Proposed development at 921 SE Maynard Road in Cary. Credit: Courtesy Photo / Laurel Street

When Lorena McDowell arrived in Wake County four years ago, the number of naturally occurring affordable housing had been dwindling, and developers had little incentive to replenish the supply in one of the country’s fastest-growing counties.

The lack of affordable housing would soon turn into a crisis.

“And it’s only worsening,” says McDowell, who leads Wake County’s Department of Housing Affordability and Community Revitalization. “We have left things to the open market for far too long, assuming that it would just correct itself—and that’s never happened.”

Finding ways to boost affordable housing production sparked the county to create McDowell’s department, which she joined in 2018 as its first director. Her work as Atlanta’s deputy director under Mayor Kasim Reed helped reduce homelessness in the metropolitan area by half.

“I’m glad that Wake had the foresight to start this work years ago—it’s what brought me here,” she says. “I was excited to hear about a county that was willing to create a whole department to combat this issue—that was rare at the time, and now there are counties from around the nation that call us and ask how we did it.”

Administering $90 million in federal eviction relief during the COVID-19 pandemic and overseeing a Landlord Engagement Unit to help landlords understand the importance of working with the department are among the ways McDowell’s department has tried to combat Wake’s housing insecurity.

The department is also responsible for a program that incentivizes developers to focus more on affordability in their housing projects.

According to McDowell, this program is key in Wake because North Carolina does not have inclusionary zoning, meaning the department can’t legally require developments to include units of affordable housing. Instead, McDowell’s department allows developers to apply for county funds in exchange for providing affordable options.

“If developers want our support financially, we’re happy to do that,” she says. “But for our dollars, they’re then contractually obligated to hold a certain number of units affordable for a period of time—our goal is 30 years.”

When McDowell’s department was created, the department set a goal to create 2,500 legally binding affordable units through this developer support program within the first five years; that goal was met by year three. All told, it has administered funding in almost 3,000 units.

Those units are in development across Wake County, with Wake-funded affordable- and mixed-housing projects in Raleigh, Apex, Zebulon, Garner, and more. The first wave of these nearly 3,000 projects is about to hit completion as more and more developers apply to work with Wake. 

One proposed development that hopes to find funding from Wake’s Department of Affordable Housing and Community Revitalization was approved in the Town of Cary in November of last year. 

The proposed development, set to be constructed at 921 SE Maynard Road, will be the first mixed-income housing development on Cary-owned soil. Assistant town manager Danna Widmar says that the project, in partnership with developer Laurel Street, will “introduce a ‘first’ in affordable housing that will serve as an inspiration for future residential projects.” The project hopes to secure $1,690,000 in funding from Wake County.

Lorena McDowell, director of Wake County’s Department of Housing Affordability and Community Revitalization. Credit:

The Town of Cary had originally planned to use the land for a new water tower, but residents were unwilling to let go of the old tower, which Cary High School’s senior class paints each year.

Instead, the site—along with two additional acres purchased from Wake County Public Schools—was identified as a prime location for affordable housing due to its close proximity to downtown Cary and the workplaces of many employed in the area. The development will also sit alongside a planned 2028 bus route between Cary and Raleigh.

The development will consist of 126 three- and four-story housing units, over half of which will be set aside for affordable housing. Twenty-five of the units will be made available to families earning 80 percent or less of the area median income (AMI) for the Raleigh/Cary area, and 26 will be made available for those earning less than 50 percent of the AMI. Thirteen more units will be set aside for those receiving federal housing subsidies.

“This development aims to connect all Cary residents and reduce the barriers for families to live in the neighborhoods they know and love,” said Morgan Mansa, Cary’s intergovernmental affairs liaison. 

According to Mansa, the varied range of income levels that this development will cater to provides Cary with a range of unique opportunities that a strictly affordable development would not.  

“We wanted to create a product that was mixed, where people from all different backgrounds and income levels can live together,” she says. “That’s what Cary looks like.” 

While some worry that fully affordable developments have the potential to concentrate poverty, making it difficult for the area and its residents to grow economically and hindering the development of social safety nets, mixed-income projects are seen as ways to encourage both economic growth and community bonds by uniting differing income levels.

The uniqueness of the project, however, doesn’t just lie in its affordability. Cary is committed to making sure that the development also emphasizes sustainability. 

The site will feature a wet stormwater retention pond along with other green stormwater and drainage solutions. Community common spaces, such as hallways and parking lots, will be completely powered by solar panels, and residents will have access to electric vehicle charging stations capable of charging up to 14 vehicles. 

Forty-two percent of the total site also will be reserved for natural spaces, and a greenway connection will be constructed through the development. Construction of the development is slated for completion in 2024.

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