aspects of the polling, including the types of questions and follow-ups — and the demographics details of the responses, particularly party affiliation.

More detailed results

The summary shows the difference between surveys — like those done earlier by Bowen and UNCG — and polling: after giving an initial response, people who were polled were given negative statements about the bond.

For example, “[g]iving the government tens of millions of dollars will lead to mismanagement and wasteful spending” or “this is government subsidized housing for a select few, most taxpayers who will be paying for it won’t see any benefits.”

The polling included positive statement too, touting the benefits of the bond; for example, "[m]ore affordable housing will strengthen families and give children in lower income working families the chance to have a more stable home life, better health, and do better in school."

Managing Editor

The overall point was to push the respondents and see how solid their opinions are based on the kind of opposition messaging they might get.

One point the poll pushed hard on was taxes — and the results showed respondents were “tax sensitive.” This could have been, at least in part, because the polling was done just two months after the county’s fairly significant effective tax hike for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

Another facet of the concern over taxes can be seen in the responses of homeowners, who pay property taxes directly, and renters, who pay indirectly through their leases. About 53% homeowners oppose the bond; about 67% of renters support it.

Another detail was the annual cost to property tax payers. For the $50 million housing bond, the cost would be a $7 increase annually per $100,000 in home value. For a $1-million-home the monthly increase would be just under $6.

The Chamber summary also reveals the partisan aspect of the polling responses: 71% of Democrats, 51% of independents, and 25% of Republicans were in favor of the housing bond.

For a sales tax increase to support public transportation, 80% or Democrats, 51% of independents, and 39% of Republicans were in favor. Overall, a majority of all respondents were in favor, by a 15-point margin.

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.
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.