Commissioners OK housing committee amid concerns about funding

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The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners approved Monday the creation of an ad-hoc committee to address affordable/workplace housing, but only after a monetary cap to pay for it was removed from the resolution.

In January, the Wilmington City Council approved a similar resolution to initiate the joint task force, which would conduct studies and file a report on best practices, but county staff did not bring it before commissioners until this month because they first wanted some clarification on the kind of support that was needed from each entity. The county amended the city’s original resolution, which had no set dollar amount attached to the project, and added a $20,000 contribution cap from each of the governing bodies.

Though the resolution presented before the county did not actually allocate $20,000 toward the project, it would’ve given County Manager Chris Coudriet the ability to authorize up to that amount should it be needed during the course of the committee’s work, which is set for six months. That, however, did not sit well with commissioners.

Commissioner Woody White questioned what the money was specifically going toward, saying he would be inclined to support a study on how to create more housing but would not support the money going to a study on providing government loans or subsidies for potential homeowners.

“I would not hazard a guess as to what any of the recommended best practices would be,” said the county’s chief strategy and budget officer Beth Schrader, who presented the item to the board. “There’s no obligation under this resolution to accept any of these recommendations.”

Coudriet said that if any money was needed, staff would let the board know.

“Is that letting us know by way of information, or letting us know by way of asking us to authorize it?” asked White.

“It’s letting you know by way of information,” Coudriet said.

Commissioner Rob Zapple, who said he was in favor of the resolution “in spirit,” was also uneasy about the money portion and suggested they deal with costs as they come.

“I think we can deal with specific asks moving forward … I’m not comfortable with [authorizing the $20,000],” Zapple said. “We will fund what is necessary to move this forward, but we’ll look at it on a case-by-case basis.”

Jonathan Barfield Jr. was the sole commissioner in favor of the funding portion, which city staff continuously clarified was a cap and not a mandate or guarantee.

“Either we’re going to be an equal player at the table or we’re not,” said Barfield, noting that the city’s original resolution had no money amount attached to it as they aimed to do whatever it cost to get the project done. “The reality is the county has never been a player in this. It’s always been, ‘The Mayor’s Roundtable’ or ‘the mayor’s committee’ … To me, $20,000 is a no-brainer.”

“I just feel like we’re voting blindly here,” said Zapple, saying he’d like to see an itemized list. “I think the taxpayers deserve to know where the money is going.”

Zapple also wanted to see a committee spot designated for a representative of the homebuilding industry. While the resolution specifically stated that members would be drawn from the banking, private development, real estate, community non-profits and workforce housing (including a representative from the Cape Fear Housing Coalition), it did not include homebuilders.

The county’s version of the resolution also expanded the team to 14 members from the 12 the city approved in order to add one at-large member each from the two government entities.

Zapple made a motion to approve the resolution with the two changes of removing the funding portion and adding a spot for a homebuilders representative. It was approved 4 – 1. Barfield was the dissenter, saying he wanted to pass the resolution with the money approved.

The amended resolution now goes back to Wilmington City Council for their approval. It is on their agenda for Tuesday night.

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