Everyone in Wake County government acknowledges the affordable housing crisis. It’s impossible to ignore. About 4 percent of county residents are considered extremely cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than half their incomes in rent; another 5 percent pay between 30 and 50 percent of their incomes toward housing costs.
To meet its current housing needs, officials say, Wake must fill a gap of 56,000 affordable units. If trends continue, that deficit will rise to 150,000 units by 2035. Just to maintain the existing gap, however, the county needs to add 5,875 units a year.
It’s not even coming close.
Last year, the county committed to building 192 new affordable units, providing permanent vouchers to more than 300 families, and supporting the rehabilitation of 217 affordable units. Combined with projects approved by the county’s twelve municipalities, developments begun in 2018 will eventually yield 1,030 affordable units throughout Wake County.
In 2019, the county’s new Housing Affordability Department, funded with a property tax hike that should generate $15 million a year, hopes to build at least five hundred affordable units itself. Raleigh and other municipalities should add more, too. But the total still won’t approach six thousand.
“We are not going to build our way out of an affordable housing crisis,” says Commissioner Matt Calabria. “Government-supported housing alone will not solve our problem.”
The county can’t just throw that $15 million at construction, says Lorena McDowell, who oversees the three-month-old Housing Affordability Department. Instead, it’s trying to stretch its dollars through private-sector partnerships and by pursuing federal low-income tax credits. But that’s a competitive and onerous process.
Take the seventy-two-unit Zebulon Green project, whose total cost is $11 million. Because of tax credits and private partnerships, the county is only paying $1 million, or $13,889 per unit. Without that assistance, each unit would cost the county more than ten times that. Similarly, the county is only paying $2.5 million for a $22.5 million project in Raleigh called Beacon Ridge.
But the tradeoff is that things move slowly and don’t always come through. Between the two projects, fewer than half of the 440 units for which the county sought tax credits to build last year were approved. For this year, the new department has $7 million in available tax credits, and has already received applications from developers to build 704 new units.
Not all of them will be approved, but even if they were, that still trails the number of existing units the county loses every year—somewhere between eight hundred and thirteen hundred, McDowell says. And therein lies the problem.
What’s more, a key piece to the puzzle is out of the county’s control. The affordable housing plan Wake County unveiled last year included a call for municipalities to increase density—allowing more housing to be built in an effort to keep costs in check and prevent the housing gap from spiraling.
But the county’s largest municipality doesn’t seem to be heeding its advice, according to Commissioner Sig Hutchinson.
“The Raleigh City Council is heading in the wrong direction, and something needs to change,” Hutchinson says. “Either they need to change the policy or change the council.”
A majority on the council has prioritized preserving neighborhoods over increasing density in ways big and small, from proposing strict regulations on accessory dwelling units to approving overlay districts that prevent new construction, essentially freezing neighborhoods in time.
But council member Kay Crowder scoffs at Hutchinson’s characterization. The city is ahead of the county on affordable housing, she says—in 2016, a year before the county followed suit, the city council raised property taxes to generate about $6 million a year for affordable housing—and she argues that overlay districts are effectively a way for neighbors to self-regulate.
“I believe, as a democracy, citizens should always have a choice about what happens in their neighborhoods,” Crowder says. “In the future, who knows what will happen when the city grows denser. But right now, it’s an opportunity to continue to have people decide how they’d like their neighborhood maintained.”
Wake County commissioners say they want to work with Raleigh and other local governments this year to increase density, which includes adding things like ADUs but also so-called missing-middle housing—things like duplexes and triplexes. The lack of supply has created high demand, Hutchinson says, and that’s driven up prices faster than wages can keep up.
The only way out of the crisis, he argues, is to let developers take the reins—let developers build denser, taller housing projects that are currently prohibited by many zoning regulations, and constructing affordable developments along transit corridors to ease the cost of a daily commute for cash-strapped families.
Calabria says he’s proud of what the county’s done, but more is needed—and soon.
“What we have been able to accomplish by many measures is superlative, but there’s no doubt we have more to do,” he says. “It’s critical that we do what we need to do to avoid becoming San Francisco in fifteen years.”
Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 919-832-8774, or on Twitter @leightauss.