Over the past several years, entities around the state have done a lot of hard work to make North Carolina the No. 1 state for business. Combining this robust business growth and the overall desirability of our coastal location, we are now facing an immediate challenge: Where are people going to live? More specifically, where are the workers for all the new jobs going to live?
Like Florida and California, North Carolina is not building enough housing to deal with the influx of new residents – and that problem is especially acute in Southeastern North Carolina.
This is a supply-side issue. We need more housing, of all types, across income levels, around the region. With our limited land resources, this means embracing more density, increased heights and mixing uses.
One reason that nobody can seem to fix the housing problem is that we continue to make it more difficult to actually build housing. The headwinds inhibiting our ability to meet demand and provide housing are local zoning laws, expanding regulation and hostility toward new development.
Our local zoning laws were initially intended to separate industrial and residential uses. Over time, these zoning areas have gotten increasingly strict, specific and exclusionary. At this point, the outcome is really that they separate different income levels and communities – and they push new investment away.
We desire more housing, yet we saddle it with a spectacular regulatory burden with local controls, unlike any other commodity, service or industry. Individual site enhancements such as tree standards, stormwater controls, traffic improvements, open space and parking collectively add cost, complexity and burden to projects. These provisions and requirements also take land that could be used for housing and force it into another purpose.
Zoning has an important purpose, but housing availability is more critical in our growing region. Our regional infrastructure assets are linked, and our growth strategy needs to be as well. The future land use plan describes the desired use of the land throughout the city or the county. Public investment in infrastructure should match those desired uses. Lack of density options or infrastructure in one area of the region pushes investment elsewhere. The farther out we push investment, the longer people have to drive to work, school and services.
Some pragmatic local officials try to move the community forward but face neighborhood groups in color-coordinated shirts to oppose new investment and more housing. This rampant nimbyism repeats the same talking points at every hearing: traffic, stormwater, school capacity. The new term I heard recently is “visual property rights” – if you see it every day, you believe you own it.
But somewhere there has to be a local government doing it well, right? A group of elected officials that have set up a system encouraging growth while blending regulations balancing health, safety and well-being? Think of New Hanover County and the water/sewer investment county officials have made in the Sidbury Road area, or their $15 million affordable housing investment, which are both really important pieces to the puzzle.
What other options are there?
If you increased density, removed some of the regulatory burden and drastically streamlined local zoning requirements, could you add more housing? Are more public-private partnerships an answer? What if local impact-minded partners (developer, contractor, capital provider, government) created a model focused on multifamily investment to get costs down to meet the needs of a teacher or firefighter?
From my perspective, government’s best actions to address the housing crisis are to: (1) develop and improve infrastructure and (2) to accommodate density in the zoning code. I think that, if government prioritizes those roles, and leaves the landowners and the market to do their thing, the housing crisis will be resolved.
People will come. We can either choose to: (1) compel suburban sprawl to accommodate those who live here already and object to change or (2) plan effective ways to use and improve infrastructure and locate more homes closer to more businesses.
North Carolina is the leader in business. Now we need to be the leader in housing.
Tyler Newman is the president and CEO of Wilmington-based business advocacy organization Business Alliance for a Sound Economy.