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Real Estate - Residential

Affordable Housing Studies Show Depth Of The Problem

By Cece Nunn, posted Apr 6, 2021
Affordable housing in Wilmington and New Hanover County has been put under the microscope with two new studies delving into the issue. 

The studies were commissioned by the Joint City/County Workforce Housing Advisory Committee and presented Monday afternoon to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

Before introducing presentations Monday, Dave Spetrino, a local homebuilder who is chairman of the housing advisory panel, said, “If you're a homeowner in New Hanover County, it's good. It’s real good to be a homeowner in New Hanover County, but if you’re not and you are worried about where you're living, unfortunately, it’s all you can think about.”

Spetrino, who is president of PBC Design + Build, said the goal of the committee is “to break down barriers, create bold ideas and harness the capacity of both the public as well as the private sector to build more housing that meets the needs of our community.”

The studies are expected to lead to potential solutions to the area's affordable housing crunch for county and city officials to consider.

“Our next steps are to responsibly organize this information and provide recommendations back to you and a housing work plan,” Spetrino said. “That work plan will be presented at the city-county joint housing presentation on April 27.”

Patrick Bowen of Bowen National Research shared some data from the study his company conducted “to document the breadth of the problem,” he said at the beginning of his presentation. 

Addressing how to accommodate upcoming growth, Bowen said, “Just in the next five years, you need over 4,100 [housing] units in the city and almost 4,000 in the rest of the county.”

Most of the county’s homeowners make more than $60,000 a year, compared to the fact that 60% of renter households make under $40,000 a year, the data showed.

The Bowen study found that the majority of county renter households (50.3%) and more than one-quarter of owner households in the county are considered “housing cost burdened.” The burden is a greater challenge in Wilmington, particularly among renters, the study showed.

As a result of the lack of affordable housing, defined as housing and housing-associated costs that don't exceed 30% of a household’s income, some people who work in New Hanover County and Wilmington have to live in outlying counties.

“Over 47,000 people commute into New Hanover County each day for work, 43% of all workers,” the Bowen report stated.

During the meeting, New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said, “Now it’s time to not just have this report and take it and put it on a shelf somewhere, but to me, it’s time to make sure that we work this report and find ways to implement the change that’s needed here so that we don’t have people driving from Columbus County coming into work, driving in from Duplin County coming into work because they can’t afford to live here in our community. And so I’m ready; I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and find solutions.”

Stephen Sills, a professor and director of the Center for Housing & Community Studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, presented the findings of a public opinion study on affordable and workforce housing in Wilmington and New Hanover County.  

Over the course of the past year, Sills said, the center collected 24 key informant interviews in the months of June and July of 2020, conducted five focus groups with more than 35 participants in September and October of 2020, and had more than 1,400 responses to a community-wide survey.

“As you know, Wilmington, and the surrounding county area have grown rapidly over the past decades,” Sills said. “This population growth is driving demand for housing.”

The studies found that more than 63% of residents are worried about the rising cost of housing in the area. Eighty-eight percent of respondents prefer homeownership to renting, 93% believe affordable housing is key for the regional economy and 23% would like to move but can’t find affordable options.

In other findings, on the perceived impact of affordable housing, 23% “agree that affordable housing negatively affects the community’s character.” Additionally, 46% believe affordable housing decreases property values and 33% believe it increases crime.

Survey, focus group, and interview respondents all said there needs to be more building of housing everywhere throughout the county. According to the study, the strongest response from survey respondents was that low-income and workforce housing needed to be built in all areas.

The study recorded some resistance to affordable housing and NIMBYism, NIMBY standing for, “Not In My Backyard.”

Quotes along those lines, given by those who participated in the study, included, “If they can't afford housing, they have no business trying to live in expensive boroughs, especially when the county or city officials plan to impose more taxes on others just so they can live around us,” and “I want them to be as far away from me as possible. Look at Cary NC. They have virtually no crime in a beautiful city because they don’t provide affordable housing. Our city already has a terrible crime problem, why invite more problems?”

In addition to gathering opinions, the study also looked at funding options.

“Nearly all interviewees' suggestions demonstrated that financial incentives were needed,” the study stated. “Builders concurred, expressing the point that they cannot provide affordable housing without incentives. Money for infrastructure improvements, especially to build-out water and sewer utilities, will help ease the housing shortage in the county and encourage new growth. Ideas such as a housing trust fund, a penny tax to fund housing, and affordable housing bonds were all proposed.”

The Bowen study and the housing center's study are available online.
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