City, county may create joint committee on ‘affordable’ housing

PortCityDaily.com is your source for free news and information in the Wilmington area.

A panel of local government, education, business and non-profit leaders, anchored by Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo (far left) and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chair Jonathan Barfield Jr. (far right), discuss affordable housing.
A panel of local government, education, business and non-profit leaders, anchored by Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo (far left) and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chair Jonathan Barfield Jr. (far right), discussed affordable housing in November 2015.

The creation of an ad-hoc committee to address much-needed affordable housing in the region will be discussed at Tuesday night’s Wilmington City Council meeting.

The task force, proposed by Mayor Bill Saffo and Councilmember Earl Sheridan, would be a joint effort between the city and New Hanover County.

“An adequate supply of workforce/affordable housing is an emerging and perplexing challenge for our region,” states a document from the city regarding the establishment of the committee. “[It] is critical to the continued economic development and quality of life of the area.”

At the crux of the problem locally is despite the fact that New Hanover County is one of the smallest counties in land area in the entire state, the population is expected to grow exponentially in the coming decades. There is little land left for development, and what is left is expensive or does not yet have the necessary infrastructure and utilities to support a residential community. The county also has one of the highest median home prices in the state, but the jobs in the area don’t have the wages to match, leading to both a high percentage of renters and a brain drain of the 35 to 65 year-old age demographic who find better-paying jobs elsewhere.

The creation of the group is a follow-up to one of the recommendations made at the last Mayor’s Roundtable on Affordable Housing, held last November. At that meeting, which featured a diverse panel that represented many influential institutions in the region, panelists raised many issues, including how to define the term at hand.

“I think the biggest thing that we need to do in the community is redefine what affordable housing is,” said Katrina Redmon, chief executive officer of the Wilmington Housing Authority.

“Affordable housing means different things to different people,” agreed New Hanover County Commissioners’ Vice Chair Jonathan Barfield. “How do we change the perception of what that means?”

As the county and city go through rezoning requests month after month, both Barfield and Saffo said they have gotten a lot of pushback from residents about adding higher density developments (another solution to the problem of a lack of space) near their established neighborhoods.

“Neighbors do come out (to voice their opinions) when they hear ‘affordable housing,'” said Saffo. “It scares them to death. If we’re going to be serious about this, we have to bring the community together.”

The proposed committee would have 12 members jointly appointed by the city and county. There will be community representatives from the fields of real estate, workforce housing, private development, banking and local non-profits as well as a representative from the Cape Fear Housing Coalition.

They will be expected to recommend “best practices” to improve and increase workplace housing as well as help develop immediate, short- and long-term strategies to deal with the region’s housing crisis. The committee, which will work and hold public meetings for six months with the goal of drafting a report of recommendations, will not replace any current, ongoing efforts to address the issue.

City council will vote on the committee’s creation during Tuesday night’s meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m. in Council Chambers in City Hall. The full agenda can be viewed here.