The city and county are doing better than ever, according to officials speaking at an annual luncheon on Thursday. 

Two pillars of politics—Raleigh mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin and Sig Hutchinson, chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners—each spoke positively about the progress made in the last year. According to them, city and county officials are leading the charge in making homes and apartments affordable, expanding public transportation, supporting businesses, and reducing gun violence.

Baldwin and Hutchinson each have reason to praise Wake County. Under their leadership, the area has seen an incredible economic boom and weathered crises like the COVID pandemic. Baldwin is also up for reelection this fall, giving her a strong incentive to emphasize how well the city is doing.

Although Baldwin and Hutchinson have both been active and responsive to issues residents are facing, they’ve faced their fair share of criticism as well.

Affordable housing

As scores of people move into Wake County—62 per day, according to Hutchinson—housing prices have skyrocketed, with demand outweighing supply. The city and county have each set goals for building more affordable housing.

That could mean building apartments with rents set lower than market price, so people don’t have to spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Or it could mean changing zoning regulations, so it’s easier for developers to build townhomes and condos, which cost less than single-family homes.

“Affordable housing units” could also include apartments reserved for people exiting homelessness or those who need supportive services like addiction counseling or job placement.

The city has a goal of creating 5,700 new affordable housing units by 2026 and so far has reached 3,910, according to Baldwin. Those units include 27 new apartments earmarked for people making less than 30 percent of the area median income and 100 apartments for people exiting homelessness. These projects, and more, are funded by an $80 million housing bond passed by voters in 2020.

The city council has also amended the zoning code to allow the construction of town houses and duplexes in neighborhoods that are traditionally single family. This year, the council continued its crusade to create housing that is affordable for middle-class residents by allowing the construction of tiny homes, accessory dwelling units, and taller apartment buildings along bus lines.

Wake County has also made progress on affordable housing, having set a goal of creating 2,500 new units by 2023. Last year, the county met that goal, two years ahead of schedule. The new units include apartments, single-family homes, and permanent supportive housing that must stay affordable for the next 30 years.

“I think we can all agree that stable housing is key to everybody’s future. It’s key to ending poverty. It’s key to ensuring that we have equity in our city,” Baldwin said Thursday during her presentation.

“It takes political will to get this done, and people are gonna get mad at you. They don’t want town houses in their neighborhood. I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want those people living there.’ I don’t know who those people are, but those people are residents of our community and they deserve a place to live.”

Still, Raleigh and Wake County have lost many more affordable housing units than they’ve gained. As of this year, Wake County has “an estimated shortage of 56,195 units affordable to low-income families,” according to a county news release. In Raleigh, about 4,700 affordable apartments—with rents less than $999 a month—have been lost on average per year since 2017.

Critics of the city council say its zoning policies have made it easier for developers to install high-priced luxury condos and apartment buildings, in some cases wiping out naturally occurring affordable housing. Although more apartments are being built, which helps lower costs, developers are not required to keep rents or mortgages below a certain price.

Giving developers more leeway can also lead to gentrification, where property taxes and the cost of living rise, pushing out longtime residents. Ultimately, the consensus is that despite the work the city council is already doing, more work and more money are needed to fight the housing crisis.

Growth and transportation

Growth hasn’t just affected the cost of housing; it’s spilled over into the job market. When housing is prohibitively expensive, employees can’t afford to live near where they work, which can push some low-wage workers to seek jobs elsewhere. That’s affected the ability of public bodies to attract qualified job seekers.

The Wake County school district, for instance, is having trouble recruiting and retaining employees, school board chair Lindsay Mahaffey said Thursday during her presentation. That’s one reason why it raised its minimum wage to $16 an hour this year for noncertified employees, such as bus drivers and instructional assistants.

Wake County also raised pay for its emergency medical services staff this year, becoming the leader in EMS pay for the state. Starting salaries are now $20 an hour for EMTs and $28 an hour for paramedics. Raleigh also gave employees a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment and raised police and fire pay, although not as high as officers themselves wanted.

With so many people coming to Raleigh and Wake County, managing traffic and roadways is another priority for current officials. Baldwin and Hutchinson agreed that moving forward on the commuter rail project—a 37-mile line that goes from Garner to Durham, with stops in Raleigh, Cary, Morrisville, and Research Triangle Park—is on the must-do list.

A commuter rail line would help carry people to the Triangle’s job centers, as well as the Raleigh-Durham airport and college campuses, Hutchinson said. The main challenges to moving the project forward have historically been “consensus and cost,” Baldwin added.

“Cost is still a challenge for us right now,” she said. “The bottom line is that we have to get creative. We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve been doing. We need help from the [federal government]. We need help from the state. And we also need to have our own commitment, to make sure, as leaders, that we are saying, ‘This is necessary.’ We can’t just flinch and go, ‘Oh, this is hard.’ Everything’s hard right now. We have to find ways to get it done.”

Economic development

Hutchinson touted Apple’s move to Raleigh as a big win and had the same victorious attitude toward Amgen’s $550 million investment in a new drug manufacturing facility and Fujifilm Diosynth’s $2 billion investment in a biologics production plant, both in Holly Springs.

The amount of economic growth in Wake County is great news, as companies bring new jobs and boost the tax base, Hutchinson said. But, he added, “it’s only good news if we keep up with the infrastructure, continue to build capacity in housing, continue to build transportation options, continue to invest in our education, and expand Medicaid.”

“We have to continue to do the best, because it’s nice to be on top but you can fall off quick,” Hutchinson said.

North Carolina is clearly a great place for big business, but what about small businesses and workers? Last year, the state was ranked the worst place to work in America by Oxfam, a nonprofit fighting poverty. Much of that ranking has to do with state laws—the $7.25 minimum wage, bad unemployment benefits, and lack of worker protections.

The county and the public school system (the third-largest employer in the state) have made some progress on creating living wages for their workers, but many say the pay raises aren’t enough.

Small businesses are also suffering as they try to keep up with rising real estate costs. In an effort to boost small business, Raleigh officials are offering grants of up to $30,000 for things like debt repayment, equipment or vehicle leasing, specialized training, and technology purchases. The program, which launched last Friday, is funded with $4.2 million in federal money.

Gun violence

Where Hutchinson’s presentation was overwhelmingly upbeat, Baldwin’s was a little more down-to-earth. She addressed Raleigh’s problems frankly, including rising gun violence. So far, there have been 24 homicides in Raleigh this year, compared to 33 total last year. Two men of color have also been gunned down by Raleigh police officers.

When it comes to prosecuting violent crime, the city is “getting serious,” Baldwin said. In a joint press conference last week, Raleigh police chief Estella Patterson announced a new partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Working with federal agents, police have been able to make 27 arrests in the past three weeks for allegations involving drugs and guns.

Baldwin also spoke about the city’s efforts to prevent crime. In the next year, the city aims to educate people about safe gun storage and expand the ACORNS unit, a task force that helps people in crisis connect with resources like shelter and counseling.

Since the start of this year, Raleigh police officers have intercepted 563 guns in the course of their patrols and received 200 individual reports of guns stolen from cars, Baldwin said.

“Let that sink in. Most of these cars are unlocked. People are leaving their damn guns in their car where anybody can access them,” she said. “We are working on an education program, and quite frankly, if you own a gun, I am begging everybody in this city to be a responsible gun owner. Lock it in a safe, keep it away from your kids, keep it away from others.”

In another effort to prevent crime, the city is working with the NAACP and Moms Demand Action to intervene with people who are at risk of committing, or becoming victims, of gun violence.

Still, some activists are pushing for greater investment in crime prevention. Calls to defund the police and refund community programs escalated in June, as the city council was passing its annual budget.

Council members ultimately ignored a proposal from Refund Raleigh to create an independent crisis response unit and raise pay for city workers in favor of a nearly $8 million funding increase to the Raleigh police budget—an increase of about 7 percent over last year—mainly in an effort to recruit and retain more officers for patrol and other duties.

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