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After nixing housing bond, NHC commissioners spar with city council, approve $15-million alternative

Thursday's joint meeting with the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County was, at times, tense.

The Affordable Housing Bond is officially off the table, and county officials have pressed pause on a quarter cent sales tax for public transit. WHQR’s Ben Schactman and Kelly Kenoyer have more from the joint Wilmington-New Hanover County meeting which was, at times, quite tense.

Kelly Kenoyer: Well Ben, it’s officially dead.

Benjamin Schactman: That’s right Kelly. The county has killed the housing bond, and voters will not get a chance to decide whether they want to pay for affordable housing in the region. Instead, the county is committing to $3 million a year into housing for five years - that’s a notable increase over past spending, but less than a third of what a bond would have provided.

KK: Ok, we should back up and say we’re talking about the joint city-county meeting between Wilmington and New Hanover – with affordable housing and public transportation on the agenda.

And I really want to point out here that the city council is not responsible for anything we mention in this story: the county commission is the body which decides what goes on county-wide ballots, and city councilors were only really there to weigh in.

BS: Yep. And several of them were very, very angry.

KK: I’ll say. This affordable housing cause has made for some strange bedfellows: Kevin Spears and Charlie Rivenbark were in continual agreement. Here’s Charlie, whose frustration with the county was palpable, after nearly a year of hopeful discussions for a housing bond.

Rivenbark: “It's disappointing that, that this seems to be so complicated. And we're looking at what other people do. Let's set let's let us set the precedent. Let us lead the way and let them look at us and say look what they did and Wilmington New Hanover County.”

BS: And here’s Kevin, who basically never agrees with Charlie on anything.

Spears: “Probably after this meeting, I'm gonna get myself checked for a fever, a temperature — because I 1,000% agree with my fellow council member Charlie Rivenbark. We are he-hoeing around speculating, hoping, wishing and looking at what everybody else is doing. And we need to be more concerned about what we can do.”

KK: When the meeting started, Chair Julia Olson-Boseman said right away that the county commission isn’t comfortable bringing a bond to voters. She said bonds that have passed elsewhere have largely been for cities, not for counties.

BS: Basically, she doesn’t want to try to raise taxes, because the tax hike last summer was really unpopular – and that’s looming over elected officials in an election year.

KK: Yep. So then, Rob Zapple brought up the idea of a $15 million investment over 5 years — definitely also a rehearsed speech, and this is the plan he told us about last month on our show, The Newsroom.

BS: County manager Chris Coudriet laid out where that $3 million a year would come from.

Coudriet: "The $3 million would come from the county's general fund, its natural growth, and potentially out of the escrow interest or principal of the $350 [million] that the county does own."

BS: That’s the $350 million the county still has from the hospital sale.

KK: The chair has previously suggested pulling from the principal to fund housing, but she might not have the four votes necessary to do it.

BS: So what we’re left with is less money, but quicker – like a payday loan. The argument is that a bond takes a long time to get up and running, and this $3 million investment could instead come up on July 1, rather than a year or more from today.

KK: And the county held a vote to commit to that spending, which passed unanimously.

BS: City council didn’t get any say in the death of the bond, and just had to watch. But Mayor Saffo mentioned he was glad for the investment from the county, which would be added to the city’s annual $2 million or so for what he called $25 million over 5 years.

KK: Right, but that didn’t make much sense. The money he’s talking about shouldn’t be counted towards making up for the loss of the bond, because it was money they already planned to spend. The bond would have been additional funding on top of that – so, simply, they’re not just $25 million in the hole, they’re $35 million in the hole.

And I called Cape Fear Community Land Trust Executive Director Paul Stavovy about this to check up on the math. Chris Coudriet said the county’s money could be leveraged to $65 million, which Stavovy thought was a little far fetched. And he pointed out that the 50 million bond would have helped the crisis, but it still would only bring 2,666 units online in five years. That’s about half of the projected housing need for that time period. He told me the county is really $85 million short for resolving this problem- and that’s just for the next five years. The five years after that will need a similar investment.

BS: Ok, so what would the county's $15 million do?

KK: I did call another housing expert, who told me that leveraging $15 million into $50 million is possible if they just use federal programs like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, or LIHTC. That would be projects like Starway, which will get build over on Carolina Beach Road.

BS: But those are kind of rare, right — not to mention there’s a lot of bureaucratic hoops?

KK: Yeah, and this housing expert told me the $15 million would basically just provide gap financing for 3, at most 4 projects. That’s 600 or 800 units, but nowhere near the thousands that the bond could have gotten. And it would not include first-time homeowner assistance, rehabilitation, or anything like that.

BS: They did acknowledge that this probably won’t cover all the need. And Zapple is saying this 5-year period will give the county time to figure out how to build new units — which he says they don’t know how to do yet, despite years of planning and discussion by the Workforce Housing Advisory Committee.

Zapple: "At the end of the day, there is no clear solution or path that came out of [the advisory committee]. They had some recommendations. I think that's exactly where we're moving forward and as a part of what motivated the county to come up with this commitment of pledge of revenues for $15 million. We have moved the ball.”

KK: There’s an awful lot of disagreement about how to spend that $3 million a year, but the county is planning to create a new department to manage this, with several staffers. I will say, most of city council was measured about this, some approved, while Charlie Rivenbark and Kevin Spears were mostly upset. Here’s Spears again.

Spears: “I think we had a good plan, we should have allow the citizens to make a decision about what we would do. And we robbed them of that.”

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

BS: It’s worth pointing out that commissioners like Rob Zapple and Julia Olson-Boseman are also asking the City of Wilmington for additional buy-in on this – and suggesting the $1.25 billion community foundation could help too. It seems like the political will to spend to dip into it’s $350 million reserve has faded — and I should say the foundation’s leaders have told me they’re in no position to start funding affordable housing in the next year, so when Coudriet says he ‘hopes’ they’ll help it’s a little hard to take that as a serious policy.

KK: Rivenbark pointed that out. Here’s his exchange with Deb Hays.

Rivenbark: "The additional would come from that foundation. Maybe that's bad choice of words that would come from that, hopefully, hopefully, there's there's the word but we can't build policy on hope."

KK: You know, there were a lot of silent advocates for the bond in the room- people like Paul Stavovy who wanted to speak up and correct some bad math and some misconceptions. Kevin Spears actually tried to call for public comments, but he was shot down by Chair Olson-Boseman.

Spears: “I know, we'll hear from them after the meeting. But if they're there now, and they're clearly here for a reason... I'm certainly somebody would have something to say. And if not, and if I'm wrong, I understand that. But I would almost bet the farm — that I don't have — that somebody would have something to say."

Olson-Boseman: "Let me clear this up. We're going by the agenda, we're recognizing and there's not time for any public comment. If it's not on the agenda, it will not be recognized.

Spears: "Ok Julia, alright.”

KK: She wanted to stick to the agenda, but she wasn’t willing to do that when it came to the other purpose of this meeting: voting on a quarter-cent sales tax for public transit.

BS: That definitely caught me – and a few other people – by surprise. She seemed to have basically tabled the discussion because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Olson-Boseman: “ I don't know about everybody else, but the events of yesterday have pretty much changed everything.”

KK: This was after an ad-hoc committee unanimously decided to move forward with the sales tax, and suddenly the chair didn’t want to discuss it. Here’s Kevin Spears:

Spears: “I'm confused. I mean, there's no transparency here. What is going on? This was only if Commissioner Boseman just talked about the agenda. This is on the agenda. So everybody who was a part of this meeting, knew that this quarter-cent sales tax transportation bond was going to be up for discussion today. And now we're backpedaling back in and talking about a war — but what does a war have to do with transportation?”

BS: I did ask Olson-Boseman about this and she pointed to the instability that a war could cause, saying it might be seen as foolish to raise taxes during a war, so do with that what you will – and we should point out that, while it’s not their call, city council wasn’t united on the quarter cent sales tax. Freshman councilmember Luke Waddell said a quarter cent sales tax would “kneecap” the purchasing power of residents.

Waddell: “My position, it's not the time to consider how to increase taxes on our citizens. The quarter percent sales tax on top of the ad valorem sales tax increase last year, just didn't help with housing affordability. And then 7%, seven-and-a-half percent inflation within the last year and we're talking about seriously kneecapping the purchasing power for our citizens."

BS: I do want to do the math on this. Inflation is seriously hurting Americans, no doubt, but this sales tax – to put it in perspective – if you bought a $100 pair of shoes, the state tax is $4.75 and the county sales tax would be $2.25 – with this increase, it would be $2.50. So, it’s a quarter more on that pair of shoes.

KK: That doesn’t sound like much, when you put it that way. That sales tax isn’t just to stabilize Wave, by the way - which it would definitely do. It also would go towards the rail realignment project, bike and ped infrastructure, and other transit related services.

BS: So, it was bizarre the way the conversation, which was on the agenda, got shut down, but from what I’m hearing there is still support for it. Olson-Boseman told me, on the record, that she supports it and thinks it has the votes to pass. She says it will likely be on the next county meeting agenda, which isn’t until March 23.

KK: And it might not be unanimous, either way. Some on the board really support the transit tax, but Deb Hays, who also is on the Wave board, suggested the transit authority should wait to ask for the tax since it won’t need it in the next two or three years.

Hays: “I do have some grave reservations about it and maybe we need to give wave a little bit more and Marie a little bit more time to be more obvious in the transformation for maybe we just develop a plan and and market it out there.”

BS: I guess we’ll find out what happens with it in a month. But that’s got to be a long and uncomfortable wait for Wave.

KK: That’s right. And who knows- the votes could shift again. A long wait on the housing bond did put it in the dirt.

BS: Well… on that cheerful note, thanks for chatting, Kelly.

KK: Thanks, Ben.

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.
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.