Housing issues

The North Wilkesboro commissioners want more owner-occupied and less renter-occupied housing in town, based on the belief that people take better care of the homes they own and live in.

Maybe so, but there is a great need in North Wilkesboro and all of Wilkes County for a bigger supply of both rental and owner-occupied housing that is affordable and in decent condition. Particularly with the right incentives from the Town of North Wilkesboro, there should be good opportunities to invest in housing in the town.

The town board talked about substandard housing issues and what to do about them during a day-long retreat at town hall on March 3.

Their discussion focused on code enforcement and financial or other aid, both promising strategies for addressing problems that worsened as the economy did the same. North Wilkesboro is better equipped now financially to improve the housing situation and the town’s appearance because of the lease of the town-owned hospital to Wake Forest Baptist Health Systems.

Census stats for 2015 in the town’s long range plan indicate a disproportionate percentage of rental housing. They show renters accounting for 62 percent and owners for 38 percent of the town’s 1,555 occupied housing units, but the renter-occupied percentage is somewhat skewed by public housing. The town’s 958 renter-occupied housing units include 192 low income rental apartments in North Wilkesboro Housing Authority complexes, which Town Planner Sam Hinnant said generally stay occupied. He said 482 people live in these apartments, which is about 10 percent of the town’s population.

The stats show that 15 percent of North Wilkesboro’s 1,820 housing units of all types were vacant in 2015. Nationwide, 11.3 percent of housing units were vacant in 2017. High vacancy rates in North Wilkesboro aren’t due to new houses coming on the market, even though new residential construction is on the rise here.

The 265 vacant housing units in North Wilkesboro include about 125 in bad enough condition to be considered derelict.

The board discussed more vigorously enforcing the town’s housing code, with particular focus on owners of substandard rental units to encourage them to either make repairs or sell – and selling could put these units in the hands of people who would live in them. More town staff may be needed if more stringent enforcement is the goal.

Incentives, such as low interest loans, could be offered to help owners make interior and exterior repairs to dilapidated homes. The town could fund and manage a revolving low interest loan program to provide this financing.

Commissioner Angela Day suggested a revolving low interest loan program when she campaigned in the last election. North Wilkesboro Town Manager Larry South said Hillsville, Va., had a similar program when he was manager there. South said loans were up to about $15,000 and were made for a maximum of 10 years.

Commissioner Debbie Ferguson said a revolving home loan program is among initiatives recommended for North Wilkesboro in the Raising Places initiative, funded with a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant to the Health Foundation Inc.

It was stated during the retreat that just a few individuals own most of the single-family rental housing in North Wilkesboro, and much of what they own is substandard. The same is true in Wilkesboro. If these owners don’t want to sell, they should have a chance to use the revolving loan fund to help provide better quality rental housing.

Ferguson talked about the town buying vacant lots in North Wilkesboro’s interior and offering incentives for building homes on them, including by partnering with builders and lenders. This could be a way to help attract young adults.

Commissioner Joe Johnston rightly observed that the close proximity of houses to downtown North Wilkesboro is a tremendous asset, but many are rental and Johnston spoke for efforts to get them converted to owner-occupied.

Ferguson said the town is plagued with substandard rental housing, but simultaneously there is a desperate need for market rate rental housing in decent condition.

Anyone who has looked for moderately-priced housing in reasonably good condition, for rent or for sale, can tell you the supply is far too small in North Wilkesboro and Wilkes County.

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