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Housing Affordability in the Cape Fear: The elephant in the room is funding

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Kelly Kenoyer
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WHQR
Samuel Gunter of the NC Housing Coalition spoke at Friday's breakfast, offering insight into state and federal legislation.

Advocates, bankers, and politicians gathered at UNCW on Friday to discuss the housing affordability crisis in the Cape Fear Region. WHQR’s Ben Schachtman and Kelly Kenoyer attended, and have the big takeaways.

Kelly Kenoyer: So Ben, you and I attended this Friday morning Housing Breakfast.

Ben Schachtman: Creeping dread, with a side of fruit salad, and tiny pastries, yes.

K: And coffee! But other than the food, my biggest takeaway is that this community has already done a ton of research on this, much of which we have already covered as a newsroom. The problem of affordable housing is bad, and most people support efforts to solve it.

B: Yeah, we’re looking at a shortage of 10,000 units by the end of the decade.

K: And 87% of the population of the county supports doing something about rising housing costs. One speaker, Sam Gunter from the North Carolina Housing Coalition, called housing “privately held public infrastructure.” And it’s true: housing availability impacts jobs, traffic, and community violence, among other things.

B: And they reiterated that bonds are popular: each one that’s come to a vote in another North Carolina city has passed with at least 64% of the vote – Raleigh has passed four.

K: That bond conversation was really the subtext to this whole thing. We were seated next to the two county commissioners who attended, and both poo-pooed the idea of a bond in their own ways. Rob Zapple suggested they didn’t know how to spend the $50 million requested, while Deb Hays said the problem isn’t really about money, but about wages.

B: That’s conveniently out of her hands — and I should point out that raising wage is important, but apartment complexes around the region are using the recent increase in wages that’s resulted from the great resignation to justify raising rent — in some places by 20 or more percent – they’ll charge whatever the market can bear, sometimes more, so wages aren’t a silver bullet at all.

K: Right. Meanwhile, the average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment was $1069 last year, and with crazy inflation costs in the past nine months, that’s already up to $1300.

B: So there’s no political appetite to issue a local housing bond – what about a statewide bond? A couple people who were up on that stage mentioned it.

K: Apparently those discussions were going on a few years ago, but they died when the pandemic hit. Really, the advocates who spoke were saying local money needs to be invested. Federal and state programs have fallen by the wayside, and local money is better positioned to fill existing gaps — with fewer strings attached.

B: There are tons of local programs that already exist which can grow with an infusion of cash. And that’s why the endowment kept coming up! But I loved this quote from Philip Brown at Novant — he said if he was on the foundation board, quote, “I’d be sitting on my hands until this town got off its butt” — meaning, I take it, that he thinks the foundation will want to support affordable housing efforts, but not bankroll them to let local government off the hook.

K: I’d love to talk to the endowment about that, because I don’t know how likely the county is to do anything. The commissioners we’ve talked to are digging in their heels about this, and the clock for getting the bond on the ballot is running out. But who else could step in with this cash, if not the endowment?

B: Well, the hospital system itself could. When the county sold the hospital to Novant, the contract included a mandate that they invest $3 billion in the community – And there are only so many different clinics they can build.

K: So they’ll build worker housing?

B: That’s what Philip Brown said. He didn’t go into a lot of detail, but it sounds like the hospital is planning to build some housing for its workforce.

K: I remember he mentioned nurses who can’t afford to live in NHC are traveling an hour or more to cover their shifts. It’s turning those 12-hour healthcare shifts into 14 hour days. That’s just brutal, and honestly can’t help with quality of care.

B: God, that’s just brutal. Note to self — don’t go to the ER right before a shift change.

K: Yeah, for real. Anything else stand out from this breakfast for you?

B: One thing was the repeated mention of 1898 — the uprising of genocidal white supremacists that crushed the black middle class in Wilmington. It’s kind of become a shorthand for the long-term effects of systemic and institutional racism and the modern day disparities that result, including housing. So, while panelists acknowledged that there’s racial inequity aplenty in our region, we had white and black speakers both saying that, on this issue, people of all races and backgrounds are affected.

K: I do think it’s important to point out that no one was talking about housing affordability when it was just impacting the lowest income folks, especially those living in the projects. Now that the problem has crept up the socioeconomic ladder and is impacting educated white people too, suddenly this conversation is a lot more urgent.

B: And we still have public officials who won’t say the words ‘affordable housing,’ – they use ‘workforce housing’ or ‘housing affordability’ instead – to avoid triggering homeowners afraid of low-income subsidized housing, meaning largely black and brown tenants, near their property.

K: But hey, a rising tide lifts all ships. And advocates for both middle and low-income housing affordability are working together on this, and treating it as a continuum of a problem instead of two separate problems. It’s kind of like the opioid crisis: even though it should have happened sooner, it’s good that more resources and research are going into that now.

B: Those advocates are addressing the lack of affordable housing in lots of ways — and many of those ways can be scaled up — but they need funding. The question now is, who will step up with that money.

K: We might see an answer next week at the joint county city-council meeting.

B: We might. Or we might see more talk.