NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County commissioners and Wilmington city councilors vowed before developers and nonprofit leaders to actually tackle the area’s affordable housing crisis in what was largely a brainstorming session Wednesday morning.
A lack of affordable housing has been a conversation in the county for years, but at heightened levels most recently, as council member Charlie Rivenbark pointed out.
“I’m so damn frustrated,” Rivenbark said. “Here we are in 2021, and we’re still talking about the same thing . . . But when I leave here today, I want to have a plan that we are going to work on.”
In New Hanover County, over half of rental households are cost-burdened, meaning at least 30% of their income goes to placing a roof over their head. Just beginning to address the growing problem will cost tens of millions of dollars, at least. At the joint meeting, staff proposed two funding mechanisms to get started.
The first, a bond package, would garner $50 million for housing initiatives. If passed by voters, the bond would allot $20 million for developing 1,333 affordable units; $25 million for preserving 200 existing units for affordable housing; and $5 million for expanding programs, which would benefit a projected 102 households.
The bond would appear on the ballot in either the March 2022 or November 2022 election.
Asked to see a show of hands from those who opposed the idea of a general obligation bond, everyone in the room kept their hands low. Leaders seemed confident voters would support the bond — if they could successfully show the faces of the people who it would help, like teachers and firefighters. New Hanover County Vice Chair Deb Hays said she prefers the term “attainable housing,” rather than affordable, which is sometimes misconstrued.
The council members and commissioners sought feedback from nonprofit representatives, asking them to not just tell them what they want to hear, but what they need to know.
“Don’t hold back,” Wilmington councilman Clifford Barnett said. “Tell us exactly what we need to do.”
Participants floated different ideas and challenges in the three hours of conversation that followed. Among the concerns was a lack of infrastructure in the unincorporated areas, which have more open land to build on and zoning laws that deter builders, such as height restrictions and lengthy approval processes.
New Hanover County Planning and Land Use Director Rebekah Roth suggested there is work to do in the unified development ordinance. Although the document was recently overhauled, the majority of that rewrite was playing “catch up,” she said, as an update was long overdue.
Low-density residential zoning still makes up most of the county and is even in nonsensical locations, like properties fronting Market Street or Carolina Beach Road. She indicated the county needs to incentivize projects with affordability components in the code. County staff is laying out a game plan for how to move forward.
Meanwhile the City of Wilmington planning staff is preparing to seek approval from council on its new land development code, which will promote mixed-use developments. Planning Development Director Glenn Harbeck compares the use to a pizza on which all the toppings are together: pepperoni, cheese, mushrooms — or, in the case of mixed-use, offices, retail and residential.
“Frankly, if we’re going to put high-density residential development out on a farm field, with no services nearby and no job, that’s not a good recipe,” Harbeck said.
He explained dense affordable housing should be built around transportation infrastructure to encourage ridership and increase the viability of the system.
Commissioner Hays asked how the county could maximize the $50 million from the bond through public-private partnerships, to which Patrick Brien of Cape Fear Collective shared his organization’s model. The nonprofit recently received a $2.5 million investment to purchase a portfolio of homes. They are now renovating the properties extensively, from replacing the roof at the slightest sign of trouble to adding smart thermostats and reverse osmosis systems.
The homes are only sold for a slight profit.
“Instead of seeing neighborhoods start to really increase in price in the three or 400s, you’re able to go in and kind of undercut the market, in a sense,” Brien said.
Katrina Redmon, CEO of the Wilmington Housing Authority, also spoke about the future of the decaying Hillcrest community. She explained her 256 units are unrepairable at their age. “I have so much lipstick on this pig I don’t know what color it is anymore,” she said.
Workforce Housing Advisory Committee Chair and developer Dave Spetrino stated Hillcrest is a “phenomenal location” but called it “terribly inefficient.” At 26 acres, he and others suggested the number of units could easily be doubled or quadrupled to serve even more residents earning below the area median income.
Toward the end of the meeting Spetrino explained the public is doubtful elected officials are serious and assume they’ll bail on the issues once they hear pushback.
“Prove me so wrong,” Spetrino said. “I want to be the wrongest person in the whole wide world.”
Rivenbark applauded the new unity of the boards, stating that it was the first time the two bodies had joined at the table together in his 20 years of service with the city. The alliance presents a “golden opportunity,” he said.
“I got to run for office again in November. If I run I’ll be glad to take this out to any forum ever and have somebody fault me for being in favor of this,” he added. “This is easy for us.”
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