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New Hanover Commission candidates duked it out over housing

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The candidates for New Hanover County’s Board of Commissioners faced tough questions about the housing crisis at a forum held Wednesday night. Reporter Kelly Kenoyer moderated, and News Director Ben Schachtman interviewed her about it afterwards.

Note of disclosure: Commissioner Rob Zapple is a member of WHQR's board, but he does not have any influence on editorial decisions.

The full forum video is available here:

Ben Schachtman: So Kelly, tell me a bit about this forum.

Kelly Kenoyer: It was a housing-focused forum hosted by Cape Fear Housing Coalition. All four candidates showed up in person, which is a real testament to how bad the housing crisis is now- ten years ago the organization struggled to even get written responses from candidates, and now they’re willing to take questions in person for an hour and a half.

BS: And the candidates, in this case, are for New Hanover County Commission. We have incumbent democrat Rob Zapple, democrat Travis Robinson, and Republicans Tom Toby and LeAnn Pierce.

KK: That’s right. And I would say LeAnn Pierce is significantly more moderate than Tom Toby when it comes to housing. He’s pretty opposed to development and even talked about saying “no” to a development in his backyard.

BS: Tell me a bit more about that.

KK: Well, Toby is very concerned with traffic problems and infrastructure in the region, and says polls he has posted on his Facebook page make it clear that his audience is concerned with overcrowding. Pierce, on the other hand, talked a lot about keeping open space by developing up, not out. She pointed out that it’s easier to preserve space for parks if the land is being used more efficiently. And the democratic candidates largely agreed.

BS: Where do they want to put this density?

KK: Well Tom Toby had very few answers, to be honest, and he said that repeatedly. It seems like he basically wants to see the same single-family home development pattern that already exists on the majority of land in the county- even though he acknowledged that new homes built in that way aren’t affordable for people like him. His main view on lowering housing costs is to lower taxes.

Pierce talked about new developments in the northern part of the county, which is largely undeveloped, and Zapple and Robinson talked about infill development. One interesting idea Zapple mentioned was also tied to development in the northern area- he said the county’s planners have set up infrastructure lines running through the area, and that they may set out a large section of land for a “central park” for the Cape Fear.

BS: That is interesting, but I don’t think the county owns a big tract of land up there.

KK: That is true. Zapple did talk about giving away the land the county does own to refurbish or adapt existing buildings for housing purposes, or to allow non-profit developers to build on their lots. That’s something the city of Wilmington did recently with its land that several candidates, including Pierce and Robinson, pointed out.

BS: That’s right- the city of Wilmington gave away an acre with a defunct firehouse to Good Shepherd Center. They’re going to build some permanent supportive housing for the homeless there.

KK: Everyone seemed on board with that kind of thing.

BS: Well what did they say about some of the tougher issues, like gentrification in the downtown area?

KK: Well Zapple talked a bit about heir properties- those are the often-dilapidated houses in the downtown area where an elderly owner dies without a will, leaving the home to a number of heirs who don’t know whose job it is to pay taxes and maintain the building. He suggested the county can buy those to rehab them, sell them, and include a requirement that they remain affordable for some number of decades.

Pierce talked about relocating those who are pushed out into low-income tax credit housing, because homeowners in those neighborhoods have a right to do what they like with their property.

Robinson kind of just talked about why gentrification is happening- that northerners are selling their expensive homes up north and can then afford to spend a lot on houses here. He mentioned that improving neighborhoods drives up taxes but offered no solutions.

And Toby also talked about taxes increasing on people when beautification occurs, and how that can harm people with a limited income. But he said he doesn’t have a good solution for it.

BS: I mean, I don’t either.

KK: Well as an Oregonian, I may have a thought on that particular piece. The assessed value of a property is only allowed to go up by 3% a year in Oregon thanks to a ballot measure that passed in the 1990s. That means homes don’t really see dramatic assessed value increases, like we saw in historically Black neighborhoods in Wilmington.

BS: That’s a state law though. Can New Hanover County do something like that?

KK: It’s their tax rate, and their assessment office. So I believe so, yes. That would be a tough thing to decide to do, though, since it would really limit the available tax base. And Oregon’s law has odd knock-on effects, like inequality in assessed value for new buildings vs. old. It also means long-time homeowners have a significant advantage over newer homeowners, because reassessment only really happens when there’s major new construction on a plot of land. It means wealth remains in the hands of a few, and there’s a widening gap between assessed value and market value. I found a random bungalow in Portland selling for $375,000 while I was writing this script, and its assessed value is just $148,000 because it was locked into a 3% growth pattern back in 1999.

BS: That is wild. I guess that’s why Oregon has high tax rates.

KK: Exactly. This stuff is super complicated! And solving it can lead to claims of unfairness, no matter how you try to do it. They faced tough questions from renters, too, with few offering good answers. So we’ll just have to press them on housing more at our own forum in a couple weeks.

BS: I can’t wait. Thanks Kelly!

WHQR's town hall events, co-hosted with WECT and Port City Daily, will begin next Wednesday. All events will take place at Cape Fear Community College, and begin at 7pm.

School Board: October 5
Dorian Cromartie (D)
Melissa Mason (R)
Judy Justice (D)
Pete Wildeboer (R)
Veronica McLaurin-Brown (D)
Josephine Barnhart (R)
Nelson Beaulieu (D)
Pat Bradford (R)

County Commission: October 12
Tom Toby (R)
Rob Zapple (D)
LeAnn Pierce (R)
Travis Robinson (D)

Legislative Candidates: October 19
Senate District 7:
Incumbent Michael Lee (R) vs. Marcia Morgan (D)
House District 18:
Incumbent Deb Butler (D) vs. John Hinnant (R)
House District 17:
Incumbent Frank Iler (R) vs. Eric Terashima (D)
House District 20:
Incumbent Ted Davis (R) vs. Amy Block DeLoach (D)

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.