Sunday, June 23, 2024

High rents are pushing workers out of Wilmington, but that’s not their only problem

Editor’s note: This is part two of a multi-part look at the cost of living in Wilmington and its effect on the people who work here. 

WILMINGTON — Even before Hurricane Harvey caused a spike in gas prices, Wilmington might have seemed like an expensive place to live.

The sticker shock isn’t just at the gas station. Add in monthly housing costs and groceries and, if you work full-time and commute to your job, a question emerges: The beaches are great, but can you afford to live here?

“I just know that we have a nationwide problem – housing that’s affordable to all ranges of income,” said Katrina Redmon, chief executive officer of the Wilmington Housing Authority. “It’s a trend. It’s a job shift.”

The numbers bear this out.

Take housing, for example.

Read part one: Can Wilmington’s working class afford to live in the city?

According to data from the North Carolina Department of Commerce, the average weekly wage across all industries in the Wilmington Metropolitan Statistical Area was $804, or $41,808 per year, during the third quarter of 2016.

For the almost 18,000 people who worked in the Wilmington area’s “accommodation and food services” industry – almost 15 percent of the workforce – the average weekly take-home pay for the same period was $327, or $17,004 annually.

What that means for a working person’s budget is straightforward.

Under federal guidelines, housing is “affordable when it consumes no more than 30 percent of income, including utility costs. In other words, for the average Wilmington-area worker earning $41,808 per year, housing is affordable if costs roughly $1,045 per month or less.

For full-time service-industry workers to have “affordable” housing, based on the third-quarter 2016 data, they must spend no more than $425 on rent.

Put another way, someone working full-time at a minimum-wage job that pays $7.25 per hour earns $15,080 per year and would need to find housing at $377 per month to have an affordable place to live.

Options in that price range are not easy to come by. New Hanover County’s estimated median gross rent in 2015 was $907, according to the commerce department.

Almost 60 percent of Wilmington workers make $10 to $12 per hour and more than half of renters are “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to Paul D’Angelo, chair of the Cape Fear Housing Coalition.

“That math doesn’t work,” said D’Angelo.

For full-time service-industry workers to have “affordable” housing, based on the third-quarter 2016 data, they must spend no more than $425 on rent.

Workers won’t find a lot of places to save elsewhere, including groceries. Ground beef cost an estimated $4.72 per pound in Wilmington during the fourth quarter of 2016 — 18.5 percent higher than the national average, according to a Wilmington Cost of Living Index posted on; potatoes cost an estimated $3.34 per pound in Wilmington — 12 percent higher than the national average.

And the further out a worker goes to find an affordable place to live, the more his or her commuting costs increase, said Redmon.

Regular gas in Wilmington sells for an average of $2.61 per gallon — 57 cents higher than a year ago, according to AAA. And at an estimated cost of $48.95 to balance your tires in Wilmington, you will pay 7 percent more than the national average for that service.

Plus, for Wilmington-area residents and retirees, there’s another intangible toll: congestion.

“Lack of affordable housing leads to more traffic,” said Steve Spain, executive director of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity.

Again, the data support that observation.

In 2015, an estimated 73.6 percent of Wilmington area workers spent between 10 and 34 minutes commuting, according to the commerce department. The vast majority – 78.4 percent – did so by driving alone in a car. Fewer than one percent took public transportation.

Like Wilmington, other coastal southeastern cities struggle with providing affordable housing, especially for hospitality-industry workers.

In Charleston, the average home price is $280,000, according to Nancy Lee, director of development for Charleston Habitat for Humanity. If a service-industry worker industry makes about $21,000 per year, there’s not a lot left to spend on education and child care, she added.

“It becomes their entire income,” said Lee, referring to housing costs.

In Savannah, the average apartment rents for $891, according to a cost of living index posted on But the median income for the city’s renters is $26,343, meaning housing in unaffordable for anyone paying more than $615 in monthly rent.

Still, given a long-term shift away from middle-class and manufacturing jobs, the obstacles to attracting new jobs that pay well and the difficulties in incentivizing developers to build non-luxury housing, don’t look for a solution any time soon.

“I think it’s a broader issue than just looking at subsidized housing – much broader,” said Redmon. “It’s not going to be an easy issue.”

Come back Tuesday for part three: Traffic and mixed use developments: Live and play at home, but not if you work there

Joan Quigley is a former Miami Herald business reporter, a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an attorney. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post,, and Talking Points Memo. Her recent book, Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital, was shortlisted for the 2017 Mark Lynton History Prize. Her first book, The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy, won the 2005 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.

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