For too many of our families, there are too few housing options

Posted 1/31/19

BY CASEY MANN

News + Record Staff

Sharon Gillette worked two jobs, six days a week. She has 30 years of experience in the service industry. But not being able to find a roommate meant she had …

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For too many of our families, there are too few housing options

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Sharon Gillette worked two jobs, six days a week. She has 30 years of experience in the service industry.
But not being able to find a roommate meant she had to leave Chatham County because living here was too expensive for her. After paying her rent and other bills each month, she would have just $30 left over.

“I was heartbroken,” she said. “I left Walgreens, where I absolutely loved my co-workers. Then I had to leave Sanda, who I cleaned houses with. I was absolutely heartbroken.”

Gillette, who moved to Burgaw, is an example of someone who had to leave Chatham County because of the county’s lack of what’s officially described as “affordable housing” — defined by the federal government as when housing costs, including rent/mortgage and utilities, make up no more than 30 percent of a household’s gross monthly income. As local housing prices rise — by 8 percent in the last year alone, according to the county — supplies of affordable homes and rental units are in short supply, meaning thousands of residents are paying well in excess of the 30 percent threshold just to have a roof over their heads.

Diving into numbers

Hard numbers on the exact number of residents who have left Chatham because of rising housing costs are difficult to nail down, but a recent report by the Triangle J Council of Governments may give an indication.

Triangle J — an intergovernmental organization made up of officials from seven counties — produced an Affordable Rental Housing Report for Chatham County in 2017. The report states that supplies of affordable homes are in short supply compared to demand, with a good portion of that stock considered to be of poor quality.

That leaves individuals like Gillette who can’t find a roommate or don’t make enough little choice but to leave.

In 2013-2014, Chatham saw more than 5,000 move to the county and about 3,600 people leave. The Triangle J report says households moving into the county have higher adjusted gross incomes than those leaving.

“It’s hard to say why this is the case,” the report states, “but it could be a sign of increased costs of living in Chatham County.”

The report estimates that 41 percent of renter households here are cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities. Of all renters, 66 percent make less than 80 percent of the area median income and are, therefore, classified as cost-burdened.

Sharing the costs among roommates might provide help, but that’s not optimal. The Triangle J report stated that 33 percent of renter households are one-person households, yet only 16 percent of rental units are one-bedroom or studios, according to Affordable Rental Housing Report.

To meet the needs, the report estimates, the county needs nearly 2,000 more rental units for households making $50,000 or less a year.

What can be done?

Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, a county policy analyst and housing representative, says the numbers are “naturally overwhelming.”

“It’s not going away at a national or at a local level,” she said.

Watkins-Cruz said it boils down to four simple problems — the lack of supply, quality and affordability of the current supply and education about the need. She also noted that low wages are a contributing factor. Working on those issues, she said, could make a difference.

“If we do these things simultaneously, add more industry variety and give people more options, they can choose to live where they work,” she said.

The Affordable Rental Housing Report identified seven goals to improve affordable housing in Chatham County ranging from increasing the quantity and quality of affordable housing to supporting low-income renters and improving economic mobility.

Some of the strategies are intended for all jurisdictions — Pittsboro, Siler City, Goldston, etc. — to consider, while the report also notes priorities that each jurisdiction should address based on its individual needs.

Watkins-Cruz said development partners from the community could make good partners with municipal governments in this effort.

“Affordable housing costs the same as market value housing,” Watkins-Cruz said. “Funding is for that gap in the rent. We can use local funds or grants but we have to get really creative.”

One recent example of that is the recent sale of the old Henry Siler School in Siler City to Third Wave LLC for the sole purpose of affordable housing. The county provided the land and a low-interest loan to the developers, allowing them the capital needed to build and secure low-income credits from the N.C. Housing Authority.

Watkins-Cruz said the county can also enact land use policies and programs that balance out growing land value with the need for affordable housing.

The Chatham County comprehensive plan’s land use policies are part of that. In that plan, the county zoned high density residential areas, which are typical of affordable housing, in areas around each of the towns. This ensures that affordable housing is not relegated to areas of the county that do not have services or resources such as grocery stores, gas stations and transportation.

Municipalities get
involved

Chatham County, Goldston, Pittsboro and Siler City each, as governmental entities, participated in the Affordable Rental Housing Report’s development. Since its release in July 2017, the jurisdictions have moved forward with some of the recommendations in the report.

The county, for example, has a dedicated committee to work on affordable housing issues, particularly on creating policy recommendations for the county to implement. Chatham also established a Housing Trust Fund last September with the intent to provide low interest loans to encourage development projects to preserve or create affordable housing in Chatham County.

For-profit corporations, non-profits, public housing agencies and governments can all apply for consideration. At least 20 percent of the development must be considered affordable housing based on Chatham County’s area median income.

Susan Levy is the incoming chairman for the County’s Affordable Housing Committee. A 30-year resident of Chatham County, she retired last year as the executive director of Orange County’s Habitat for Humanity after more than 20 years of service.

“Affordable housing is at a crisis level.” Levy said. “I see that creeping up in the county. Up until now, our focus had been on implementing the ‘tool box.’ I feel like we are starting now to move beyond it.”

At the January Affordable Housing Committee meeting, the group participated in a free form discussion of what issues the group wanted to focus on for the upcoming year.

The Town of Pittsboro created an affordable housing task force to work on the Triangle J report’s recommendations.

“I think the general consensus of the group, though we didn’t vote, was to begin meeting with developers, both for profit and non-profit, to educate them on the policies and incentives that are already in place,” she said.

Levy also believes that it will take significant investment to make a dent in the affordable housing crisis. The Housing Trust Fund created by the county was a good start, but Levy noted that most of the $200,000 appropriated is already designated for the Henry Siler School project. Levy also noted that Orange County had two successive bond referendums for affordable housing funds, at $5 million and $10 million, to fund in improving affordable housing there.

“If we want to move the needle, we’re going to need to invest,” she said.

Jim Nass, the task force’s chairman, presented plans to the town board last November. The group suggested creating a permanent board, establishing a non-profit for affordable housing, creating an incentive package for affordable housing and entering into an inter-local agreement with Chatham County about participation in the incentive package program for fee reductions and tax abatement.

The task force is in the midst of establishing the non-profit, and the go-ahead was given to work on creating an interlocal agreement.

“I am exceptionally proud of the Town’s Affordable Housing Task Force recommendations and the leadership of Jim Nass,” Pittsboro Mayor Cindy Perry said. “The recognized the problem, the need and the solution, which will take the cooperation and contribution of the whole community.”

The Town of Siler City approved Triangle J’s recommendations last December. Siler City’s median income is lower than the countywide average, and while the housing stock in Siler City is fairly diverse, more than 20 percent of its stock was rated as “fair” or worse condition by the tax assessor.

“While much effort is devoted to rebuilding a strong economy, where more members of our community have access to well paying jobs, there exists a real need for affordable housing - more especially, quality affordable housing,” Siler City town manager Bryan Thompson said.

The recommendations for Siler City include a “strong regulation” element which would strengthen the minimum housing code and create purposeful enforcement.

The town’s inspections needs are currently being serviced by Chatham County after its long-time inspector retired last year. The town board is planning to discuss what that process will look like during its upcoming budget retreat, while the planning department is determining how to work within state statute to keep things up to code.

“We have been working with the town board, our staff and partners to establish public policy and operational processes that will enhance the environment to support the access to quality affordable housing for those in our community in need,” Thompson said.

Goldston is a town of fewer than 300 residents. This means the town has a smaller tax base to work with, especially considering Goldston’s recent investments in water and wastewater systems. One of the suggestions for the town in the report was to allow for development for multi-unit structures that can “blend in with the character and feel of established residential neighborhoods or commercial areas.”

According to Goldston Mayor Tim Cunnup, the town is in the finishing stages of completing its unified development ordinance which will allow for affordable housing. Cunnup hopes the final document will be ready for public hearings this summer. Since Goldston is a small town with a lack of staff, Goldston has been partnering with Chatham County. The town would be able to request funds from the county’s Housing Trust Fund for a qualifying project.

“It’s obvious that there is a great need throughout the county for affordable housing,” Cunnup said. “We are grateful that we have been able to partner with Chatham County to help with the overall administrative part of our planning and zoning.”

Taking steps

Watkins-Cruz said progress so far has been slow, but things are looking up.

“We are super lucky,” she said. “Although we are limited in what we can do, we are in such an interesting position. To have the support of the board and the staff, that energy, I feel like it’s really starting to ramp up.”

Gillette, who now lives in Burgaw, hopes that change comes soon. She wants to return to Chatham County, the only place she said she ever felt “part of a community.”

“I love Pittsboro. I miss it. I miss my friends,” Gillette said. “It would be very comforting to my heart to come back to my community.”

Gillette also hopes that her story helps to open the eyes of those who are in the position to change it.

“If my despair is helpful to someone else, then it’s worth it,” she said. “For people who don’t have transportation and there’s not affordable housing, it leaves a lot of us out here in limbo.”

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