Christine Hughes does not plan to move, although she has extracted bullets and car parts and reported property stolen from her house near 10th and Orange streets in downtown Wilmington.
When she bought the house with her husband in 2006, the Realtor tried to deter them, suggesting they look at crime reports for the neighborhood before buying. Hughes was sold on a downtown location. The problem was prices.
“[The Realtor] was horrified, but we were the face of affordable housing,” Hughes said. “… We wanted to be part of the return to urban areas … but we couldn’t afford to live on 2nd and Church street. It’s been a challenge but [the neighborhood]is changing.”
Hughes’ personal experience was part of a conversation about changing perceptions of affordable housing and integrated neighborhoods during an April 16 panel discussion about planning for future housing.
Organized by the Cape Fear Housing Coalition, the panel featured representatives of planning processes underway by the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County and tri-county region of Pender, Brunswick and New Hanover counties.
Jennifer Rigby, New Hanover County long-range planner, and Adrienne Cox, FOCUS project manager, echoed the contribution of Hughes, a City of Wilmington senior planner.
Rigby said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines affordable housing as less than 30 percent of an occupant’s total income. A small portion of options in New Hanover County can claim the designation.
Hughes criticized results of past efforts to solve the problem by concentrating affordable housing developments into one area, citing the rising crime rate as a consequence.
“We have Creekwood [South] and Hillcrest. We forced poverty into this centralized location and it started a bad, bad cycle,” Hughes said.
She said integrating affordable housing options into other communities could reduce crime rates and improve the overall real estate market.
“It is a city issue, except it’s not. We are all residents of the region. We all want housing equity and we all understand that a concentration of poverty and crime isn’t good for any of us,” Hughes said.
Rigby also voiced support for efforts to integrate neighborhoods.
“The neighborhoods that really work are integrated neighborhoods … where you have young families and retirees, very large homes and very small homes with everything in between,” Rigby said, mentioning her neighborhood in Brookwood feels diverse and safe.
Rigby recognized efforts to introduce affordable options to homogenous communities would likely be unpopular.
“Trying to mitigate that fear of integrated neighborhoods is a struggle planners are always up against. As soon as you mention affordable housing developments, red alarms go off,” Rigby said.
Jody Wainio, Realtor and owner of Buyer’s Choice Realty, pointed out problems with integrated neighborhoods as they currently exist. She said downtown has the only integrated communities with affordable options, adding that affordable options are usually unsafe.
“In the areas that are safe, prices are up. It is diverse, but it’s not affordable,” Wainio said, challenging Rigby’s suggestion of Brookwood as an example of an integrated community with affordable choices. … That’s the problem. … Mixed is the best scenario, but how do you keep that safe and affordable?”
Wainio suggested it would take a whole community to achieve those results, starting with a few builders ready to take a risk.
“It’s going to take builders who are willing to build homes that they know might fail. If you could get a couple examples and show it was a success, people might get on the bandwagon,” Wainio said.
She speculated incentives like construction loans with little or no interest or waived impact fees could give builders the boost they need to tackle those projects.
Other issues explored during the discussion included improving infrastructure and access to public transportation to allow aging in place and revamping city and county zoning ordinances to allow more mixed-use sites and loosen cohabitation restrictions.
Better zoning ordinances would help the city and county accommodate a growing population, and since demand drives up cost, they could also address affordable housing problems.
Rigby said creating a comprehensive plan is an important step toward updating and improving the zoning ordinances.
“The best way to have a good zoning ordinance is to have a good comprehensive plan. [The city and county] both plan on updating our zoning ordinances once these comprehensive plans are complete,” Rigby said.