The state of housing on the Outer Banks: Part Two

Published 6:50 pm Sunday, July 30, 2023

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Dare County needs an additional 2500 housing units, according to Dare County Board of Commissioners Chairman Bob Woodard.

In Part Two of our series (see Part One here), we will examine the efforts that have been made to solve the housing crisis, and how those efforts have been received. We’ll also take a look at what geographical and economic factors contribute to this problem.

The final installment will explore the effect on commerce and individuals if this issue remains unsolved.

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This article will look at both government and private efforts at affordable housing, and the factors working against additional housing.

Woodard said the county board has been actively working for about three years to provide what he termed “essential workforce housing,” or housing for the people who keep the Outer Banks going like teachers, firefighters, police officers, healthcare workers, as well as those who work in the restaurant, hotel and hospitality industry.

Dare County has agreed to contribute $9 million toward housing, and the state legislature has allotted $35 million to help build housing.

The county has attempted three projects over the last year, and has been met with obstacles each time.

In the towns of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Manteo, the county attempted affordable housing projects, but was ultimately rejected by the local municipalities.

In Nags Head, a 54-unit apartment complex was planned but the town changed their zoning laws to forbid multifamily housing until they could make adjustments that better reflected their land use plan. Neighbors and commissioners were opposed to the location of the proposed site because it was in the Historic Character Area which was designed for low-density housing.

The site selected in Kill Devil Hills was rejected by a majority of the commissioners because of the proximity to schools and the current property usage.

A Manteo location was not approved by commissioners because of complications with septic hook-ups.

“I understand those townships and their positions. I don’t criticize them. They have their rules and regulations,” Woodard said.

“We were hoping to be able to do something in those three situations but unfortunately it didn’t come to fruition … but our board is still committed to building some type of essential housing for our workforce and we’re committed to hopefully build something low income,” he continued.

As of mid-July 2023, the county had no further updates to share regarding planned affordable housing developments.

The projects proposed by the county were not Section 8. They were designed for households with low to moderate incomes, between 50 and 120% of area median income (AMI). AMI was $69,400 in July 2020 for a family of four. So, for example, a four-person household could make between $34,700 and $83,280 and qualify for the county’s affordable housing.

Woodard is concerned that if essential housing is not built soon, the $35 million from the state might be allotted to other things. “I’m hoping and praying that that money won’t go away,” he said.

There have been several attempts by private developers to build multi-family housing or cluster homes. Cluster homes, sometimes called cottage courts, are developments with relatively smaller homes arranged close together. Developers often combine the septic systems. And, of course, because these are private endeavors, the results must be profitable for the investors.

In Kill Devil Hills, a 21-unit cluster home development was approved by commissioners in June. In Wanchese, a 60-home cluster development on 10.5 acres on Old Wharf Road was approved by Dare County commissioners in May.

Though some see these developments as wins, others have criticized developers and local leaders, stating that the neighborhoods cannot sustain the added development, or that the increased traffic will change the rural feel of the area. Some just requested fewer houses.

Roanoke Island residents posted “Save our Village” signs throughout the island, protesting the Wanchese cluster home development.

While almost all Dare County residents agree that affordable housing is needed, it seems that all locations are met with disapproval from somebody, particularly neighbors of the proposed developments.

Woodard calls this the “NIMBY” epidemic – not in my backyard.

“You say you’re for housing and you want to help folks but you don’t want it in your backyard. And what you’re also saying is, I don’t mind that teacher that has a master’s degree and has been in the school system for three years, I don’t mind her teaching my child but I don’t want her living next door to me. I don’t want her to live in in my neighborhood. Man, that is really, really disturbing,” Woodard said.

For many, it isn’t the individual person living in the apartment, it’s living next door to the apartment complex itself. Some people are concerned about property values decreasing or the added traffic, noise, stormwater effect or potential crime.

There are no easy answers.

The Dare Education Foundation does have 36 total units designated for teacher and staff housing in Kill Devil Hills and Buxton. These 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartments have 1050 square feet and rent for $1050 per month. They can accommodate small families up to four people.

Ian Adams, facilities director for Dare County Schools, said there are about 20 teachers and staff on the waitlist at any given time, and there are between six and eight move ins/move outs per year.

The lease begins with one year, then goes to month-to-month with a total limit of 48 months. “The intention is that they use those four years to locate a more permanent housing situation,” Adams said. “Part of the original drive to create these units was for recruitment and retention.”

A look at the Dare County Schools website shows 58 current openings for teachers, assistants, maintenance and administrative positions.

“We are by no means at a critical level of staffing currently,” Adams said, “but housing is a constant challenge.”

The housing boom and subsequent rental crisis is not just an Outer Banks problem. Cities and towns throughout the U.S. are facing similar situations.

However, the Outer Banks is unique because of three reasons.

First, the geography of the Outer Banks makes commuting from farther away difficult. There just aren’t that many other options that are within driving distance. Manns Harbor and southern Currituck County have very few options, and places like Elizabeth City or northern parts of Currituck are over an hour away.

Second, the tourism-driven economy of the Outer Banks has created a void of rentals because landlords can make so much more money by renting out units weekly.

Third, approximately 85% of land in Dare County is owned by the state or federal government (source: Public land like Jockey’s Ridge State Park, The Wright Brothers National Memorial, Ft. Raleigh Historic Site, Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge comprise extensive land masses throughout the county. These protected lands are appreciated by locals and visitors alike, but they are, of course, unbuildable.

Much of the wide-open spaces seen throughout the Outer Banks are either government owned or marshland.

Ultimately, there is very little land available throughout the county that would make for a suitable option for essential housing projects.

Further, within the six municipalities of Dare County (towns of Southern Shores, Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head and Manteo) the county does not have jurisdiction over planning and zoning. The county can only make building decisions in the unincorporated areas, which include Hatteras Island, unincorporated areas of Roanoke Island, Colington and the Dare County mainland.

Even if the county could find a location for 50 or 100 housing units, it would not come close to the 2500 estimated units needed.

There are some that don’t want Dare County to develop. If we’re honest, a lot of people feel this way. We love the wooded lots and quiet roads.

So what happens if we just do nothing? We’ll take a look at that in Part Three; check back tomorrow.