NHC Workforce Housing Survey Underway, Officials Say Results Will Drive Future Policy

Nov 16, 2020


  New Hanover County residents now have a chance to weigh in on how the region deals with the affordable housing crisis. WHQR breaks down what’s at stake with the county’s online Workforce Housing Survey. 

Rachel LaCoe is the workforce housing planner for New Hanover County. She says the survey responses will eventually drive public policy in the region:

“We are hoping to get a baseline of what the community’s mindset of the degree of the housing affordability problem is, and the extent that they feel the government or other interventions are necessary to address the housing issues.”

Stephen Sills is the Director of the Center for Housing and Community Studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. He and his team of researchers are conducting the survey and are hoping to get around 2,000 responses from the community.

Some of the questions are gauging public perceptions of affordable housing and where future affordable developments should go in the County. But Sills says creating comprehensive housing policies are rife with difficulties:

“And so if we’re thinking on one side as an investment vehicle, then you want as much house on as large of a lot with as much value as possible. On the other side, you’re wanting as economical and efficient a unit as possible for as many people as possible. And those two things sometimes are at odds with each other. Thus, we get NIMBYism or not in my backyard stances on building affordable housing.”

Evelyn Adger is a member of the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County Workforce Housing Advisory Committee. She too says it’s hard for people to get established here because of the housing market:

“There are people I know that have come here, expecting to thrive but realizing that the jobs don’t pay as much as the housing market wants, so they no longer live here. They’ve moved on and gone to other places.”

Rachel LaCoe agrees, she’s hoping the survey will inform other ways to enhance housing affordability. This includes approaches that aren’t often associated with the problem, such as addressing income instead of just housing costs:

“What kind of jobs do we need, not to just subsidize housing, but help workers earn more.”

According to Evelyn Adger that goes for people who’ve lived here all their lives, too. She says she’s seen firsthand the degree of Black and Brown families priced out of the Northside, a neighborhood in downtown Wilmington, where she lives:

“I know that there are people who pay at least 45% of their income goes to their housing and that’s a bit high.”

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development says affordable housing means the household is paying no more than 30% of their gross income on housing costs and utilities.

Like Evelyn, Professor Sills says there are many people struggling and paying much more than 30% of their income on housing:

“When we’re thinking about an individual who’s at or near poverty level, say a family of four earning $25,000 in North Carolina, 30% of that really doesn’t leave much for rent in a competitive market like Wilmington, Asheville.”

What affordable housing policies local leaders and community members will collectively endorse remains to be seen, but Rachel LaCoe says there’s an appetite to start making some changes:

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time, so I think everyone’s tired of talking, they really want action.”

The survey closes at the end of the month, and Professor Sills is hoping to share the results of the survey and the report with local officials sometime in February.

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New Hanover County currently does not offer developers incentives for building affordable housing. But as WHQR reports there might be some movement on this next year.

Stephen Sills is a sociology professor and the Director of the University of North Carolina Greensboro’s Center for Housing and Community Studies, and he’s currently conducting a housing survey for the County.

He says ‘stick’ mechanisms like developer fees to support the building of affordable housing don’t typically work well. But ‘carrots’ like allowing developers to build more units closer together, or cutting them breaks on water, sewer, and other infrastructure costs, do seem to work. But he says there aren’t really many other incentives besides these: 

“There’s only so much available from the state level, from federal resources to continue encouraging that. So we do need to see more opportunities. We are seeing bonds being used in a number of cities in North Carolina, to provide local municipal or county monies to match federal income or state monies to make it more affordable for a developer to produce units at an affordable price range.” 

Supporting an affordable housing bond is one question on the Workforce Housing Survey.