Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Can first responders afford to live in Wilmington?

Wilmington firefighters can earn as low as $12.24 an hour. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Wilmington Fire Department)
Wilmington firefighters can earn as low as $12.24 an hour. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Wilmington Fire Department)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The short answer is, at the entry-level, maybe. There’s opportunity to earn something close to the area’s median income — $53,400 for a single person, $76,200 for a four-person family — in higher-ranking roles, but for most entry-level positions, it may be tough to snag a rental and impossible to find an affordable home.

It’s difficult to quantify exactly how many public servants can’t afford local housing, but it’s evident when marked law enforcement vehicles can be seen parked outside county lines.

RELATED: What’s a living wage in New Hanover County?

The long-term effects of public employees being unable to afford to live in the area they serve can be far-reaching, according to Patrick Bowen, president of Bowen National Research.

“We’re starting to see this theme of cities’ workforces, particularly those that are earning probably less than $20 and hour, maybe even under $15 an hour in many cases, they’re getting forced out in terms of being able to afford a rental unit, let alone trying to buy a home is probably impossible for them,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Bowen recently delivered a 263-page housing needs assessment to the city and county that will likely be used as the basis for local officials to finally take significant action in addressing affordable housing after years of talking about the problem. Should patterns trend the same direction without intervention, Bowen thinks housing costs and low inventory could further push out lower-income earners.

“That’s my concern for Wilmington,” he said. “You might get to the point where you cannot sustain your workforce.”

The area’s affordable housing crisis doesn’t target public employees, but they’re often pointed to as representing the face of the problem. Often confused with public housing, affordable housing can get wrapped in negative connotations, with some people apprehensive about low-income people moving in next door. If that person is a first responder or teacher, the resistance typically drops.

In comparable southeastern districts Bowen has studied, public employees living great distances from the area they serve can lead to turnover. This can increase costs for local governments to continue to train and recruit new employees.

“A lot of people lose sight of how housing is tied to the local economy,” Bowen said. “Wilmington wants to get ahead of this and I think they are.”

View public servant’s salaries compared to common affordability benchmarks below. Click to enlarge:

Data courtesy of New Hanover County, City of Wilmington, NHCS, and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. (Port City Daily graphic/Johanna F. Still)
Data courtesy of New Hanover County, City of Wilmington, NHCS, and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. (Port City Daily graphic/Johanna F. Still)

Cost to live

Half of all renter households in New Hanover County are cost-burdened, meaning they spent more than 30% of their income on housing. Nearly 28% are severely cost-burdened, spending 50% or more of their earnings on housing.

Rent costs in the city and county are rising. Analyzing U.S. Census community survey data, Bowen found costs skewed higher between 2014 and 2018. The most growth occurred in the $1,500 and higher rent range while the $500-to-$749 segment had the greatest decline. Most rentals (64%) cost between $750 and $1,499 as of 2018.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition found in 2020 the fair market rent of a two-bedroom apartment was $966 in New Hanover County. Bowen said this figure seems lower than what the market actually has to offer. Dave Spetrino, developer and chair of the joint city-county workforce housing committee, also expects the actual average is probably higher. “What we’re all curious to see is the more recent data,” he wrote in an email Wednesday.

As a builder, Spetrino told the local boards in a joint city-county meeting Tuesday he had nothing available at a rate even higher than the current data suggests.

“I got nothing for you at $1,100,” he said.

Bowen said across the southeast, developers can’t build new construction rentals for less than $1,100 or under $300,000 for a single-family home. An income of $95,000 can afford a home at that price, assuming a 5% downpayment, according to a calculation formula Bowen shared. Last month, the median home sale price was $295,000 in the tri-county area, an all-time high, up 13% from last year, according to Cape Fear Realtors data.

Between 2016 and 2019, median income increased by 5.8% in the county while median home prices rose three times as much. Wages aren’t keeping up with increased living costs as more new residents move in, leading to a tight rental and homeownership market that’s pushing lower-income earners out of the county.

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

To spend $1,100 a month on housing (including utilities), you’d have to earn $44,000 a year, or $21.50 an hour for the rental to be considered affordable (30% of gross income). With $966 in monthly housing costs, an affordable income would be $38,640, $18.58 an hour. Spetrino presented this $18/hour figure to the boards at the joint meeting Tuesday before asking them if they were willing to help those out who earn less. They agreed they were.

Public earnings

Homeownership in the county is pretty much out of the question for a single-income earner at this stage. Entry-level first responders and teachers earn either just enough or right below enough to afford $966 a month on housing.

  • Wilmington Police Department officers earn $38,984 starting out, requiring $974 in housing costs to live affordably
  • Entry-level 911 operators earn a projected $36,654, including overtime, enough for $916 a month on housing. 
  • Wilmington firefighters can earn as low as $12.24 an hour and an average first-year salary of $35,691.
  • First-year New Hanover County firefighters make a projected annual salary of $33,594, or $35,676 including overtime.

New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office deputies earn $19 an hour starting out, or a $39,520 salary (not including overtime), enough for a $988 monthly budget on housing. Lt. Jerry Brewer said deputies have plenty of opportunities to work more. “We work so much overtime too, it’d blow your mind,” he said. 

Salary data on New Hanover County Regional Medical Center EMTs is not available; a Novant Health spokesperson said it does not release wage information as a matter of corporate policy. Novant did commit to offering a minimum $15 wage to NHRMC employees as part of its February merger, which equates to a $31,200 salary, enough to spend $780 a month on housing.

Filed earlier this month, House Bill 612 would incrementally bump the state’s minimum wage up to $15 by 2023. Another piece of legislation, House Bill 705, sponsored by Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover, specifically targets raising the minimum wage to $15 for first responders. The bill would create a $52 million first responder fund, which would cover up to 50% of the costs for one year for local governments to up their pay.

“No one should work a full time job and not be able to provide for their family,” Butler told Port City Daily last week. “It’s time we raise the minimum wage.”

At the upper levels of experience, some first responders and teachers earn close to the area’s median income:

  • A 10-year New Hanover County Schools teacher earns at least $48,500. 
  • The average sworn Wilmington Police Department officer makes $45,809
  • Corporals (one step up from officers) earn an average of $57,018. 
  • Wilmington firefighters can earn as much as $57,046, more if they climb the ranks.

Even with several years of experience, homeownership in the region is virtually unattainable for single-income public servants. Two people earning $46,708 could qualify for the latest median housing cost ($295,000) in the tri-county, but extreme demand and record-low supply are leading to intense competition, with locals at a disadvantage stacked up next to out-of-market or cash buyers.

RELATED: Residential real estate inventory hits record low in a frenzied sellers’ market

Programs for public employees

While local leaders figure out which tools are needed to tackle affordable housing, another N.C. city is proposing one idea that could keep public employees closer to home. Last October, the City of Greensboro adopted an affordable housing plan that includes the recommendation to give $10,000 forgivable loans to households with someone employed as a public servant or any household earning 80% of the area median income ($53,350 for a family of four in the Greensboro metro; $60,960 in Wilmington). If more public employees can access homeownership, the idea is, it could cut down on traffic.

“If your paycheck is coming from a government entity — it’s coming from taxpayer dollars — we’re going to figure out how you can own a home where you can live,” Spetrino explained at the joint meeting. “It’s a ripple effect that’s hard to measure, but you can’t deny that it doesn’t make sense.”

Stan Wilson, Greensboro’s director of neighborhood development, said the city’s council could implement public service recommendations in about three months.

Whether or not Wilmington and New Hanover County come up with public service recommendations remains to be seen; work on an affordable housing plan is underway, with an informal sub-committee of the boards planning to meet next month.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify affordable housing includes the cost of rent and utilities, not just rent.

Below, view a compilation of local first responders and teacher salaries. Note: Affordable home price assumes a 5% downpayment. Affordable rent assumes 30% of earnings. Data courtesy of New Hanover County, City of Wilmington, NHCS, NHCSO, and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction:

Annual earningsNon-cost-burdened housing costAffordable home price
First-year NHCS teacher$38,000$950$120,000
NHCS teacher, 10 yrs. experience$48,500$1,212$153,157
Entry-level WPD officer$38,984$974$123,107
Avg. WPD officer$45,809$1,145$144,660
Entry-level NHC 911 operator$36,654$916$115,749
Avg. NHC 911 operator$39,315$982$124,152
First-year Wilmington firefighter$35,691$892$112,711
Avg. Wilmington firefighter$46,329$1,158$146,302
First-year NHC firefighter$35,676$891$112,661
Entry-level NHC sheriff’s deputy$39,520$988$124,800

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at johanna@localdailymedia.com.

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