Extreme Housing Conditions: A Crisis in Affordable Rental Housing

by William Rohe, UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies

Decent, secure, and affordable housing is a fundamental need, but finding such housing is increasingly difficult, and it’s not just an urban or rural problem. An interactive map the Urban Institute recently produced illustrates that this dilemma reaches every county in the nation.

The story is no different in North Carolina, where we face a statewide crisis in affordable rental housing. A quick scan of recent news stories in North Carolina—from Greensboro, Wilmington, Cary, Winston-Salem, and Charlotte—shows that inadequate facilities, affordability, and overcrowding in rental housing is a widespread and diverse problem.

Subpar housing conditions in Raleigh, North Carolina (Google Street View).

A recent story in the Triad City Beat about a Winston-Salem apartment complex describes extreme housing conditions where tenants lack adequate facilities: “Carlice Roberts-Braddy, who has lived at Rolling Hills for five years, discovered a leak in her kitchen faucet pipe when it started dripping on her ankle. When workmen removed it last week they found that it was coated on the inside with black gunk. Due to their water being turned off, Roberts-Braddy and her family are currently using a vacant unit—shared with other deprived families—to access water for bathing and washing dishes. On top of that, their oven has been out of commission for three months. ‘We’re spending a lot of money that we don’t have on fried food that is not healthy every day for four grandchildren that are under the age of 6,’ Roberts-Braddy said. ‘We’re losing food because the seal on the refrigerator doesn’t work.’”

A stark example of cost burden can be seen in this article from the Wilmington Star News: “A (New Hanover County affordable housing) committee report said a third of home owners and nearly half of renters in New Hanover—a total of 32,000 households—pay more than 30 percent of their gross income for housing, ‘also known as cost burden.’”

A detail from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies’ interactive statewide map shows severe housing conditions in and around New Hanover County, North Carolina (Wilmington).

A recently released study by the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Extreme Housing Conditions in North Carolina, looks at the data behind this crisis. By ‘extreme,’ the study’s authors mean having relatively high levels of at least two of the following three indicators: severe housing cost burden, overcrowding, and the lack of complete kitchen and bathroom facilities.

Analyzing data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the Center for Urban and Regional Studies found the following:

  • Census tracts with extreme housing conditions were found in 46 of North Carolina’s 100 counties and in all regions of the state.
  • In 2013, more than 377,000 (or 28.2 percent) of the state’s rental households experienced severe cost burdens, were overcrowded, or lacked critical facilities.
  • The number of severely cost–burdened households increased by 53,737 (or 22.5 percent) between 2008 and 2013.
  • In eight census tracts, over 60 percent of renter households were severely cost burdened, with the highest percentage being 77.4 percent in a Wake County tract.
  • The number of overcrowded households increased by 20,437 (or 45.4 percent) between 2008 and 2013.
  • In six census tracts, over 30 percent of renter households were overcrowded, with the highest rate being 53 percent in a Wake County tract.

The housing problems described in the report also increase public health care costs and reliance on social support programs and lower productivity. The study’s authors suggest that combined efforts of state and local governments are needed to reverse the negative trends in housing affordability and overcrowding and improve the quality of life and economic productivity of North Carolinians.

Although the state funds the North Carolina Housing Trust Fund and administers federal programs such as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and the HOME Investment Partnerships Program (HOME), more needs to be done to improve and expand affordable rental housing. The most important action the state can take is to increase its contributions to the North Carolina Housing Trust Fund, which is used to produce quality affordable rental housing.

Local governments also have important roles to play. The larger ones receive Community Development Block Grant and HOME funds directly from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, but they also need to develop and fund their own housing programs. Some North Carolina municipalities and counties have created their own housing programs and funded them with general tax revenues, general obligation bonds, or the donation of publicly owned land.

Charlotte’s WBTV reported on one large metropolitan area’s local solution: “Building 5,000 affordable housing units spread across the city in three years won't be easy. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership CEO Julie Porter understands the challenge all too well. ‘I think Charlotte solutions will have to be at the Charlotte level and we're going to have to figure it out ourselves,’ said Porter.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership’s Brightwalk community is a public-private initiative with single-family homes, townhomes, and affordable apartments.

Local governments can also address critical housing conditions through regulatory strategies, such as increasing land zoned for multifamily housing, offering density bonuses for affordable housing developments, reducing development fees, and streamlining approval processes. Finally, local governments can improve the condition of existing housing by strengthening and enforcing minimum housing codes.

Beyond providing shelter from the elements, affordable housing provides a platform for undertaking other critical activities of life, such as obtaining an education, finding and retaining employment, and maintaining physical and mental health. Without such housing, it is difficult to have a fulfilling life and to be a productive member of society.

The full report can be read here.

William Rohe, PhD, is director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.