New Hanover County is growing. This is an undeniable fact.
And while growth is inevitable, making sure it provides affordable opportunities for an array of families at different income levels is something the Board of Commissioners has committed to making possible. This year, Commissioners made a big policy commitment in the adopted budget and devoted $3 million to a Workforce Housing Services Program that will directly increase and improve our community’s affordable housing stock as well as increase access to affordable housing. This policy commitment is over the next five years – for a total of $15 million – and the county will also work to leverage public dollars with the private sector and others in the community to further increase the investment in affordable housing.
To ensure this funding can be implemented appropriately and well, the Commissioners also authorized the creation of a small team of county planning staff who are dedicated to its success. Leading this team is Rachel LaCoe, Senior Long Range Planner with our Planning & Land Use Department. So, for this month’s public service profile, I asked Rachel about her role in making sure affordable housing remains at the forefront and what that really means for New Hanover County. That conversation is below … (Rachel LaCoe, left, with Planning Director Rebekah Roth)
What led you to this role and your passion for affordable housing and planning?
I started my career working for non-profits and was able to meet a network of amazing organizations and individuals serving our community. What I learned is that the root of most issues we see are access to safe, decent and affordable housing. Housing provides the stability needed to meet other needs, including better health and education outcomes.
Prior to joining New Hanover County in 2019 as the Workforce Housing Planner, I spent five years in the City of Wilmington’s Community Development division, supporting community-based nonprofits and organizations that serve low-to-moderate households and offering housing opportunities. In that role, I had the opportunity to work on one of the nation’s first submitted Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing plans and really got to see the impact planning can have on housing affordability and access to opportunities.
What does affordable housing really mean, and why is it important?
That’s a great question – the first thing that comes to mind for most people may be public housing, housing choice vouchers or low-income housing tax credit projects, but there is so much more to it. Affordable housing is generally defined as housing that costs no more than 30 percent of the household’s total gross income.
Affordable housing is important because if people are spending too much on housing, they do not have the ability to pay for the other expenses in life – nutritious food, preventative medical care, prescription medication or transportation. Housing is an important social determinant of health. Stable, safe and affordable housing can also provide educational benefits for children and supports academic success.
What is the biggest misnomer around affordable housing?
There are two big ones. First, people think affordable housing will decrease their property value and, second, that it will bring crime. But we know that isn’t true.
Having a mix of housing types and price points in an area can actually help bring up neighborhoods in terms of property values and reducing crime. In fact, studies have found the development of more affordable housing increased the property values of adjacent homes by up to 6.5 percent. Research also shows that the presence of affordable developments reduces both property and violent crime in low-income neighborhoods and slightly reduces property crime in high-income neighborhoods.
What do you hope the county’s new Workforce Housing Program will accomplish?
The Workforce Housing Services Program is an exciting opportunity. New Hanover County is not an entitlement community, meaning it does not receive money directly from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Instead, when we received federal funding for housing, it has a specific purpose, like the recent money for hurricane and COVID recovery funding.
With this Workforce Housing Services Program, we can be intentional with our funding and really evaluate the needs of the community. We can fund the projects and programs that can have an immediate impact for our residents and adapt the program and investments as market conditions change.
The criteria and priorities for this initial round of funding were developed based on the findings of the Joint County/City Comprehensive Housing Study and Survey. We have released the Request for Proposals and that is open until August 8. Eligible activities must address the community’s housing needs by increasing the supply of residential units, retaining our existing affordable housing stock, and increasing residents’ access to those homes. Local projects will be selected and approved by the Board of Commissioners to receive funding in October. This initial step is really exciting, and I am eager to see the proposals we receive and the impact that will be made.
What other county initiatives around affordable housing have been impactful?
Even without direct federal funding, New Hanover County has supported workforce and affordable housing for many years. The county provides much needed funding to local nonprofits through the non-county agency funding process.
The county has a Property Conveyance Policy, which was established in 2018, that allows the county to convey parcels to nonprofits to build workforce housing. In addition to conveying 11 scattered sites in the county, a larger 15-acre site was conveyed to Cape Fear Habitat to build a new subdivision.
With American Rescue Plan funds, the county was able to provide gap financing to the Starway Village, a Low Income Housing Tax Credit Project that will bring 278 affordable units to our community. We have also funded water and sewer infrastructure to three Habitat subdivision, giving local families the chance to purchase a home at a price that is affordable to them.
Of course, the emergency rental assistance program, homeowners assistance program and gap rental assistance program have also been instrumental during covid and as we recover from the pandemic as well.
Making affordable housing a priority is important for our entire community and I’m proud to be part of a county team that is committed to that.
I am so thankful to have someone like Rachel dedicated to helping make all of this possible and I’m grateful for her knowledge and expertise in this area. She is another example of what it means when I say that New Hanover County hires the best and the brightest.
I look forward to spotlighting more of these outstanding individuals over the coming months, and I hope you’ll continue reading about the important work our county team does each and every day.
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