A worsening homelessness crisis in Los Angeles, where more than 45,000 people live outside or in cars, led officials there to declare a state of emergency this year.
Why should anyone in the Wilmington area care? Because the overwhelming affordable housing problems faced by the City of Angels didn't crop up overnight, said Shane Phillips, housing initiative project manager at the UCLA Lewis Center, to an audience in Wilmington on Thursday.
"I do want to address something that I imagine some of you in the room are wondering, which is why you have someone from Los Angeles here to tell you how to solve housing problems in Wilmington," Phillips said to the more than 200 people in attendance at the Cape Fear Housing Coalition's breakfast Thursday morning. "I will state very plainly that things are much worse where I'm from than they are here. My short answer is that I'm really here to tell you not to be like Los Angeles."
While that last comment got a laugh from the crowd at the housing coalition event, held at UNCW's Warwick Center, Phillips went on to explain the seriousness of the situation.
"Even though L.A. may seem very distant and drastically different, certainly in terms of housing costs, it is closer on housing than you'd think. On one hand, yes, the median home price in L.A. is nearly $900,000, which is down from almost $1 million last year. And that's in a city of 4 million people, so there is an immense amount of extraordinarily unaffordable housing," he said.
By contrast, in New Hanover County in February, the median price for a single-family home was $450,250, a 13% increase from February 2022, according to statistics reported by Cape Fear Realtors.
"But on the other hand when I look at most other parts of the country, whether it is $150,000 or $1.9 million, I see pretty much everyone taking exactly the same actions and making the same decisions that got California to where it is today. More importantly, I see the same inaction and indecision, the lack of urgency and this unwillingness to change course in a really meaningful way," Phillips said. "Things are far worse in California, no question, and the average Wilmington home probably will not cost $1 million anytime soon. But if you don't plan as though that is a real threat ... things will get worse."
He added, "It is very, very hard to turn back the clock once prices get to any point. They just don't really drop very often."
Phillips, author of the book The Affordable City, focused on increasing supply as one of the solutions that goes hand in hand with others to addressing the housing affordability problem faced by Wilmington. More housing needs to be built, and there's no way around that fact, he said.
"In addition to that physical reality, there's the related economic fact that when housing is scarce, homeowners and landlords really hold all the cards and they hold them at the expense of renters and homebuyers," Phillips said.
He said it's not that difficult, in his experience, to find smart ideas about how to improve and maintain housing affordability.
"What cities and regions often lack is, I think, a sense of urgency to solve these problems or worse, they're in denial that they have a problem at all. And in those cases, they're not even really looking for answers. I think really, they're looking for excuses to stay the course," Phillips said.
The status quo comes with its own costs, he said.
"We need to be able to evaluate the cost of the status quo just as critically as we evaluate the costs of change. Every change has consequences," Phillips said. "But those consequences have to be weighed against the cost of doing nothing and allowing existing trends to continue on the path that they're on."