Monday, April 15, 2024

As rent and utilities increase, 2 area nonprofits focus on offering reprieve

Bills are increasing across the board, from utilities to electricity to rent. Two area nonprofits are working to help people in the area pay their water bill and afford rent with new programs. (Courtesy Pexels)

WILMINGTON — Inflation reached 6.41% last year, making bill-paying even more burdensome for many households.

READ MORE: Workforce housing development declined by planning board

Though it’s dropped to 3.09% since — with the Federal Reserve targeting 2% — low-income individuals still face stringent budgeting practices, as prices increase on monthly needs across the board. In some scenarios, it can lead to hard decisions: Pay utilities or buy groceries? 

Two area nonprofits are working to help alleviate the financial pinch. Waterway NC offers assistance to people needing help paying their water bills and assisting with leak repairs.

New H.O.P.E. (Helping Other People Excel) CDC opened applications Tuesday for its rental assistance program. Within the first 24 hours, 200 people had applied. 

“I’m doing this to give back and I’m not judging people by where they are, but helping them to get where they need to go,” Rob Campbell said. 

A former Marine who has a master’s in business management, Campbell started New H.O.P.E. CDC three years ago. He is also a pastor at New Beginnings Christian Church and, at the end of this year, is retiring to turn his attention fully to the nonprofit. It centers on multiple areas of outreach, including housing, economic development, education and homelessness.

Last year, New Hanover County’s Workforce Housing Services Program awarded New Beginnings Church $500,000 to distribute for its rental assistance program; New H.O.P.E. is the fiscal nonprofit to oversee its outreach. The program closes applications Sunday at midnight (click here for info).

The goal is for the money to go toward workforce housing needs, which means aid for people in the 50% to 120% of the area median income bracket — lower income is 30% to 60% by comparison. It will aid 127 renters.

“Our program is to help those making $37,000 to $72,000,” Campbell explained. “Of course, $72,000 is for a family.”

The average rental unit costs around $1,600 a month in New Hanover County. For someone bringing in less than $40,000, that’s roughly half of their annual gross income. The general rule is for housing costs, mortgage or rent, to make up roughly 30% or less of one’s income.

“Most of these people do not qualify for government assistance, but they do not make enough to buy their own home or even to pay rent, pay a car note and student loans,” Campell said.

Payments from New H.O.P.E. CDC will be executed in lump sums or in $300 to $500 increments monthly for six months. Campbell suspects this round of money will last through the year.

A nine-person diverse panel will review applications in the coming two weeks before making a decision on who will receive funding. Campbell clarified no one from the church staff or employees at New Beginning has input; the panel was decided upon by New H.O.P.E. CDC staff.

“I am intentional about that because I want arm’s distance between the church and nonprofit,” Campbell said. “My integrity is worth more than $500,000.”

The panel scoring the applications will consist of a mix of white, Black and Hispanic people from the community-at-large. The review committee will assess everyone’s situation, without names, races, or ethnicities apparent. So many applications have come in that the goal is to break them up into batches of three for review.

“If you score on the higher end of the AMI, say 119, you may qualify, but your income and your situation has to be assessed,” Campbell explained. “The panel will evaluate that closely because we are trying to provide help to those who need it most and those who have a situation that would not lend itself to recurrence.”

For example, someone living above their means will not be accepted, he clarified. Though someone who perhaps lost a job or has endured medical hurdles and needs help to get back on their feet may have a stronger case. Each applicant has to also submit a budget plan.

The money will be doled out in a phased approach, paying upward of 30 people immediately and a month later taking on another 30. Campbell said the nonprofit has two case managers so it’s important to balance the workload and needs of the applicants. 

Part of the rental assistance program includes one-on-one and class meetings. It helps people strengthen their financial literacy, with budgeting classes and learning the laws of leasing or how to prepare for buying property. 

“We want to help people get to a place that they never have to come back,” Campbell said. “With this project, I’m looking at the 10% of people that no projects are built for. People like my daughters and my son.”

He said he has witnessed first-hand how the workforce class is affected, as one of his children lived at home even after receiving a master’s degree. She was working in education for no more than $38,000 annually for six years or so.

“This program is to help public workers — we called them ‘essential workers’ during Covid-19,” he said, pointing to elementary teachers, childcare workers, and emergency responders that make roughly between $22,000 and $48,000 annually.

Housing has been a concern for the pastor since he arrived in Wilmington two decades ago. With a vision to tackle its affordability, Campbell began working with East Carolina Community Development Inc., a company that constructs affordable housing. Campbell has chaired the board for eight years. 

“We built 200 units next to Creekwood and we’re building our enterprise here, and we have built in Jacksonville and other parts along the southeastern North Carolina,” he said.

Campbell purchased land to build New Beginnings Christian Church a while back, and in doing so also bought an additional 9 acres surrounding the property. 

“My visions and dreams are to make an impact,” he said. “I want to build a legacy not on just what I do, but what we can do as a community.” 

Part of the 9 acres adjacent to the church is being utilized for a 68-unit housing development for seniors, currently under construction. It’s located on Alex Trask Drive in Castle Hayne and the county helped fund the project last year with $1.5 million. Campbell expects applications for the development to open in October this year.

CATCH UP: 68-unit senior affordable housing complex to break ground

More recently, a 128-unit workforce housing project rezoning was turned down by the New Hanover County Planning Board but will go before the commissioners in March. The board requested Campbell stick to the current zoning allowing 68 units, instead of approving his request for multi-family moderate density to create double the capacity.

“I’m not modifying it but bringing it to the county commissioners,” he said. “I was disappointed in the planners — because I expected neighbors to be emotionally charged, as they’re fighting for their homes. They’re fighting for what they believe is right and you can’t blame them, but there’s a lot of vitriol and misinformation. But the planners are supposed to be informed and make good decisions.”

He added there is a need for 12,000 units of affordable housing and land is sparse in New Hanover County. 

“You have to raise the density, unless you’re not willing to have the political will to face the problem,” Campbell said. 

Some of the neighbors of the workforce housing project expressed concerns of crime going up in the area, with area residents in the nearby Rachel’s Place neighborhood in opposition. Campbell called some of the issues put forth a dog whistle — specifically one person expressing dangers of teenagers breaking into her home.

“You hear that a lot when it comes to helping poor people but poor economics don’t determine your character,” he said. “When people tell me that if we build workforce housing, crime is gonna go up, that says you are ignorant about who we’re building it for because these are the very people, your teachers, your nurses, your firemen, your police officers, who help us everyday.”

Separately, New H.O.P.E. CDC recently joined with other churches to submit applications through the New Hanover County Endowment to create two day centers and two homeless shelters; those projects will not be built on the pastor’s 9 acres, if approved.

“We are continuing to put in other applications for grants and we have two that are pending now to keep this program going indefinitely,” Campbell said.  

Waterway NC

Water customers are reporting cloudy water due to what CFPUA is calling excess iron in the water (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)
CFPUA customers in the 80% or less AMI range can apply for help for their bills through Waterway NC. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

While New H.O.P.E. CDC’s latest program is open to renters, Waterway NC prioritizes both renters and homeowners who are struggling to pay their water bills. It centers on people in the 80%-or-less bracket of the average median income; however, most of Waterway NC’s clients hover around $1,460 in monthly income.

“We take a holistic approach and look at what their mortgage or their rent is compared to their income, if they have children or if there’s more people in the home,” founder and executive director Lindsey Hallock said. 

Waterway NC has been operating for four years, at first doing fundraising for other programs and building awareness when it comes to bill affordability. 

“There really wasn’t a program in town dedicated to water assistance,” Hallock said. 

Having worked as the director of public and environmental policy at the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority for years, she saw firsthand who was at risk of disconnection or was past-due on collections, per the financial reporting to the CFPUA board.

Hallock was part of CFPUA staff that helped set up an emergency financial assistance program, CFPUA Assist, through the New Hanover County Department of Health and Human Services. It centers on low-income families and individuals facing immediate disconnection.

In 2019, Hallock formed the nonprofit Waterway NC to focus on long-term sustainability, to center on needs of households that fall outside of emergency funding. The nonprofit launched its own programming in the last few years, including two pilot projects: 2023’s leak repair program and in January 2024 a utility bill assistance effort.

Waterway NC works to get to root causes of affordability. The nonprofit applied to the New Hanover County Endowment to cover its leak repair program and received $157,000 in 2022; WARM is the fiscal agent.

Hallock looked to the City of Portland, Oregon, for reference in understanding how the nonprofit could work. 

“They have a really thriving leak repair program,” she said. 

Once the program launched, Hallock realized she had underestimated the breadth of leaks that would be in effect. The nonprofit runs with only two part-time employees, including Hallock and Gina Walen, and is overseen by a six-person board. They expected to incur normal costs from leaky faucets and running toilets, however, found around 60% of applicants were using 80,000 gallons of water a month; the norm for a family of four is 12,000 gallons.

“We were also coming across houses where the whole service line had to be replaced,” she said.

Those repairs can run up to $13,000.

Hallock said many people she has worked with often don’t notice the leaks because Wilmington is built on sand. 

“I’m from Atlanta, and I was thinking: ‘Well, wouldn’t there be water everywhere,’ but the sand really absorbs it, especially if it’s in the crawl space and people can just not be aware.”

The aftereffects can lead to larger monetary issues, such as paying to correct foundation problems, or the water can be an accelerant for mold growth.

So far the leak repair program has helped 11 households. 

“Of the 11 households, eight participants were using more than 60,000 gallons per month when they came to us,” Hallock said. 

There is some leftover funding that has been greenlit by the endowment to cover one or two more households this year, depending on the kind of leak an applicant seeks to correct.

However, Waterway NC — recipient of $16,000 New Hanover County Capacity Building Grant Program that United Way administered last year — also launched a utility bill assistance program. It started on Jan. 1 this year and so far around 15 or 20 households are enrolled, with a few more slots open (click here for more information). 

Hallock said the goal for the program is to counterbalance increased water bills people are experiencing. CFPUA raised its rates last year by $3.19 more a month on water and sewer. This comes after it invested $42 million a few years ago for its granular activated carbon filter facility to filter PFAS.

Hallock said it’s not an anomaly as public utilities nationwide are experiencing increases, from having to invest in updated systems and new assets, whether due to emerging water contamination or climate changes.

Waterway NC subsidizes the “upward pressure on rates,” she said, by putting a credit on clients’ CFPUA bills. Right now, the average is $50 and the credit is added directly to Waterway NC customer bills.

“CFPUA has created a system just for this program, which makes it so much more efficient, so much easier,” Hallock said. “We have a great partnership.”

The assistance focuses on households in impact zones, including the Northside of downtown Wilmington, as well as areas surrounding various schools countywide. Anyone can apply, whether a renter or homeowner, as long as they’re a CFPUA customer and have 80% or less of the AMI.

One client, for instance, applied for her elderly mother and said there aren’t enough programs available to help low-income families when it comes to utility needs.

“I help my mother with her bills and I am disabled,” they said (Waterway requested their clients remain anonymous). “I wanted to help my mother so she could keep her residence and Waterway assisted with our water bill when we got disconnected.” 

Hallock listed 2.5% of someone’s income to be considered normal affordability for a utility bill, but one must take into account the big picture: increased rates in other areas, whether it’s groceries or the power bill, which Duke Energy also raised this year.

One of Waterway’s clients said they reached out because of being behind on monthly expenses. Enrolling in the program has helped them stay afloat on rent, food and electricity: “This is a great relief because I am not at risk for a water disconnection.” 

Upon acceptance into the program, the client is required to take a survey at the end of every month, assessed by Walen. The survey is emailed; however, for elderly clients or folks who have multiple jobs, Walen calls them personally every month to transcribe their answers. 

“It’s really about building those relationships,” Hallock said, often noting they’re helping field inquiries about rental assistance or other financial services.

Questions Walen asks are centered around data to help Waterway NC figure out how to move forward in best practices for those they help. This includes gathering an understanding of one’s full financial picture and comparing it to other research on housing affordability and costs to determine if a $50 subsidy is enough. 

“Do people need $100 a month to make a bill affordable? What does each income need?” Hallock posed. “When you look at what rent is in this town, when you look at what an average Duke Energy bill is in this town, what level of health do people need so that they really don’t have to worry about losing access to drinking water?”

Walen also asks if clients are aware of Duke’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program; federally funded, it provides a credit to households peak-season months — summer and winter — when bills spike. Duke’s program was approved by the utilities commission and also started in January 2024.

Walen, who’s worked in the nonprofit sector before retirement, said she’s hearing from clients who want more help with electricity as well. Hallock stated a desire to expand Waterway NC into helping in that sector in the future. 

The goal is to make the nonprofit a permanent program and data collected from the pilot could open up other funding opportunities. Waterway NC accepts private donations and held its first fundraising event last year, which brought in $3,300 from “No Water No Beer,” a collaborative effort with NC One Water. Waterway NC is in talks with the New Hanover Community Endowment to continue funding the leak repair program for a second year as well, according to Hallock.

“I think utility costs have been in the past an underestimated source of financial pressure,” Hallock said. “But I think people are starting to realize that these bills are not small anymore.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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