Finally, urgency on planning affordable housing in Wake County

It might have been called an emergency meeting. Wake County commissioners gathered last Monday with housing experts including those from Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofit groups to address a lack of affordable housing.

This chronic problem has been growing in Wake, a strange and painful conundrum as condos and new developments with homes in the high hundreds of thousands of dollars range are going up, particularly in Raleigh. Left behind are veterans trying to start their civilian lives and working people with lower incomes who have a serious challenge in trying to find homes they can afford to rent or buy.

The county, as commissioners well know, is growing by 63 people a day, and a great many of them are students or low-income workers or people with disabilities. They’re also teachers, firefighters, police and others in service industries whose jobs are vital but low-paying. In many cases, those people can’t afford to live in the county they serve, and that’s not good.

“We’re responding with a sense of urgency,” said Commissioner Jessica Holmes, and she rightly sounded the alarm.

The term “affordable housing” has a broad definition. It might be government-owned housing. It might be places that accept renters with government subsidies.

The county applies the term affordable to a space that can be rented or bought by people who earn 60 percent or less than the county’s median income of $78,800 a year. The affordable number is $47,280. At one time, that would have been considered a substantial income, and in other communities it is. But not in Wake, where rents have skyrocketed. And many who earn even at that level have a hard time saving for a down payment that will make their monthly payments on a mortgage close to affordable.

Obviously, the county needs to expand the program that gives vouchers to help people afford housing. And it needs to bolster nonprofit groups that help people find and afford decent housing. County and Raleigh officials also could use proactive zoning to require or encourage developers to include lower-cost housing in their developments.

A good community, be it a county, a city or a town, is a better community when it welcomes people of all incomes. Economic diversity enlivens and enriches people and places.

Wake County commissioners and other government groups such as the Raleigh City Council need to be more proactive in moving ahead with some sound solutions.