Tuesday, July 23, 2024

‘We can’t build our way out of this’: NHC Endowment addresses affordable housing, other questions

A crowd gathered Wednesday evening to hear about updates on the affordable housing plan from the NHC Endowment, which oversees $1.3 billion in grant money to doll out into community nonprofits in New Hanover County. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — It was an ear-popping remark to hear Wednesday evening at GLOW Academy: “We can’t build our way out of this.”

READ MORE: NHC schools nabs literacy grant from community endowment

Terri Burhans, community development network officer of the New Hanover Community Endowment, was speaking to a packed house of community members, county and city leaders, as well as endowment board members. It was the first public listening session of two the endowment hosts annually, this one called to also present information on its affordable housing strategy.

“We see how big this problem is. It’s unprecedented, not just here in New Hanover County, but in the state and in the country,” she told the crowd.

Though Wednesday’s listening session didn’t include announcements for affordable housing grantees, as some community members had anticipated, Burhans said she expects a reveal to come in roughly 60 days. 

She didn’t expose too much new information, rather reiterating the endowment will put $19 million to affordable housing, a strategy it debuted last month. The plan includes giving $8.1 million in core operating support over three years to nonprofit housing providers, to also include reducing resident displacement. Another $11.5 million will be put forth to organizations that produce and rehab affordable housing units, both rentals and owned.

Burhans said the overall approach the endowment was taking was holistic, not just centered on funding new development — though, to be clear, it is one component of the endowment’s plan and will reach a mix of income.

“There are 30,000 units that need to come online in the next 10 years,” Burhans told Port City Daily after the meeting. “Building 30,000 units that quickly is almost an insurmountable task.”

As well, New Hanover County has little land left to build on, unless more considerations are made vertically, such as addressing height variances at the city and county level. Burhans said it’s a problem she has heard from people in the community who work in the housing sector. 

“Our partners, they do have assets, and so right now, making sure that we’re able to help them catalyze those assets in such a way that they best serve our community is that production,” Burhans clarified. “To look at what assets already exist: How do we support them?”

WARM was used as an example; the nonprofit helps seniors upfit home needs, whether it’s roof repairs, building decks or helping with plumbing and electric needs. 

“We have to attack this from different angles,” Burhans added. “We can’t just build, build, build.”

“We want upward income mobility for the community we serve and finding opportunities to create affordable neighborhoods — not just producing affordable units,” Terri Burhans said.

For instance, it could come by boosting income so people can afford to stay in their homes, Burhans offered: “We want upward income mobility for the community we serve and finding opportunities to create affordable neighborhoods — not just producing affordable units.”

Burhans explained investments made in workforce development would create more money for residents. Or the endowment could provide money to organizations that give better access to child care, transportation, healthy foods or healthcare. 

“So all of those things help to decrease expenses in the household, that then leaves more money to help support the cost of housing,” she said. “We have to find relief for the community we serve now until that production ramps up.” 

Nonprofit organizations were encouraged to reach out to the endowment to see if their ideas would align with the strategy.

The plan was devised by meeting with organizational leaders in the housing sector, some of whom were applying for grants in 2023. Burhans said their first-hand knowledge has been an asset and many are still working with endowment officers about grant applications. 

Aside from having conversations with area organizations, she explained the endowment staff and board began meeting with the city and county leaders, the workforce advisory committee, housing coalition, as well as local developers, home builders, realtors and the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.

One audience member asked how the endowment was “benchmarking” its approach to the crisis against other cities tackling the issue nationwide. Buhrans said they were looking at data the housing coalition and workforce advisory committee gathers, as well as engaging with experts in the field.

“We are very fortunate to have developers in this community who do work nationwide, and people on our board who do work nationwide, and so those developers, we’re in constant contact and communication with our development community, and so they are able to tell us what’s happening nationwide in that affordable space,” Burhans said.

The group also has met with Cape Fear Collective, which gathers data in the housing field. The nonprofit has purchased housing in recent years in both New Hanover and Pender counties as part of its social impact investment initiatives. It received $70,000 in the 2022 endowment grant cycle to continue its work in affordable housing.

Burhans added that subset development — from for-profit developers — may also be folded into the conversation in the future, particularly how that looks through gap financing. 

“And to be in alignment with the work that the city and county is going to leverage those funds as we go forward,” she said.

The endowment has a goal to create a cohort to help form an impact investment fund. It could provide capital for development projects.

“This has been discussed for probably about 15 to 20 years, of what a Housing Trust Fund might look like,” she said. “We’ll be studying what the fund might look like to deploy some low cost capital into the community to address some of the gaps that we’re seeing in really developing those properties.” 

Burhans wasn’t the only one to speak Wednesday. The listening session opened as a marketing event for the endowment. Former grantees from Cape Fear Clinic, YWCA and El Cuerpo took to the podium to tell the community about how the money they’ve received helped fund their programs and give opportunities to others. 

Socorro Costa, from El Cuerpo, explained the Latino community has grown in NHC by 60% since 2010. A a ministry of Christ Community Church, it has multiple programs including tutoring and English classes, as well as offering a medical clinic.

“We are very fortunate to serve 36 elementary school students from Mary C. Williams,” Costa said. “But in addition to supporting them academically, we have a licensed clinical social worker who is able to work with the kids and helping out things like emotional regulation, impulse control and really able to identify kids that really would benefit from more formal mental health services.”

The nonprofit received $200,000 in the last grant cycle and has replicated its tutoring program to Myrtle Grove Middle School.

The endowment has churned out more than $60 million in its two-year infancy, announcing grants once a year in December so far. This year is the first time it’s started offering rolling grants from its $1.3 billion pot, created by the hospital sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health. 

County commissioners signed off on the sale and put aside money to create the endowment, which was founded to align with the county’s strategic plan. 

Despite a shiny veneer put forth from its speakers touting its positive impact so far, the audience became a bit restless after 30 minutes. When questions began, someone asked why $22 million from the last tranche of money — which totaled $53 million — was put toward the nursing talent pipeline for Novant via grants given to larger institutions like the public school system, UNCW, CFCC and the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.

“The nursing shortage is nationwide,” Chair Bill Cameron said, “and affects greatly the ability to offer health and health equity throughout our community.”

Vice president Lakesha McDay added it crossed over into other sectors as well, such as housing. The endowment’s four focus areas are education, healthcare, safety and economic prosperity.

“We reduce the housing burden with increased wages, and so the higher education allows for the opportunity for our community members to gain an additional skill certification or license,” she said. “Our pillars are messy and they’re thread together very tightly.”

Former mayor and senator Harper Peterson had quite a few questions, such as why one-on-one sessions with nonprofits had yet to begin. It was a promise the endowment made in December to help better prepare nonprofits for applying for grant money.

“The intent is to still do that,” McDay clarified. 

Peterson founded the Heal the People’s Endowment nonprofit a few months ago and has hired legal counsel to attempt to course correct what he sees as improper organization and spending in the endowment; he’s asked the attorney general, which signed off on its founding in 2021, for a hearing.

At the meeting, Peterson asked: “The New Hanover Community Endowment has been without a CEO for five-and-a-half months. How does a staff of a $1.3 billion endowment perform without essential leadership?”

On stage were Cameron and Vice-Chair Shannon Winslow, along with McDay — the latter stepping in after its CEO William Buster left in February — ready to answer.

Bill Cameron, Shannon Winslow and Lakesha McDay, with the NHC Endowment. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“We have had very good leadership — and that’s Lakesha,” Cameron pointed out. 

It was one of the few moments the crowd agreed and broke into applause. Cameron added she brought experience, talent and training to help move the endowment’s needs forward. 

“Honestly, we have a sort of a flat leadership structure, because everybody here, we are all committed to the work,” McDay clarified. 

During the Q&A, moderated by Emily Page, director of learning for the endowment, someone attempted to bypass asking a question on paper by standing mid-aisle and demanding to know why McDay wasn’t being considered for the position. Cameron informed her there was a process to follow that evening — writing her question on paper to turn into Page.

The team hired moss + ross in its CEO search, for an undisclosed amount, and expects to have the announcement of its new leader by the end of summer. 

Port City Daily asked after the event how many applications have been received so far and were local to Wilmington or the tri-county region but did not receive an answer. 

“We’re not releasing application numbers at this time, but we will share more about the process after the board selects the new CEO,” spokesperson Kevin Maurer wrote in an email.

Board members didn’t answer the lady’s question about hiring McDay as CEO — even after an endowment staff member wrote it down for her to pass on to the moderator. A few others also weren’t answered due to being personal in nature or part of HR, Page noted at the end of the meeting. 

“If you have those questions for the board members, then please speak to the board members,” she said. “I’m sure they’ll be happy to stay here and answer.”

For some, it further indicated the endowment’s lack of transparency, an issue brought up several times at the event, also conjuring applause from the audience. The endowment hasn’t answered why its CEO left, nor why at least one of two of its board members, Pat Kusek, exited in recent months; Michele Holbrook resigned in May “due to work commitments.” It also doesn’t provide application information to media or minutes from its meetings, due to being closed off from public record laws.

Cameron countered the board issues quarterly reports, presents to county commissioners and engages with the community during its two listening sessions a year. It also has a community advisory council to help inform on needs that fit within the endowment’s focus areas. However, the CAC wrote a letter last month to endowment leadership, stating it felt it was underutilized.

“They’re out there in public,” Cameron told the audience, adding the staff are working everyday with nonprofits. “We’ve heard about transparency and we are talking about, how can we improve that? What can we do to do it better? We can always get better. We acknowledge that.”

Cameron told the audience he would make himself available to any community member after the meeting as well.

“I will stay here and answer every single question,” he noted. “In fact, that’s whether it’s 7 o’clock, 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock.”

The meeting ran over by 20 or so minutes to address more questions, though many people left early. Two African-American ladies sitting in the front row exited within the first half, mumbling how the session was “BS” and “out of touch.” 

It came as diversity was brought up in the Q&A. Attorney General Josh Stein, upon approving the endowment deal, included requiring two additional appointed board members to promote diversity and professional expertise on the 13-member board. The county commissioners vote on five, Novant on six and the endowment on two. 

Commissioners did not vote to reappoint its only Black member last fall, Virginia Adams, nor did it re-up founding member Hannah Gage. Instead it voted in Woody White and Kusek, both of whom helped found the endowment as county commissioners and approved the hospital sale. They couldn’t apply for the endowment board for two years after leaving as a commissioner.

Winslow maintained the board does have diversity “of experience professionally” and “of lived experiences.” 

“We certainly have diversity of race,” she added.

Of the 13-member board, two are African-American.

One community member asked how the board and endowment is connecting with people in poverty, most affected in the community, “rather than those of just higher socioeconomic status.” 

McDay answered the endowment leans on the community advisory council as “boots on the ground” to hear back from those most impacted, as well as grantee project leaders to help inform them. She also admitted the endowment needed to “be more intentional” about going into those places and spaces affected.

“Let us know where we have opportunities to engage. My grandmother used to say: ‘You never go to anybody’s house unless you’re invited,’” McDay said, “so let us know those places that you want us to show up, and then it’s on us to show up.”

[Ed. note: The article has been update to correct the Lakesha McDay’s last name; PCD regrets the error.]

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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