Every region of NC facing affordable housing crisis, seeking solutions

Rural and urban communities in each part of NC describe affordable housing challenges, point to ideas that have worked in some places.

Tameka Ford of Cabarrus County said she cries often at night about her housing situation, contemplating moving away. Ford and about 30 others with Down Home North Carolina rallied in support of allocating funds towards affordable housing development ahead of the May 20 county commissioners meeting, where she also spoke during public comment about her experiences.

Her current housing situation is uncomfortable and unsafe, Ford told Carolina Public Press, but she can’t afford to move. She was also evicted once, so landlords may reject her application because of that. 

“It shouldn’t be this hard,” she said.

Ford grew up in the area, just northeast of Charlotte, and is considering moving to somewhere more cost-effective. But her two daughters are thriving in school, Ford said, so she’s torn.

Cabarrus County doesn’t put any county dollars towards affordable housing, according to Jasmine Lewter, a Piedmont Regional organizer with Down Home North Carolina.

Advocates across the state are pushing for initiatives to address the shortage in affordable housing. Some local governments have commissioned housing studies and supported protections against eviction, among other efforts.

While many areas are “trying a little bit of everything” to address the shortage, the scale of investment into efforts like housing trust funds is far outpaced by the need, said Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, director of housing policy at the North Carolina Housing Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The crisis affects the entire state, with both urban and rural communities feeling the pressure of housing costs, Watkins-Cruz said.

The coalition estimates that almost half of renters and 19% of homeowners in North Carolina have difficulty affording their homes. Even people with higher incomes, such as those making $80,000, are now also struggling, Watkins-Cruz said.

Housing supply isn’t keeping pace with demand, and wages haven’t caught up with rising living costs, she said. The cost of development also rose, she said, increasing housing prices.

But the solution is more than just building, she said. Passing subsidies to keep the housing affordable, making sure the infrastructure to implement the solutions is adequate and using stability measures such as eviction protections for homeowners are all necessary pieces, she said.

Affordable housing in Cabarrus County

Cabarrus County ranks fifth in the state for evictions among renter households, according to the N.C. Housing Coalition. 

Lewter of Down Home North Carolina said organizers expanded the county’s crisis financial assistance program, which gave applicants money for rent or utilities to help prevent evictions. But the program was initially underutilized and barely publicized, she said.

Organizers convinced the county commissioners to raise the amount of funding an individual could receive from $500 to $1,000, as well as create an online application for the program. 

The fund is now utilized much more, she said.

Lewter and other advocates also asked county commissioners to create a revolving fund of at least $5 million for local nonprofits to fund affordable housing developments.

The commissioners seemed amenable to the idea and will decide whether to grant this request when they vote on the budget June 17, Lewter said.

Western NC affordable housing challenges

Transylvania County commissioned a comprehensive housing needs study to identify gaps, needs and barriers, according to a May 8 press release from the county, located south of Asheville on the South Carolina line. 

The study is expected to be done early next year, according to the county’s director of transportation, planning and community development, Jeffrey Adams.

Affordable housing is “the No. 1 issue” in the community, Adams told CPP.

“We find ourselves where the mountain town communities and many of the destination resort or gateway communities found themselves 30 or more years ago, looking for solutions and creating alternative markets,” he said in an email to CPP.

A 2021 Bowen National Research study commissioned by Dogwood Health Trust assessed housing needs in 18 counties and the Cherokee reservation in the western part of North Carolina.

Researchers found a potential housing gap of more than 13,000 rental units for those making anywhere from up to 50% to 120% of the Area Median Household Income, in the region, which is mostly rural with a few small towns and cities.

Zoning that restricts developments other than single-family homes and geographic constraints in the mountainous region also play a role, said Traci Thompson, regional planner at Land of Sky Regional Council. She also pointed to lack of water and sewer access in some areas.

Short-term rentals can also take away from long-term housing in a market with already low stock, she said. 

Both the public and private sectors need to invest more into solving these issues, she said. 

The Land of Sky regional housing alliance, which includes Buncombe, Henderson, Transylvania and Madison counties, acts as an information hub around best practices and accurate messaging around housing, she said.

Some evidence-based strategies include focusing on housing for essential workers like educators and health care providers, promoting higher-density housing developments and repurposing large, unused retail spaces, she said.

In smaller communities, initiatives like agreements between community groups and developers and employer-created housing for workers can be useful, she said. 

Wilmington area housing

Commissioning a report to identify gaps in affordable housing was an “intelligent step in the right direction” for Wilmington, said Liz Carbone, vice chair of the Cape Fear Housing Coalition, a volunteer organization that raises awareness about the affordable housing crisis.

Being able to put numbers to the issue was “life-changing” for advocates, Carbone said. Overall, Wilmington just doesn’t have enough housing, she said. 

Facing water on two sides limits the city’s development, she said. But part of the issue is also a lack of community support, which can make it harder for elected officials to act, Carbone said.

Some community members dislike the influx of people moving into the area and the development that may come with it, she said. Others may believe affordable housing developments will cause their own property values to go down, which isn’t true, she said. 

“The people you’re worried about living next to you are the same people who have a child in your kid’s class or the person who works at the gas station you go to once a week,” she said. “These are your neighbors.”

Wilmington can also look to other communities to see what they did for solutions, she said. The coalition brought in the mayor of Charlotte to talk about the city’s housing bond and discussed programs around accessory dwelling units with the City of Raleigh, she said.

The city already has some good programs that need more support, like the homeowner opportunity program and WARM NC, which does home repairs for low-income homeowners.

But Wilmington still doesn’t have all the parts of a “healthy housing ecosystem,” Carbone said. That can include the right to a lawyer when a landlord brings an eviction against a tenant, she said.

That right helps address the “imbalance of power” that often exists between landlord and tenant, said Sarah Gallagher, vice president of state and local innovation at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

North Carolina laws protect tenants from retaliation, such as a landlord increasing rent if someone complains about a health code violation, she said.

The state also allows a 10-day notice period before evicting someone for non-payment of rent, she said, although the coalition recommends 30 days.

Northern Coastal Plains region housing

Some areas of Eastern North Carolina struggle with having adequate resources to address housing issues. 

The Mid-East Regional Housing Authority serves around 1,000 families across Beaufort, Bertie, Hyde, Martin, Pitt, Tyrell and Washington counties, said Lynn Alligood, executive director. 

That includes public housing units and housing choice vouchers, she said. Because many of the developments are scattered across rural areas, it’s a challenge to serve them, she said. 

The agency also has a shortage in funding, Alligood said. Most of their funding comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, she said, but the agency is stretched thin and has a waiting list for housing. Winning tax credits towards developing affordable housing also remains difficult, she said.

The North Carolina Housing Finance Agency distributes those credits through a competitive application process, said Tara Hall, manager of rental development at the state agency.

The agency tries to be as balanced as possible in distributing the tax credits, she said. The agency splits the resources into 23% for the eastern part of the state, 16% for the west, 23% for central area, plus 38% for metro areas in any part of the state, she said.

Agency staff score applications for the credits on items such as distance from amenities, Hall said. Small towns of under 10,000 people get more leeway in terms of that distance, she said.

The agency can only approve about a third of the applications it gets, she said, and those resources have stretched even tighter recently with increased building costs. 

That’s why it’s helpful when municipalities can offer funding to offset costs, but many rural areas can’t do that, she said.

This article first appeared on Carolina Public Press and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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