Wake County

One-fourth of Wake County families can’t afford their rent. What can we do about it?

Morgan Davis walks her dog, Calvin, on April 21, 2015, at Clover Lane Townhomes in Raleigh. The amount of affordable housing in and around downtown Raleigh and elsewhere in Wake County is declining as real estate values rise.
Morgan Davis walks her dog, Calvin, on April 21, 2015, at Clover Lane Townhomes in Raleigh. The amount of affordable housing in and around downtown Raleigh and elsewhere in Wake County is declining as real estate values rise. tlong@newsobserver.com

More than 91,000 families in Wake County – about one-fourth of households – are spending more than they can afford for housing, according to a recent analysis.

The number is expected to grow in the coming years as rent and home prices continue to climb in the Triangle and many older neighborhoods are redeveloped. Wake is losing between 400 and 550 affordable housing units every year, say consultants hired by the county.

Wake County commissioners are trying to figure out how to increase the stock of affordable housing, and how to pay for it. HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm with an office in Raleigh, made a presentation to county leaders this week that paints a bleak picture of families struggling to pay rent in a region widely renowned for having good-paying jobs and a healthy economy.

“We have to get serious about this,” Sig Hutchinson, chairman of the commissioners, said of affordable housing.

Eventually, voters will likely be asked to pay more in property tax or sales tax to add more housing options for families making less than $39,000 a year.

Here are some of the consultants’ findings:

▪ More than 42,000 families in Wake County spend more than half of their income on housing.

▪ More than 49,000 additional families spend more than one-third of their income on housing.

▪ Since 2006, the median household income in Wake County has increased by almost 16 percent, and the median income for those without a bachelor’s degree has increased by 10 percent. Meanwhile, for-sale housing costs and rental costs have increased by 19 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

▪ By 2035, Wake’s population is expected to reach 1.45 million residents. By then, 68,000 new low-income households making less than $39,000 a year will need affordable housing.

▪ From 2009 to 2015, Wake County lost nearly 5,000 affordable-housing units that were not subsidized by government programs such as Section 8.

▪ The number of low-income families who need affordable housing is expected to rise by up to 3,700 a year.

So, what can be done to help?

There are several options, all of which would require cooperation with Wake’s cities and towns. Here are some of the consultants’ suggestions:

▪ Make affordable housing more appealing to developers.

North Carolina state law prohibits mandatory inclusionary zoning, which requires a certain amount of new construction to include affordable housing. But municipalities and counties can offer such zoning on a voluntary basis.

For example, a developer could be allowed to build 10 units per acre instead of four, as long as one unit is designated as affordable housing. In exchange, developers could get an expedited permitting process, rebates on fees or reduced parking requirements.

▪ Homeowners could be allowed to build “granny flats” on their property. These small units could be rented out, providing affordable options for families while offering a new source of income for property owners.

▪ Make the approval process faster.

Municipalities could allow proposed projects to skip some bureaucratic steps. That means city staff could approve new development without projects going before a governing board.

How much will it cost?

It’s unclear how much Wake will spend on affordable housing. Some options, like changing the way new projects are approved, wouldn’t cost anything.

About $5 million in local funding would amount to between 200 and 350 affordable-housing units, according to consultants.

Voters could be asked next year to borrow money for affordable housing. Commissioners could include it as part of a bond referendum for school construction.

Hutchinson said he wants to ask voters to increase the local sales tax rate by one-fourth of a cent to pay for affordable housing. He said the change would generate $40 million a year – $10 million of which would go to affordable housing, with the rest paying for parks, greenways and open space.

“I have a hard time thinking we can fund affordable housing unless we do something like that,” Hutchinson said.

Sarah Nagem: 919-829-4635, @sarah_nagem