Outer Banks

If we build affordable housing, the rewards will come

The lack of affordable housing in Dare County is close to being a crisis. It threatens not only businesses and their low-wage workers but also the entire community. Solutions do exist. The question is, do the people who live here care enough to act?

Dare County is on the verge of an affordable-housing crisis. It threatens the health and prosperity of Outer Banks workers, businesses, and communities.

Simply put, working families and low-income earners cannot afford to live here. That’s not an opinion but a fact—one backed by credible data.

This crisis needs to be remedied immediately. To not do so is to place unnecessary hardship on the very people who keep Dare’s economy humming—the people who enable both local businesses and tourism to thrive, the ones whose labors help keep taxes low for the people who can afford to live on the Outer Banks.

Consider, for a moment, the numbers provided by the U.S Travel Association and recently published in the Southern Shores Newsletter. In 2016, Dare County tourism provided:

–   A $1.1 billion economic impact
–   An impressive 13,160 jobs
–   More than $102 million in state and local taxes
–   A $2,845 tax savings per resident.

Those numbers are good news for businesses, the wealthy, and many middle-class homeowners. But the benefits don’t trickle down to all those who work in the county. As a matter of fact, such numbers can lead to rising home prices, which only exacerbates Dare’s affordable-housing problem.

If you’re not fond of figures, reading the ones that follow may be a tough slog. But if you proceed, you’ll understand the problem and be better equipped to help Dare address it.

The rental gap

More than 1,200 people commute from the surrounding counties of Currituck, Hyde, Tyrrell, Camden, and Pasquotank to work in Dare County. Many would likely prefer to live near where they work, but their low wages put owning or renting a home out of reach.

In terms of owning a home, Zillow shows that Dare County listings have a median sales price of $414,900. Zillow’s numbers typically trend high, but even the state estimates the median value of an owner-occupied home in 2014 was $285,000.

Within Dare County, there are roughly 34,000 housing units. Only 43% are occupied, and less than 5,000 of those are occupied by year-round residents. In terms of rentals, Dare’s market consists of roughly 22,500 housing units, but only 6,300 are available for long-term renters who live and work in the county. At the moment, less than 1,300 rental homes are unoccupied.

Not surprisingly, the high home-ownership costs consistently result in high rental rates for both long-term and seasonal renters. Based on U.S Census data, the chart below shows the cost of renting a home in Dare County in 2015. It also shows the hourly full-time wage needed for rent to be affordable (i.e., less than 30% of the occupant’s take-home pay).

Relative to the chart, about 15% of Dare County households makes less than $12.38/hour—a wage that, at best, yields a gross monthly income of $1,981. The median monthly rent here, however, is $1,048. That’s 53% of the households’ gross income and at least 65% of their net. In other words, there are essentially no reasonable local living opportunities for at least 15% of the county’s workforce.

The income gap

In a recent survey by the Beacon, 92% of those who responded said the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 is insufficient for living in the county. When asked what an appropriate minimum wage would be, respondents gave a median value of $15.00/hour.

By contrast, the National Low Income Housing Coalition puts a Dare County living wage at $17.17/hour—more than $2.00/hour greater than respondents estimated. Thus, even earning double the minimum wage ($14.50) isn’t enough for many full-time workers to live here.

And who makes less than $14.50/hour? In 2015, about 25,000 people did. Typical occupations where the median wage was below $14.50 include the ones shown below.

Food Preparation and Serving Cashiers Office Clerks, General
Office and Administrative Support Dishwashers Janitors and Cleaners
Food Preparation and Serving Retail Sales Hotel/Motel Desk Clerks
Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners Security Guards Cooks, Restaurant
Transportation and Material Moving Counter and Rental Clerks Landscaping/Groundskeeping
Cleaners of Vehicles and Equipment Packers and Packagers Tellers
Stock Clerks and Order Fillers Lifeguards Healthcare Support
Receptionists and Information Clerks Waiters and Waitresses Personal Care and Service
Auto Service Technicians and Mechanics Construction Laborers Office Clerks, General
Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers Laundry and Dry-Cleaning Farming, Fishing, and Forestry
Computer User Support Specialists Building/Grounds Maint. Maintenance, Machinery
Refuse/Recyclable Material Collectors Medical Secretaries Taxi Drivers and Chauffeurs
Shipping, Receiving, and Traffic Clerks Sales and Related Education, Training, and Library
Customer Service Representatives Personal Care and Service

According to U.S. Census data, roughly 600 Dare County households have a net income at or below $20,000 (about $13.50/hour). More than 90% of those households pay in excess of 30% of their income for rent. Nearly as troubling is that 80% of households making as much as $20,000 to $35,000 paid at least 30% of their income for rent.

Rental gap + income gap = A risky future

When all the preceding data are put together, a clear picture emerges of just how unaffordable it is for Dare County workers to live here. And for those who can’t live here, the picture can get worse. Indeed, evidence from research on rural areas suggests Dare’s lack of affordable rental housing is forcing people to live either in substandard conditions or beyond their means.

Low wages and a lack of affordable housing are driving a large segment of Dare’s workforce to live hand-to-mouth or in deplorable conditions, constantly strained by the prospect of losing precious income or even jobs.

Living in substandard housing contributes to higher levels of stress and poor health. That, in turn, increases the likelihood that the working poor will get sick (or have a sick family member to tend to) and miss work. Missing work further reduces workers’ income and could lead to job loss. It is a spiral that keeps low-wage workers living on the brink of failure.

Commuting long distances also means paying extra for gas and vehicle maintenance. To minimize those costs, many long-distance workers use less reliable means of transportation—an acquaintance’s vehicle, an old vehicle, or a borrowed one. Again, that easily leads to missed work and lost opportunities.

In short, low wages and a lack of affordable housing are driving a large segment of Dare’s workforce to live hand-to-mouth or in deplorable conditions, constantly strained by the prospect of losing precious income or even jobs.

The answers to the crisis

An article in last week’s Beacon discussed the viability of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) as a means of closing the housing gap. But the financial analysis showed that even ADUs provide little financial incentive for current homeowners to consider such an investment. Why? Because the hourly wages for thousands of workers are unsustainably low.

Dare County needs a two-pronged approach to this chicken-or-egg dilemma. Businesses need to collaborate and agree to pay a living wage that supports both their own prosperity and that of their workers. Local governments must work with citizens to change or create regulations that encourage housing options like ADUs. And lastly, the biases of some property owners toward low-income renters will need to change.

The Town of Duck is leading the way on affordable housing solutions. The rest of the towns need to follow Duck’s lead, and citizens must push them to do so. To sit by and watch the situation decline further is foolish at best and, at worst, inhumane. The time to act is now. If we build affordable housing, the rewards will come.

Related stories:
A win-win-win solution for affordable housing

Lack of workforce housing hurts OBX economy, leaves residents in the lurch


newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Lorraine Saviano

I was blessed to have been a senior citizen.
I lived in Manteo for four years.
Also lived at the Beautiful Pirates Moor
Housing in KDH .
This was affordable to me through section eight housing.
I’m living in Florida now.
I know that it was getting harder and harder for me to make ends meet.
Rents up….Food up….
I didn’t work,but I contributed to the economy in the Outer banks.
Eleven wonderful years!!!!