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Wake County: ‘We have an affordable housing desert’
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By UNC Media Hub / Story: Samaintha Paisley, 360 video: Madison Walls, Video story: Doni Hollway
Raleigh, N.C. — Cockroaches scurry across the countertop in Evelyn Jacobs’ house. They’ve chewed the electrical outlets so that they’re useless. The walls are cracked, and the toilet overflows. Mold and mildew act like they own the place.
That’s not all.
“I got more spiders in my house than I have outside,” Jacobs said. “All kinds of spiders, some I ain’t never seen before. Then there’s centipedes that run around the house, and I mean big ones.”
Jacobs lives there with her son, Kevin, who has autism, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis and immune deficiency problems. They began renting this house in March 2013 through the federally-subsidized Section 8 program.
Jacobs doesn’t want to live here. She wants a healthier and safer living space to call home, but she can’t find one she can afford.
Low-income public housing is tough to find in Wake County, and some properties have two-year waiting lists. Meanwhile, an average of 67 new residents move into the county each day, according to Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes. This influx intensifies the demand for all types of housing.
Average rent for Wake County apartments is nearly 20 percent higher than the state average. Nearly 43,000 of the county’s 1 million residents spend more than 50 percent of their income for housing — an extreme burden given that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends families spend no more than 30 percent.
Sig Hutchinson, the chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, said there’s a 50,000-unit deficit in affordable housing across the county. The county needs to produce 7,500 new housing units each year to accommodate the projected population growth through 2030.
“You have food deserts; we have an affordable housing desert,” said Octavia Rainey, who has worked as a housing advocate since 1980. “That is unacceptable. We must have the political will to address this issue.”
Surging health concerns
The conditions that Evelyn and Kevin Jacobs face are more than unhealthy. They’re dangerous.
Kevin’s health problems make him susceptible to sicknesses. Jacobs fears even a single spider bite could send him to the hospital with crippling pneumonia. His asthma is aggravated by the lack of air filtration. She piles blankets on him during winter and places fans directly on him in the summer to try to moderate temperatures.
“It’s really bad because Kevin has had more seizures this year,” she said. “He could breathe a lot easier (at the previous apartment). He could stay cool.”
Jacobs also has her own health concerns — she has diabetes, heart troubles and asthma. Taking care of Kevin and the dilapidated house have become her full-time job. She blames the house for their declining health.
Rainey said that she sees a direct link between inadequate living conditions and declining health. Worse still, Section 8 residents often have limited access to healthcare.
“You have people living in all kinds of harsh situations because you don’t have affordable housing,” she said. “And that leads to all kinds of health issues, stress, hyper tensions and people not taking care of themselves. If you’re not healthy, you can’t work.”
Shana Overdorf, the executive director of the Raleigh-Wake Partnership to End Homelessness, said adequate housing resolves a multitude of issues.
“Housing is a basic human right,” Overdorf said. “If we are able to provide housing, we know that some of these other things (like healthcare) will either self-resolve or will be able to more immediately stabilize the individual or a family that’s in that crisis situation.”
How Section 8 housing works
The Wake County Housing Authority declared that Evelyn Jacobs’ house is unlivable.
“What happened in Ms. Evelyn’s case shouldn’t have ever happened,” Rainey said. “The whole process of Section 8 really needs to be put under the microscope now. Tenants have rights.”
The monthly rent of Jacobs’ house is $850, of which she pays $129 and federal subsidies take care of the rest. But the most recent inspection revealed the house is worth just $29 a month in rent given its unsafe conditions.
Under Section 8, for as long as landlords accept voucher payments, it is their responsibility to maintain habitable conditions.
Sonia Anderson, the special assistant to the executive director at the Raleigh Housing Authority, said 333 of 496 houses passed inspections in September. The others were scheduled to be re-inspected, although Rainey said that doesn’t always happen. Landlords do not receive any federal funding for rent until their units pass physical inspections.
Homelessness is a growing concern in Wake County. There were 4,726 homeless persons in Wake County reported in 2016, including 749 children.
Hutchinson said homelessness is expensive for the county since their emergency calls and services drain public resources.
“If you take someone who’s homeless, who’s got maybe a mental illness and a drug problem, and you put them in housing for free, it is actually — by a factor of tens — cheaper than keeping them on the street,” he said. “But it’s not the hard numbers; it’s how it’s impacting people’s lives.”
Particularly vulnerable populations in the housing crisis include seniors, veterans, the mentally ill, single women, children and low-income families.
“They’re falling through the cracks because people don’t want to complain,” Rainey said. “They’ll live in any conditions just to have a roof over their head. That means suffering in silence.”
Overdorf said data also show an increase in single women falling victim to homelessness since at least 2013 — not just in Wake County, but across North Carolina. Homeless single women face a unique set of challenges.
“Women, being outside, especially without children or having a caregiver with them, puts them at increased risk for trafficking, for domestic violence, for incidents of crime, things like that,” she said.
But Holmes said the housing crisis impacts people of all income levels.
“This isn’t a matter of people being lazy or not having jobs or not being willing to work harder,” she said. “I think that’s a very popular misconception.”
Jacobs worked as a tax preparer for H&R Block, but quit in 2013 when Kevin turned 18 and his health declined. She hopes to find a part-time job soon to afford better housing, but can’t actively search for a job as Kevin’s health deteriorates.
She has been searching for alternate housing for years, but it has become increasingly difficult. Fewer properties in Wake County accept vouchers, causing longer waitlists. Rainey said the Housing Authority waitlists in Wake County have more than 15,000 people delicately balanced on the whims of the housing market.
There is little incentive for landlords to subsidize housing for the Section 8 program because building high-end apartments is more profitable. Even complexes that do provide affordable housing are often later tempted to renovate their apartments to attract residents paying market rates, thus displacing low-income residents.
“The Section 8 voucher does not compete with market rates prices,” Rainey said. “It’s just by the grace of God that you do have a landlord who will take them.”
One practice to help cope with the housing shortage is extended hotels and motels — an option currently used by hundreds of people in the county. Jacobs is toying with this option.
“We have more families with children staying in extended motels and hotels than ever in Wake County because we just don’t have the housing,” Rainey said.
What’s being done to address the crisis?
“Part of (the lack of affordable housing), quite honestly, is because we’re doing a lot of things right,” Holmes said. “We have a very good quality of life here, and everyone wants a piece of it.”
But that good quality of life clearly isn’t reaching all populations equally.
Given the magnitude of the crisis, Wake County created a steering committee on affordable housing in September 2016.
Holmes leads the committee. Having grown up in rural eastern North Carolina where affordable housing often equated to trailer homes, she feels personally connected to the housing crisis.
“As someone who’s been impacted by the need for government housing and the need for affordable housing personally…it will be a priority for me,” she said. “We have other projects that aren’t so focused on human basic necessities like a roof over your head and food and clean water, and some of those projects are going to have to take a back seat to things that are more pressing.”
After a year of data collection, the steering committee presented its 20-year affordable housing plan on Oct. 16. The board of commissioners immediately approved the report.
Some strategies the committee will now explore include:
Producing and preserving affordable housing: Several housing apartments have closed this year or are planned to close in a few years. Holmes said if more affordable units are built without preserving existing housing, a net loss in housing could still occur.
More funding: Federal funding for housing is expected to decline, so the county will explore options for state and local funding. Special assessment districts could be used to subsidize public projects. Hutchinson sees taxes as an avenue for financing housing projects. He estimates an increase of a penny in the property tax could generate $14 million a year, while a quarter of a cent increase in sales tax could produce $40 million.
Accessory dwelling units: These are 500-600 square-foot units attached to existing homes for low-income families to purchase.
Identifying specific funding sources, either through public, private or philanthropic means, is the next big hurdle. But Hutchinson said the board’s unanimous vote to accept the report is progress because it marks housing as a priority.
He said Washington Terrace, an affordable housing complex in Raleigh whose construction began Oct. 24, is the latest example of the county’s commitment to accommodate housing needs.
Overdorf is optimistic given how many groups are joining forces to spark change in housing trends.
“I think now that the city and the county and the municipalities and Wake County are having the conversation, that’s a time for change,” she said. “I believe that we will rise to the challenge of providing [housing] inventory.”
In the meantime, Jacobs perseveres in her search for a better home for her and Kevin.
“That little man in there is what I look at (for inspiration),” she said. “God let me have him. That’s God’s gift, and I’m supposed to take care of that angel — and I’m going to do it.”