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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Area leaders inch closer to tackling affordable housing, favored recommendation still undetermined

Dense-friendly zoning codes, like those on the books in Wilmington’s Northside district, are one of many possible routes forward to address a housing affordability crisis in the Cape Fear Region. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — Armed with the findings of two in-depth reports that focus on the state of workforce housing in New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington, legislators from both jurisdictions gathered downtown Tuesday morning to brainstorm a route forward. 

Each local government arm had previously heard a presentation from the Workforce Housing Advisory Committee, which sprang from a quest initiated in the summer of 2019 to diagnose the state of affairs when it comes to housing affordability in the region. 

READ MORE: The results are in. Wilmington’s affordable housing crisis is as bad (or worse) than you thought

With an infusion of nearly 19,000 additional residents expected by 2025, dwindling vacant land within Wilmington, and half of county renters cost-burdened by their monthly housing payments, housing affordability is top-of-mind for elected officials and the general public. 

The committee engaged consultants and university academics during a years-long research effort. Committee chairman and Wilmington developer Dave Spetrino spoke for over an hour at the joint meeting. Spetrino said market forces will supply adequate housing stock for the upper echelons of the income bracket, but that ensuring affordable living for those earning less than 60% the area median income (AMI) will require some extra initiative. 

By definition, workforce housing includes those earning at least 60% of the AMI. The community’s housing needs perpetuate across all income segments, consultants found, with the most stark needs identified in lower income segments. Countywide, 60% of rental households are earning less than $40,000 a year — about 53% of AMI. Spetrino began his presentation by inquiring whether leaders intended to ignore the below 60% AMI population segment as intended or if they were willing to include these residents. Consensus was to include them.

Expectations clashed, with government leaders anticipating recommendations on specific solutions to the already identified housing issues from the committee. Meanwhile, Spetrino spent much of his presentation diagnosing the affordability problem and said he was unwilling to take more time to prepare a report with recommendations that leaders may not implement. 

“We need to know where you want us to go with this,” he told the group. “And you kind of have to be on the same page.”

Among potential solutions: encourage infill development and high-density projects; modify the zoning code to allow more diverse housing options; expand homeownership and rental programs; and create a new recurring local funding source height dedicated to housing affordability. 

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo has also rosily eyed the prospect of a housing bond, according to WHQR. In the meeting, Saffo asked Spetrino for his specific land use recommendations. “We have to do everything,” Spetrino said. “We have to do everything, everywhere.”

Spetrino said there’s opportunity downtown, where introducing by-right high-density zoning could pave the way for more duplexes and triplexes. “Mismatched” zoning is spurring diverging development patterns: The Northside is developing — and gentrifying — more quickly than the Southside because of a dense-friendly code, he explained. Investment along the Southside of Wooster Street will flourish with new local regulations, he said. 

“If you told me I’d be eating pizza? In the projects? On the Southside? In 1997? I’d have been like, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Greenfield Street — are you bananas? Are you kidding me?,” he said, an apparent reference to Benny’s Big Time Pizza, located in the South Front District, which redeveloped city public housing units. “But yet, the zoning down there is less dense than it is on the Northside.”

New Hanover County specifically plans to try its hand at enticing affordable housing by deploying 9% of recently appropriated federal Covid-19 relief funds to install water and sewer infrastructure in a targeted area of the northern county. With an end result of decreased costs for developers (including an in-the-works subdivision that will directly benefit from the utility extensions) the county hopes to leverage the infrastructure to encourage builders to provide leases and homes at less than the market rate.

READ MORE: Federal Covid-19 funds could cut costs for developers in a bid to lure affordable housing

The predictable conclusion of the committee’s study was that a population surge has largely created the lackluster availability of workforce housing in New Hanover County.

“I don’t think we can build our way out of this,” Deb Hays, vice chair of the board of commissioners, said at the meeting. “I think this is a multi-pronged approach.” 

Councilor Charlie Rivenbark said he traditionally has never been a proponent of consolidating the work of the city and the county. Though in this case, he said, such collaboration would likely be necessary. A joint solution should be approached “with a rifle,” he said.

“This is more important than any soccer field, than any park,” he said. “It’s peoples’ lives, and I’ve sat in these similar meetings like this for 20 years, and we hear the same stuff, and then we continue to go at it piecemeal.”

Councilor Neil Anderson said he thought the time had come to work toward deliverables rather than continue to mull over the concerning data.

“I’m ready for more policy suggestions and for things where I can sink my teeth into it, start wrestling with it, arguing with it,” he said, “compromising with my fellow legislators and trying to move the ball forward, not just continue to hear data and how far behind we are.”

Only once did county leaders broach the prospect of requesting money from the New Hanover Community Endowment, the nonprofit spawned by the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health that will oversee $1.25 billion of the proceeds. 

After the housing presentation, city and county leaders discussed public transportation operations in the meeting’s second act. Unlike the last joint city-county meeting, the two boards did not squabble over funding differences. Saffo joked about “getting along,” with leaders collaborating on key issues that impact the community at large. Another combined gathering was planned for June. Prior to the Tuesday  meeting, Julia Olson-Boseman, chairwoman of the board of commissioners, told Port City Daily that the city and county share a common goal. 

“I think we all make comments or have opinions sometimes based on what we think we know, but it may not always be the full picture,” Olson-Boseman wrote in an email. “So my goal is to work with my fellow Commissioners and our city council members to ensure we have better communication, understand what each of us is doing on specific issues and initiatives, and work together on solutions that will benefit everyone we serve. That is why we are coming together in these joint meetings, and I hope to continue those moving forward.”

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