There’s a saying that perception is reality. The North Carolina Housing Coalition (NCHC) is hosting a series of listening sessions throughout the state to better understand local realities concerning housing, particularly affordable housing. As part of this effort, NCHC staff met with interested citizens from New Hanover County, Wilmington and surrounding areas to hear issues of concern regarding housing.
Participants at the Cape Fear area listening session raised these issues:
- Substandard quality of housing, especially rental
- High cost of housing, especially rental
- Lack of housing options, especially for disabled, those with criminal histories, and others
- Barriers to securing housing, such as application fees and deposits
- High cost of utilities and insurance
- The low wages relative to the cost of housing
Perceptions of the problem reflect the gamut of people and institutions impacted by housing. From the perspective of advocates for low-wage households living in substandard housing, the problem is a lack of code enforcement. They suggest that government should be doing a better job of addressing housing quality and supply. Economic development and business community representatives propose that the solution lies in improving the area wages by attracting better paying jobs. Law enforcement representatives point out that blighted housing attracts crime, and concentrating poor people in public housing creates an environment that can lead to more crime. Others say low-income people need to take responsibility for their lives; they suggest that adults are accountable for their economic situations. Still others say that the market responds to the needs of a community by producing an appropriate supply of housing to meet the demand.
What is the answer? There were many suggestions on how to tackle the problems raised at the listening session. The solutions tend to fall into two categories: public intervention with increased regulation and resources, or market intervention with the public sector fostering private development of housing by eliminating barriers to development. On the public-intervention side, participants called for an increase in the enforcement of minimum housing codes, especially on landlords who repeatedly violate these codes. Additional resources for housing the homeless and disabled were advocated. Continuation or reinstatement of low-income housing tax credits and state and federal-funded housing programs was named as important. These programs have been used for the development of privately held multifamily housing with lower rents.
Some proponents of private market-driven solutions see these developments as warehousing the poor and contributing to social ills, and suggest that changing zoning codes to allow for accessory dwelling units on large lots in existing neighborhoods will increase the housing supply. Further, it is suggested that the resurgence of residential construction, especially market rate multifamily, will increase the supply of housing and eventually older units will be available at lower rents. One participant offered that the lack of safe, decent affordable housing is in fact a market failure. Affordable multifamily rental housing is not being produced by the private sector and must be subsidized if lower-income working households are to have opportunities for decent housing.
The divergent opinions on how to best address the need for affordable housing raise even more questions about the past success or failure of the proposed solutions, such as, “If the market economy addresses demand, then why are communities across the nation, including Wilmington and Asheville, N.C., currently facing a shortage of affordable housing?” When does market correction occur in an area experiencing rapid population growth like the Cape Fear region? Will enough existing homeowners decide to add garage apartments and “granny flats” to meet all the demand for affordable housing? Will a neighborhood with larger lots want a community filled with accessory housing and the parking that could come along with it? Is the best use of taxpayer funds a subsidy for housing versus improving education and jobs, or reducing taxes? Will privately held subsidized multifamily projects concentrate poverty the way public housing has? These are only a short list of questions that arise when examining the complex topic of housing affordability. Clearly the varying perceptions of the problem and solutions will require those with differing opinions to come together with an open mind to find answers to the many questions raised, and to make meaningful recommendations based on a thorough examination of the data and best practices available.
All of these affordable housing issues and possible solutions deserve examination. Moreover, these potential remedies are not and should not be viewed as mutually exclusive. We need to explore a combination of public and private sector solutions to meet the challenge of securing sufficient affordable housing.
An ad-hoc committee has been created by the City of Wilmington to continue work on improving workforce affordable housing. The committee will recommend best practices for increasing available workforce housing in the region and is a follow-up to one of the recommendations that came out of the Mayor’s Roundtable on Affordable Housing. As this group convenes, it is important that it takes the variety of opinions about affordable housing into consideration.
One way to add your voice to this important conversation is to participate in a survey currently being conducted by the Cape Fear Housing Coalition and the University of North Carolina Wilmington by following this link: https://redcap.uncw.edu/surveys/?s=vHYs9i7w3k
This project is being conducted with funding provided by UNCW’s Office of community Engagement through a community engagement grant.
For more information on the committee, click here
Earl Sheridan, Ph.D., is a native of Wilmington, North Carolina, and a Councilman for the City of Wilmington. He is currently serving his third term in office. For more information about the city’s efforts for affordable housing, visit https://www.facebook.com/wilmingtonhousing or go to http://www.wilmingtonnc.gov/community_services/housing.