Both nationally and locally, skyrocketing housing prices are making affordable workforce housing harder to find, and the problem of availability harder to solve.
Locally, the NHC Board of Commissioners and the [Wilmington] City Council are actively engaged and are currently making large funding commitments through their annual budgeting processes to address this issue.
In the past two-and-a-half years, New Hanover County has provided $35.4 million in funding for programs, grants and initiatives that have a direct impact on housing affordability in NHC, including $28 million for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, $1.8 million for the Starway Village project and $3 million for the Mortgage Assistance Program.
As part of this ongoing effort, a subcommittee of the Joint City/County Committee on Affordable Housing has recently brought forth a series of options and recommendations. One of the options – to be considered by the Joint Committee at its next meeting – is a voter-approved $50 million bond that would be paid for by the property owners of New Hanover County through an increase in property taxes.
I am not in favor of a bond that increases taxes on property owners.
Also, there are other critical steps that need to be taken first:
• Currently the County and the City do not have the personnel or the management infrastructure in place to manage proceeds from a housing bond.
• Additionally, it is not clear how best to invest or spend bond proceeds. Which options or solutions offer the greatest return on investment? Which options can be implemented quickly with available local partners and resources?
I believe the better option would be for the County and the City to commit existing revenues that would fund a variety of possible solutions on a smaller scale.
This would allow time for the County to hire and train a dedicated staff to administer, evaluate and collect accurate data on these programs that would have the potential to create thousands of new affordable housing units, provide grants for mortgage assistance and down payments to help new homeowners and purchase and rehabilitate existing properties to keep them in the affordable housing market.
Over time, a clear picture would emerge as to what works and what doesn’t here in New Hanover County.
With data in hand, a strong public education campaign and the confidence that comes with a tested set of programs proven to create new affordable housing units and save existing housing stock, a Housing Bond could be considered.
I share the sense of urgency about a problem that is affecting our entire community, but I believe moving forward with deliberate speed, reaching out to our building and development community for their advice and input, will offer better long-term results.
To that end, New Hanover County staff has been working to create a proposal that if accepted by the Board of Commissioners, would commit immediate funding from existing revenues, $2.8 million over the next 18 months, to fund individual programs targeted at creating more affordable housing options and allow the hiring of staff to administer these programs.
Over the next five years, the total funding commitment from NHC will be $15 million – without requiring a tax increase or a request to the taxpayers for bond approval.
The $15 million commitment from New Hanover County could rapidly grow with additional commitments of funding from the City, or support from the corporate community, or private endowments.
There is clear recognition by these organizations of the need for affordable housing, and the County would embrace the opportunity to partner with them in funding proven, sustainable solutions.
I believe this commonsense approach to a complex problem will better protect the taxpayers and create a clearer path to more identifiable and tested solutions.
I understand the impulse and the temptation to move quickly on a bond, but I believe a more reasoned approach will help engage our community partners and offer more effective and lasting solutions to the ongoing problem of housing affordability.
I am committed to moving this issue forward with real and actionable plans that will ensure residents are able to live affordably in New Hanover County.
Rob Zapple serves on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.