Tom Campbell

Every human requires food, clothing, shelter, air and water to survive. Many of us don’t worry about these basic needs, but food scarcity and shelter are concerns for too many North Carolinians.

It is hard to get an exact count of how many are homeless, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests some 9,300 are homeless in our state on any given day. To illustrate, Raleigh reports 6,000 are homeless while Charlotte counts 3,500, already more than the HUD projection. Many are without shelter due to substance abuse, but about 70 percent are homeless because of a recent situation like a death, fire or abuse. Shelters are few and beds are scarce and even if the homeless can find shelter and stabilize their lives there is a bottleneck of available affordable housing

Affordable housing is defined as that costing less than 30 percent of a person or family’s income. In an Elon University poll released this week 68 percent of respondents say it is somewhat or very challenging for a family earning $50,000 per year to find affordable housing in their community. In urban areas, where work is more readily available, affordable rentals are expensive. RENTCafe, a website devoted to rentals, reports the average cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment in our state is $900, with rents averaging $1,234 in Charlotte, $1,222 in Raleigh and $1,177 in Wilmington. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development says those who pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing are burdened and might have difficulty paying for other necessities.

Do the math. Just to afford the state average of $900 per month a person would have to earn $36,000 per year – more than $17 per hour – and work 52 hours each month just to pay rent. The Census ACS survey shows average per capita income is $29,500 ($14.20 per hour). At that income, using the 30 percent yardstick, rent of no more than $737.50 per month would be considered affordable. 

There are federal housing vouchers available for low income residents and some Section 8 housing, but supply is a problem. Reportedly, only 43 homes are available for every 100 families needing affordable housing. In the Elon poll, 69 percent said the government needs to take action to increase the amount of affordable housing.

In most urban areas, where jobs are more plentiful, the cost of land rules out most affordable housing. A one-third acre buildable site, with available water and sewer, inside Raleigh’s city limits begins at around $200,000 and, depending on zip code, can cost three times that amount. One solution is to find ways to reduce the cost of land.

Government regulations must also be examined. None of us wants to sacrifice safety and quality but zoning regulations need review, along with inspection and permitting costs. Five years ago my family undertook a comprehensive remodel of a single-story 2,000-foot home and permit and inspection fees added $5,000 to the costs. Regulation reform can help but won’t solve the affordable housing crisis.

One solution being increasingly advocated is to raise the minimum wage. To be sure the price of all goods and services will likely increase proportionately but this could help low-income workers.

We don’t and won’t suggest that government alone is the solution to affordable housing, but like it or not, government must be part of the solution. Public-private partnerships are likely essential, led by compassionate, visionary and practical minds who can devise solutions that don’t create more problems than we solve. It has always been the North Carolina way to help those less fortunate, so understand you and I are also part of solving this crisis. Affordable housing is a problem that won’t solve itself.

Tom Campbell is former assistant state Treasurer. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.