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A third of New Hanover County residents are housing burdened. We asked a data scientist to explain why


New Hanover County stands out from nearly all other counties in North Carolina for the percentage of households that are housing burdened — it’s 97th out of 100 in the state. WHQR’s Kelly Kenoyer brought Cape Fear Collective’s Director of Data Science Nick Pylypiw into the studio to learn more about the problem.

Kelly Kenoyer: Will you just talk me through your findings on the housing burden problem in New Hanover County?

Nick Pylypiw: Sure. So basically, most financial experts say that in order to have a sustainable and responsible financial balance, they don't recommend that you pay more than 30% of your income on your rent or your mortgage. So we were looking at that specifically at the county level, and found that 36% of New Hanover households are currently fitting this description of housing cost burden.

KK: So more than a third of households are overburdened with rent or their mortgage payments.

NP: Correct.

KK: Wow. So what does that mean for somebody's bottom line?

NP: Well, basically, there's no room for error. You lose a job, somebody gets sick, then you could be homeless, right? There's no reserve funding when you're spending that much of your income on your house.

KK: I know that CFC likes to use a metric called a self-sufficiency standard to look at opportunities in the region, because it compares a person’s ability to survive and make ends meet to their region’s cost of living as well as their household’s makeup. So what does the average person in Wilmington look like under that self-sufficiency metric?

NP: Yeah, good question. So looking at the self-sufficiency standard, it's measured by household composition. So you have to really compare apples to apples when you're looking at this. But the self-sufficiency standard in Wilmington, in New Hanover County is just under $24,000 for one adult.

So looking at people in Wilmington, the current minimum wage employee at $7.25, makes just over $15,000. So almost half, a little more than half the self-sufficiency standard. The average preschool teacher makes $23,600. So below, not only below the self-sufficiency standard, but also below the federal poverty level.

So that's just for one adult. If you add a kid to that, then your self-sufficiency standard goes to, you know, $44,000 a year. That's not sustainable. When you look at racial and ethnic disparities within the county, the median household income for a black household is $29,800. So barely above the self-sufficiency standard, for one adult. Throw a child or two in there. And, you know, it's well below that.

KK: I mean, I guess colloquially, what does this mean? Is it just that they're gonna have their head underwater because it's so difficult to make ends meet?

NP: Absolutely. It's extra hours, it's working multiple shifts, which means maybe you can't get your kid to school on time, or, you know, somebody gets sick. And you can't make rent that month, because you're just totally living hand to mouth, right? Every dollar that comes in, has to go to the basic essentials, and there's no kind of security blanket at all.

KK: So when a family is this housing insecure, if they are housing burdened, and they're one missed paycheck away from maybe being evicted, what does this do to their overall well-being?

NP: Yeah, we've done a lot of work about the science of trauma, or understanding the resilience and all the kinds of social determinants of health that play into this. But the research says that, you know, this level of kind of constant stress and trauma is unsustainable and has massive impacts on health, just you name it. I'm not a doctor, but all the doctors that we talked to talk about, this aspect of trauma and health, and it's incredibly important to understand.

KK: So what accounts for New Hanover County’s high housing burden compared to other counties in North Carolina? We were 97th out of 100 according to your data, but our rental costs aren’t that different from the major metros.

NP: So it looks like there are other counties, you know, Wake, Mecklenburg, Buncombe, our rents are about the same or slightly higher, slightly lower than ours. So it seems that, really, it's income that's driving the cost burden and not how much people are paying on rent.

KK: That’s really interesting. So what does the income disparity look like between our community and other communities that are similarly similar metro areas?

NP: Sure, so the median household income in the state is $57,000. And we are right at that median. We are at $57,000 here in New Hanover County, but looking at others, Durham is at $63,000. Mecklenburg is $69,000. Orange is $75,000. And then you've got Wake County at $84,000. So really seeing that in these other metro areas, people are earning significantly more, which is probably what we're seeing when we see much less cost burden in those areas, especially given that rents are comparable.

KK: Rents are pretty similar across the board. So for them to have such higher median income. That's where this gap is happening.

NP: For sure.

KK: Nick Pilypiw, thank you so much for coming into the studio today.

NP: Thanks for having me.

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.