Friday, February 3, 2023

Hurricane Florence, the ‘missing middle,’ and government incentives: Councilman Paul Lawler weighs in on affordable housing in Wilmington

New housing in Wilmington and New Hanover County are being constructed, but what about affordable housing? (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
New housing in Wilmington and New Hanover County are being constructed, but what about affordable housing? (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

(Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a series looking at affordable housing in the Wilmington area. It follows our first investigation into the issue, 18 months ago. You can read that series here.)

WILMINGTON — What does affordable housing look like in the Cape Fear region? It’s a frequently heard buzzword used by politicians, developers, landlords, and tenants — but defining it can be tricky and finding it even more difficult — especially in the Wilmington area.

The term itself can often evoke ideas of government subsidized housing, homelessness, welfare recipients, and other negative stereotypes — but affordable is not a bad word and it is not synonymous with low income.

The widely used definition of affordable housing is a household spending no more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing.

According to Bestplaces.net, the average income of a Wilmington resident is $29,225 annually. To be considered affordable, housing for a resident making that would have to be $8,765 annually, around $730 a month.

Related: One-third of Wilmington households are cost-burdened. Breaking down the affordable housing crisis by the numbers

One bedroom apartments at this price in Wilmington and the area are few and far between.

18 months later — what has changed?

When Port City Daily last took an in-depth look into the affordable housing crisis it was the summer of 2017 and local leaders had been discussing affordable housing for some time. Ideas of incentivizing developers to include affordable housing as well as ad hoc committees had been created — so now, nearly 18 months later, have things gotten any better?

“In the last couple years a lot of people moved here and that demand for housing only worsens and exasperates the problem for people at the lower end of the income scale. New Hanover is a peninsula, you can only squeeze so many people in here so I imagine it [affordable housing in general] has gotten worse,” Wilmington City Councilman Paul Lawler said.

The desire to live in Wilmington has been a driving factor for plenty of people to buy up homes in the city and county, but there is another contributing factor to the demand for housing — Hurricane Florence.

Destruction followed the storm and many affordable housing units were lost due to flooding and other storm damages — and a lot of these units that were lost, if repaired, might not remain affordable.

“You have housing that got refurbished and now a landlord is probably going to look at it and say, ‘Well I was getting $1,000 before I can get $1,300 now’ and that will further contribute to the problem,” Lawler said.

A growing problem

Brunswick, New Hanover, and Pender counties are supposed to collectively see a 90-percent increase to the population from 2015-2040, according to Lawler — and that is a logistical problem, not just for housing but for traffic and schools as well.

As to what is driving the population influx, Lawler said he is not quite sure, apart from the desirability of the region.

Lawler also said that it is important for developers to mix in affordable housing with their projects to prevent creating ‘pockets’ of affordable housing.

A governmental solution?

Hundreds of luxury apartments are planned for the Military Cutoff corridor, but of the multiple developers only one offered to provide affordable housing. (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY CARROLL COMPANIES)
Hundreds of luxury apartments are planned for the Military Cutoff corridor, but of the multiple developers, only one offered to provide affordable housing. (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY CARROLL COMPANIES)

Blaming elected officials for growing pains is an easy thing to do, but when it comes down to it, what roles do our representatives actually play in the housing shortage?

First of all, in North Carolina local governments cannot require developers to provide affordable housing options, Lawler said. This is different than some cities, like New York, that allows governments to require a certain percentage of their units be affordable housing.

“As the city, we cannot make the developer include affordable housing, that is North Carolina law. But I would like to find some kind of way to incentivize them to do that. I was very pleased that Tribute’s Arboretum project came in and included a few affordable units — they voluntarily did that and I would like to see more of that happening,” Lawler said.

But in several instances of new developments, specifically residential developments along Military Cutoff Road, the city did have the chance to require affordable housing — but chose not to.

For projects including Arboretum, The Avenue, and CenterPoint, developers needed rezoning approvals, special-use permits, and other administrative requirements. The city had the ability to ask for quid pro quo and grant the requests, providing the developers agreed to include affordable housing.

This didn’t happen.

Other incentives that could be used include allowing for a more dense project or allow developers to add more units by building up. Of course, more units means more people and therefore more money for developers.

But incentivizing developers with more dense developments is not really a thing that can be done right now in Wilmington, according to Lawler.

“The usual incentives that are mentioned are density … of course, a lot of residents aren’t going to like that, but, this will be hard for people to believe, the developers are not actually building to the densest level the could so that is not really an incentive,” Lawler said.

The missing middle

Town houses and other smaller multi-unit living are missing from Wilmington which sees lots of major apartment complexes or single family homes (Port City Daily/Ben Schactman)
Town houses and other smaller multi-unit living are missing from Wilmington which sees lots of major apartment complexes or single family homes (Port City Daily/Ben Schactman)

Take a look at the current housing stock in Wilmington and you will likely find single-family homes and large apartment complexes — but there is something missing.

“The other suggestion that is interesting comes from our planning staff and they call it ‘the missing middle,’ they say we don’t have the missing middle. They say ‘we have single-family homes and we have large apartment complexes, but we don’t have a lot of 6-unit apartments or townhomes.’ We have one set of row houses on McCrae street and those are very popular,” Lawler said.

For single family homes starting in the $200,000 to $300,000 range, monthly payments of an average 30-year loan can run from $1,000 to $1,400 — out of reach for some, including couples that don’t make more than $40,000 annually. Townhomes could bring that number down, but only if developers built them.

There’s another possible solution to help fill this so-called missing middle — accessory dwelling units. These go by a number of names from carriage houses to mother-in-law flats but they are essentially all the same thing. ADUs, as they are referred to, are secondary apartments perhaps located over a garage of a single-family home or disconnected from a home altogether that are rented out.

Generally, these units offer a more affordable living experience in neighborhoods that generally focus on larger homes and not affordable housing.

While city planning staff is in favor of these units, City Council was not exactly jumping at the idea of allowing these.

For Lawler, one of his main concerns with the ADUs is whether or not people will even use them to provide affordable housing, or if they will simply turn them into short-term rentals.

“The accessory dwelling units are interesting except there is no guarantee those will be for housing because they could all be short-term rentals. If you add that are you adding affordable housing or are you adding another income for someone who already owns a house,” Lawler said.

What’s next?

The City of Wilmington along with New Hanover County is continually working on addressing affordable housing in the region.

The Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County Commission on Workforce and Affordable Housing have met and it is likely the committee will move from an ad hoc committee to a full-time entity.

There has also been talk about the creation of an affordable housing trust fund to help find a solution to the affordable housing deficit — but it has yet to happen.


Send comments and tips to Michael.p@localvoicemedia.com

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