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Wilmington-area renters are struggling to cover sharp rent increases

A construction worker walks along an apartment and retail complex in Nashville, Tenn. earlier this month.
Mark Humphrey
A construction worker walks along an apartment and retail complex in Nashville, Tenn. earlier this month.

Housing costs are rising rapidly in the Cape Fear Region — even more rapidly than in the United States overall. These sharp rent increases are forcing renters to take on second and third jobs — and it all comes down to a lack of housing in New Hanover County.

Twenty-three-year-old Kendra Bogart lives with her boyfriend in a 2-bedroom apartment near UNC-Wilmington — it was built in the early 1970s, and while they’ve made it homey, it does have a few problems.

“My carpet is coming up from the tack, and in the back, the seams are coming apart from it.," she said. "My bathtub is dipping in the middle, so there's water standing and it's rusting.”

But even though there are numerous maintenance problems typical of renting an older apartment, rents are rising dramatically, not falling.

“We currently pay $970 right now. And then at the beginning of the year, it's going up to $1,215," she said.

That's a 25% increase, and they only moved in last year.

They’re not alone. Data from apartmentlist.com shows rents have gone up 60% since the beginning of 2017, far outpacing the already rapid rise in rents seen across the country.

Wilmington rents went from below average to above average, with the average two-bedroom now renting for more than $1,400 a month. And as Kendra saw, that’s not just because newly constructed apartments cost more: even older apartments are raising rents significantly. It means many renters have to hustle for extra income.

“I'm getting a second job, which also pays $15," Kendra said. "But since it's at the hospital, and I'm working weekends, it's actually going to go up to $17. So hopefully that'll help.”

Her boyfriend, who works at a local fast-food restaurant, is also looking for a second job.

The young couple isn't alone in taking on extra jobs to scrape by. Liz Carbone, executive director of the Cape Fear Housing Coalition, said there’s a new demographic of people seeking shelter at Good Shepherd Center, where she works for her day job.

“We are seeing people that are not only employed, but might have two or three jobs, that are working hard, and that math is just not working out for them as far as their rent goes," she said. "We recently had a family come to stay with us who had been in the same rental home for years and years, and ended up experiencing homelessness because of their rent increase.”

But why are rent increases like this happening to area renters? Kendra said her property manager blamed “the market.”

"They were like, 'Oh, well, the market screwed you.' And I was like, 'the market?' And when I talked to him and my other co-workers they were like, 'yeah, the market calls for the granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, like all the newer stuff.' I was like well, 'I don't have any of the newer stuff. I have just regular things.'”

That would be the “luxury housing” that crops up in new apartment buildings — places like Pier 33 in downtown by the river, where a 2-bedroom apartment rents for $1900 on the low end. But Carbone says older apartments don’t need to offer those things to charge higher prices anymore.

“A lot of it really is supply and demand, you know, we're thousands and thousands of units short, for rentals, really at every price range, but especially on that lower end, so about 80% of our area median income all the way down to zero. So they are charging, what people will pay," she said.

It’s not just a problem in New Hanover County. Rents are high across the region. Kendra looked all over the region for cheaper rent, and still, "the only one that was close enough to ours was still $1,240 a month. I can't even tell you what county it was in, because I was looking at so many."

Historically, renters who can't afford New Hanover County anymore get pushed out to other communities. But they're not affordable anymore, and Carbone said it’s not right to expect low-wage workers to move out of the community anyway. Besides, she said the lack of housing in the region exacerbates other problems.

“If you're one of the fortunate few who has a home that's paid off, and your cost of housing or your housing stability isn't a daily thought in your life, you're still being impacted by this every day," she said. "When your child has 40 students or 42 students in their class because there's a shortage of teachers, that's an impact of our housing crisis. When you're stuck in traffic out on 17, it's because people are having to commute into our community to work, because they can't afford to live here.”

The solution? Carbone says it’s building more housing for a mix of incomes throughout the entire region. New Hanover County is facing a 20,000-unit shortage by 2030, which will just push the prices higher as demand outstrips supply. And what’s more, she said building more apartments in the area will actually reduce traffic, not increase it.

“That key combination of denser housing, so literally more people living closer together with amenities, like grocery stores or pharmacies, employment opportunities closer to them, combined with a thriving transit system, is the silver bullet for traffic control," she said.

Carbone said zoning more land for high-density residential use would help, as would public investments in low-income housing, like gap funding for tax credit projects. She also pointed to rent stabilization as an option — but it’s currently illegal in North Carolina for cities or counties to implement rent control. Even then, she said there would need to be significant tenant protections in place for that policy to be effective.

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.