North Carolina is a beautiful state. It has ample open space and homes surrounded by lovely woods. It is strong economically, business friendly, rich in job opportunities, and still relatively affordable. World-class universities like Duke, University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University, help attract businesses seeking a talented workforce.
But how long before the crucible of housing, or unhousing, ensnares North Carolina as it did California?
North Carolina’s strengths attract expatriates.
North Carolina is among the fastest growing states in the nation, as new arrivals pour in seeking jobs and lower living costs. Since 2010, North Carolina’s population grew by 9.7%, compared to the overall U. S. population growth of 7.4%.
New arrivals need housing, like everybody else. In North Carolina, growth in new housing production since 2010 has been around 8.8%. The 0.9% shortfall, predictably, has caused housings costs to rise. Since 2010, home prices have increased by 31.5%, and rents by 14.6%.
Some benefit, some don’t
Such significant increases in home prices provide benefits to current property owners and landlords. Meanwhile, house hunters are thrown out of housing markets and renters often out of rented homes. Eventually, disadvantages of increasing housing costs overwhelm the middle class. Then, we see the rise of “U cities” that become home for the rich and the very poor. Anyone in the middle who can afford to do so, departs.
In California, the economically-comfortable class easily outbids the lower-income middle class, gentrifies older communities, and pushes residents out of neighborhoods. Some residents slide into homelessness, some into dependency on subsidies, and many are trapped into immobility by rent control (move, and your rent might shoot up 100%).
So, just build?
Just build more housing, one might say. That is not at all an easy feat. In North Carolina, as in many other states, planners and policy makers face a litany of challenges in their quest to reach the holy grail of “equitable, affordable housing.” Here are some of these challenges:
Societal challenges like differing needs and often unwarranted fears make housing development difficult. Current homeowners, used to their tree-lined single-family neighborhoods, do not want changes in zoning that allow for density. But priced-out house hunters would welcome any hope of density creating affordability. Residents of affluent and peaceful neighborhoods fear intrusion by the working poor dreaming of safety and good schools for their kids.
Political challenges also impede housing construction. Leaders desire economic growth; therefore, they focus on welcoming new business, job creation, and population growth. But they thread lightly when it comes to developing homes for new workers, since their more established and economically comfortable constituents resent incursions into their neighborhoods.
Self-determination challenges are not often brought up in housing discussions. North Carolina, unlike California, has not yet felt the brunt of state and regional housing mandates. Chances are it will, if cities and counties do not find satisfactory ways to provide enough construction to house the state’s growing population.
We say, “Sorry we are full?”
Even if local leaders are willing to let old neighborhoods be, there are higher powers that might want to prevent that course of action.
North Carolina is governed by the Dillon Rule, with limited Home Rule. In Dillon Rule states, cities derive their power from what the state chooses to grant. That includes how much decision-making in housing development the state grants its cities.
Also, states must abide by The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962. Included in that Act is the creation of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs). Under the Act, all urbanized areas with 50,000 or more in population must join an MPO. North Carolina has 19 MPOs scattered around several regions of the state.
The original intent of MPOs was to coordinate transportation funding between regions. Today, the functions of MPOs include housing development. Recently, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (Public Law 117-58 11/15/2021) further codified housing as a purview of MPO’s. The Act makes several changes to include housing considerations in the metropolitan transportation planning process, including:
“Within a metropolitan planning area that serves a transportation management area, permitting the transportation planning process to address the integration of housing, transportation, and economic development strategies through a process that provides for effective integration, including by developing a housing coordination plan. [§ 11201(d)(5); 23 U.S.C. 134(k)].”
MPOs in California serve as cautionary tales. The San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), for example, is a behemoth agency with significant powers over housing development. The challenge for residents and voters is that MTC’s decision-making Commissioners are not elected to their MTC positions by the residents who they supposedly serve. No matter how harebrained their plans are, there is no way to kick them out of their positions.
North Carolina’s MPOs have not come close to exhibiting the power of MPOs in large California regions. Therefore, residents have not yet felt the impact of major housing mandates.
Growth is here and cannot be ignored
There is no denying that North Carolina is going through a population explosion. Legislators and other leaders are happy with the arrival of new job-creating companies. They are also happy with the influx of new residents that will help increase the state’s representation in the U.S. Congress. Their glee could be relatively short lived if they do not handle growth well. Growth involves numerous variables and cannot be solved by merely trying to match supply to demand.
Newcomers need realistically priced homes, so does a well-functioning market – nobody wants a way overvalued housing market that will surely correct with a plunge. Established residents love their single-family homes in tree-filled neighborhoods. Housing developers can be persuasive in calling for changes in zoning and building standards. When zoning changes, there will be homeowners that will sell their homes to developers at very good prices.
Once, California was a beautiful state. It was a destination state, just like North Carolina is today. Now, folks cannot leave the state fast enough, as they escape high taxes, astronomical housing costs, uncontrolled homelessness, and unsanitary cities. What happened?!
Some will say the rich refused to pay their fair share of taxes, so programs could not thrive. Others will say housing costs rose so much that people became homeless (and drug addicts as well). Others will say voters willingly chose ill-conceived proposals.
The latter is closer to the truth. And many of the ill-conceived ideas related to housing. Mandated affordable-housing allocations resulted in gentrification and no affordable housing. Piles of money allocated to housing non-profit organizations resulted in a thriving homeless industrial complex. Destruction of old neighborhoods to make room for development contributed to the rise of a serious missing middle.
Had voters and leaders handled growth by consensus of all residents, not just consensus of the elite and the government-dependent (those that enrich the bureaucracy), things would have worked out better. California has huge areas of protected open space where no housing development is allowed. Open space is great, but it remains pristine at the expense of destruction of established neighborhoods. Once there is enough destruction, people start voting with their feet.
Forewarned is forearmed. North Carolina can prosper while retaining its quality of life by handling population and housing growth wisely.