A recent affordable housing development deal in Raleigh reported by the News & Observer helped to illuminate the challenge city policymakers are facing when it comes to addressing the affordable housing crisis currently raging in the capital city. The initial phases of Washington Terrace will add over 230 townhomes and apartments for low-income families in close proximity to a rapidly growing downtown Raleigh. Obviously, this is a positive development and something that is desperately needed, particularly in the area of Southeast Raleigh that is proximate to downtown. But is it enough considering the full scope of the problem? How much progress are we really making in addressing the need that still exists for families requiring access to affordable housing?
Wake County has a need for 56,000 additional affordable housing units today. And that need will grow to 150,000 units over the next two decades (data from Wake County). Since 2016, Wake County has developed an Affordable Housing Plan with five key focus areas: to realize maximum benefit from public resources, support overall housing growth, focus on populations in greatest need, pursue context-appropriate solutions, and use housing as a platform for economic opportunity. (The plan can be found here.) In contrast, the efforts, vision and focus of Raleigh City Council to address the affordable housing crisis has been inadequate to meet the needs of a growing community with quickly rising rents, skyrocketing home prices and expanding regional needs.
Recently, conversations around the issue have proposed solutions to both ‘Affordable Housing’ and relative housing affordability. Increasing the number of units of both types and creating policy and economic incentives for both to happen should be priorities for our City going forward.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development generally defines affordable housing as “housing for which the occupant(s) is/are paying no more than 30 percent of his or her income for gross housing costs, including utilities.” (source) Many people who are discussing ‘affordable housing’ focus on creating and maintaining units of ‘subsidized’ housing. This type of housing can come in multiple forms of renter and owner occupied housing that is paid for in full or in part by government funding at local, state and national levels.
What gets less attention is how to make policy choices that create naturally occurring housing affordability. And it is in creating simple policy that allows incremental addition of housing, in dense patterns, that is most needed. Tools like allowing the construction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), which are domiciles added on to a property that can be rented out. These type of land-use patterns encourage incremental density in our urban core, which creates a more walkable / bikable / transit oriented centered that’s less car-dependent and naturally more affordable. Countless other communities nationally have been embracing these as a piece of the affordable housing puzzle. Raleigh has talked (a lot) about it, but the current plan dictates an arduous overlay process that will limit the impact of this housing option and make it unnecessarily burdensome to construct these.
Along that vein, we need to encourage more housing and denser housing to help negate the impacts of the tremendous growth that Raleigh is seeing. The average price of a single family home has increased 4.8% in the last year, with another jump of 5.2% anticipated next year. In 2015, for instance, a house you could fetch for $209,000 will cost you $263,000 today.Those relocating to this region are facing steep competition for starter homes and are pushed further and further out, again dictating a car centric model of growth that’s not sustainable environmentally or economically. Missing middle housing – a bracket affordable for critical members of our community like teachers and local government employees – is increasingly scarce. We need to facilitate smart, dense growth to ensure more families can afford to call Raleigh home.
Beyond these market driven solutions, we need policies in place on a municipal level that help to provide additional options for low income households that need additional support – especially as the market becomes less and less naturally affordable – it’s critical that there are programs and policies in place to provide housing assistance for our communities most vulnerable households.
To get started, below is a partial list of approaches the city could take to supplement their current plans and create more opportunities for families in need of access to affordable housing.
Land Use Policy
Inclusionary Zoning: A requirement that a percentage of affordable housing units be included in any new housing development. This type of program is common throughout Europe and other cities in the US. The NC General Assembly has disallowed the creation of such zoning policies by NC municipalities.
Voluntary Inclusionary Zoning: Rather than requiring a percentage of affordable housing units for all new housing units as above, this type of policy will exchange affordable housing development for other desirable allowances. One commonly used allowance is increased height for providing affordable units.
Accessory Dwelling Units: Allow for incremental density by adding accessory dwelling units (ADU) to parcal. Increase inventory of affordable housing units and enable homeowner to generate additional income. More information on their benefits can be found here. This is a policy suggestion included in the Wake County Affordable Housing Plan.
‘Missing Middle’ housing: Allow for incremental density by permitting the construction of duplex, tri-plex, quadplex, small apartment buildings, townhomes or rowhouses within existing single-family neighborhoods creates naturally more affordable housing. Mixed density neighborhoods with mixed income residents can also be linked to social and economic benefits.
Density: More housing units = lower prices. As more people relocate to region more housing options are needed to keep up with new demand coming online. Keeping these additional units near existing jobs, schools and housing reduces infrastructure burdens and also creates opportunities for transit which can keep transportation spending affordable.
Focused Overlays: Creating overlays which encourage affordable housing to be developed in certain target areas is a suggestion of the Wake County Affordable Housing Plan.
Leveraged Programs and Additional Public Resources:
City provided assets (land): The City owns parcels throughout its limits. It can provide parcels of land and act as a developer or work with private developers to build new affordable housing and either rent or sell affordable units.
Preservation Funding: Policy and financing structures that would identify, preserve and maintain existing public or privately owned affordable housing for rental affordable units to be maintained over time. This is a policy suggestion included in the Wake County Affordable Housing Plan.
Mortgage Assistance: Working with non-profits or other partners to empower and finance low income or first time homebuyers. This is a policy suggestion included in the Wake County Affordable Housing Plan.
Focus on Supportive Housing: Some high-need high-cost clients of services including affordable housing programs, need greater supportive programs. This is a policy suggestion included in the Wake County Affordable Housing Plan.
Property Tax: In 2015 the City of Raleigh passed a 2 cent property tax increase to help provide incremental funding for projects. More information here.
The important thing to do is to start a conversation about what we value as a community and how we can turn those values into tangible benefits for everyone who lives in our city and needs a safe and affordable place to call home. Instead of sidelining these conversations we need to bring them out into the open and find a way to move toward concrete action to address these pressing issues.