Local governments and neighborhoods stand to lose control over zoning and land planning if two legislative bills are approved during this session of the General Assembly, and this has counties and municipalities very concerned. And though the intention of the legislative action to promote more workforce housing is commendable, it is a good example of a “sledgehammer solution” to a problem that needs a new set of plans and tools.
House Bill 401 and the companion Senate Bill 349, introduced in March, will force local governments to permit multifamily structures in areas currently zoned for single family residences only. Entitled “Increase House Opportunities,” the legislation is seemingly designed to promote the construction of more workforce housing which is in low supply but in high demand as the nation and state begin the economic rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
Access to affordable housing is becoming a problem in metropolitan and tourist communities as the state and country are in the midst a major housing boom with demand outstripping the current supplies of homes. Because of this imbalance, home prices are skyrocketing with a vast majority of homes being sold well above asking prices.
While this boom is beneficial to both the home owners and the real estate industry it is creating a significant challenge for hourly wage earners who lack the financial ability to afford the accelerating housing costs despite current low mortgage rates.
The Urban Land Institute defines workforce housing “as housing affordable to households earning between 60% and 120% of area median income.” Among those that fall into this category according the Institute are middle-income workers, including professionals such as police officers, firefighters, teachers, health care workers and retail clerks.
In some regions of the state, particularly in tourist communities and metro markets, the high cost of construction, along with competition by investors leveraging the housing shortage, prices many mid-level and low-salaried employees out of the marketplace for home purchases, forcing them into expensive rental units, subsequently stressing their finances. In many instances these employees end up living in rural communities where the cost of living is more palatable but are miles from their place of employment.
In Dare County for example, many of the county’s first responders live in neighboring counties and even across the state line in Virginia because their incomes do not accommodate the high cost of real estate in this tourist-centric community. This is not conducive for quick response in cases of emergencies.
In an effort to provide better opportunities for workforce housing, towns and counties are beginning to focus on providing zoning options that promote affordable housing and apartment
complexes but not fast enough. Over the past year major apartment complexes have been constructed in Newport, Morehead City and Beaufort and there is growing need for more.
While these two bills are seemingly focused on providing a solution to the problem they pose a threat to existing homeowners and thus the description as a “sledgehammer solution.”
Under this legislation a developer can ignore local zoning ordinances and build a multifamily structure up to a maximum of four units in any neighborhood currently restricted to single family housing.
Should this legislative initiative pass it will lead to the destruction of neighborhoods and in the process, home values. Additionally, it puts a tremendous burden on the town’s or county’s infrastructure that has been designed for the type of neighborhoods currently developed. A sudden influx of multifamily homes in a district designed for single family structure changes this infrastructure plan.
Zoning is more than just an issue of appearance, it also helps local governments efficiently allocate resources for firefighting and EMS equipment. These efficiencies result in reduced expenses in facilities, equipment and personnel, and in the process improved services.
The N.C. League of Municipalities opposes these two bills and local municipalities are beginning to address this in town meetings. But opposition is only half the battle. This problem will not go away by itself; it needs to be addressed.
Local governments can facilitate solutions by creating incentives that promote the repurposing of existing underutilized commercial properties such as empty shopping centers or closed retail facilities for development of affordable, workforce housing. In addition to setting incentives, local governments should be aggressive in land planning, designating areas for high density living structures such as condominiums and apartments, thereby giving developers guidance. Continuity, conformity and long range planning are key in maintaining trust in the local government decisions for both current and future investors.
These two “Increase Housing Opportunities” bills are definitely “sledgehammer solutions” but they represent a knock on the door for counties and municipalities to take action now before the housing boom leaves more people homeless and results in future government restrictions of local control.