Growing crisis

Affordable housing poses big challenge.

By Tom Campbell

[05.04.04] — Recent economic statistics shed light on a crisis below the radar screens of most in North Carolina – the lack of affordable housing.

North Carolina’s unemployment rates have fallen to 5.2 percent, below the national average for the first time since 2000, and the biggest one-month drop in 26 years.

This data is somewhat misleading, however.

Our state lost approximately 173,000 manufacturing jobs over the past four years and, even though many of those displaced workers have found jobs, their new work doesn’t pay as much as the jobs they lost.

The report last week by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis substantiates the problem.

Personal income in North Carolina grew by only 1.6 percent in 2003, far from the 4.5 percent growth of the heady 1990’s, dropping us three places to 37th in the nation.

What does this mean?

A growing number of our residents are having trouble finding affordable housing, defined as housing that costs the individual or household no more than 30 percent of its income.

For example, the average wage for a construction laborer is $21,341 a year. Using the indicator, 30 percent of this income would mean the laborer could afford $534 a month for housing.

Alicensed practical nurse earns $30,680 a year and could afford $767 a onth, while the average wage for a preschool teacher is $17,430 a year, affording just $436 a month.

In North Carolina, a household must earn $11.60 an hour to afford fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment.

In urban areas, like the Triangle, that number is more like $15.37 an hour, more than either the preschool teacher or construction laborer will earn.

Forty-one percent of North Carolina’s renters cannot afford a two bedroom fair market rent.

Some 645,000 low- and moderate-income North Carolina households have a housing problem and, for over 90 percent, that problem is cost.

It is easy to point fingers of blame, but neither fair nor productive to do so.

Private apartment owners must get a fair return on their capital, and both land and construction prices have skyrocketed to the point where it often isn’t profitable to build in urban areas, yet that is where the jobs are located.

Society has either allowed or insisted that government solve the problem of affordable housing.

We learned the hard way that most government-sponsored housing projects create more problems than they solve.

Once the initial subsidy for building the project was made, rents were not sufficient to provide for adequate maintenance, resulting in unhealthy and unsafe slums.

Many postulate that inadequate housing results in health and behavioral problems that cost us tax dollars in the long term.

This is a growing crisis that cannot be allowed, nor will it go away.

It says much about us when such a large segment of our populous does not have a safe, clean, healthy, and affordable place to live.

There are many questions to be asked and many players who must come to the table, but one overriding principle must prevail: It is unacceptable for this state, which for too long led the nation in the number of outhouses, to have so many unable to find affordable housing.

Add this to the list of urgent and important issues to be debated this election cycle.

Tom Campbell is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television talk show, and a member of the board of directors of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal.

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