Local stakeholders set goals, direction to tackle city’s housing issues

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 24, 2021

By Natalie Anderson

SALISBURY — Local stakeholders on Tuesday highlighted the need for a comprehensive housing ordinance, increased outreach and engagement, code enforcement and creative solutions to address housing issues in the city.

Members of the Fair Housing Commission, Housing Advocacy Commission and Human Relations Council gathered virtually for a housing retreat to strategize goals and actions related to housing. Another purpose was to clarify the boards’ missions — a shortcoming community members have voiced to city staff amid low interest in filling seats on the city’s boards and commissions.

Currently, 48%, or about 6,000, of the city’s households have a low-to-moderate income, earning less than 80% of the area median income, said Salisbury Planning Director Hannah Jacobson in a presentation Tuesday.

She added the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department defines cost burden, substandard housing, overcrowding and zero/negative income as the biggest housing problems. Jacobson said HUD discovered households with the lowest incomes, or less than 50% of the area median income, are about three times more likely to have a housing problem than those who have an income greater than 80% of the area median income.

The cost burden is by far the biggest issue, she said. Currently in Salisbury, 17% of households have housing costs that require 30-50% of their total income, while 19% face housing costs that are more than half of their income. There is currently a shortage of 1,555 units for households who earn up to 30% of the area median income, a shortage of 240 units for those earning 30-50% of the area median income and a surplus of 3,830 units for those earning between 50-80% of the area median income. Those surplus homes, however, are often in poor condition, Jacobson added.

Jacobson said though current rehabilitation programs can help with the shortage, they serve as “one tool in the toolbox.” There are currently 1,193 housing units within the development pipeline, with 88% of those within the city limits. That represents a 7% increase in citywide housing units. Of those, 957 will be market rate, while 236 will be income-restricted.

Currently, 1,631 housing units are income-restricted, which represents about 11% of all the city’s housing units.

Members collectively agreed that formulating and implementing a comprehensive housing ordinance for the city was a top priority. It’s also a priority Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins proposed at the Feb. 16 city council meeting following similar discussions during the city’s planning retreat.

The idea would be to create one go-to space that includes regulations related to fair housing, code enforcement and landlord and tenant rights.

To achieve that, members suggested creating a staff position that could oversee the ordinance creation and implementation. They also noted that providing more leadership development opportunities for members of the city’s boards and commissions would be ideal, perhaps by using resources such as the Government Alliance for Race and Equity (GARE) and the Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) program within the National League of Cities.

Included within the goal of increased public engagement is coordination with other funded programs such as the summer youth program and AmeriCorps to expand the annual Blockwork program to occur more often. The program was established in 2010 and involves a community effort each October to beautify local neighborhoods — “one block at a time,” city planner Candace Edwards said.

Partnerships with the county’s literacy program and the county library as well as more citizen connection to the Salisbury Community Development Corporation, would allow for more public awareness of the city’s housing issues. Similarly, members on Tuesday found it important to increase the city’s outreach and education of available programs and resources, provide accessible financial and housing counseling for renters and homeowners and share success stories for encouragement.

Currently, a homeless coordination strategy is in the works among city and county staff and local public service agencies, Edwards said. In January, the city council approved a 2020-21 fiscal year action plan that outlined a budget for an additional $200,221 received from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program, which is provided via the federal CARES Act. Of that grant, $40,000 will be used to establish a homeless prevention strategy.

Members at the retreat also highlighted the need for continued, aggressive code enforcement, with a goal of expanding the existing department. Currently, Michael Cotilla, the city’s code enforcement manager, works with two other officers to enforce the city’s nuisance, minimum housing and zoning codes. Those officers address parking, trash and debris violations and use contractors to mow the lawns of abandoned properties that pose a nuisance to the neighborhood in some way.

A major proposed solution to tackle the community’s housing issues is to increase the city’s supply and oversight ability of affordable housing. Members suggested unlocking abandoned properties to house the low-income population, increasing the income requirements to qualify for affordable housing and incentivizing the development of more renter-occupied housing and private action to improve housing and neighborhoods.

Additionally, community members Susan Lee and Keya Ruston noted the need for more housing opportunities for public servants such as teachers, firefighters and utility workers.

One goal was to establish a community land trust program in conjunction with programs such as Habitat for Humanity. Land trust programs place income limits on home purchasers and define an “affordable” home for their communities based on local conditions and priorities. The trust obtains land and permanently maintain ownership of it. With prospective homeowners, it enters into a long-term, renewable lease instead of a traditional sale.

Jacobson said city staff will look over the proposed goals and formulate proposals based on which responsibilities suit each of the three entities present at the meeting. Such proposals could then be presented to city council members to ultimately make any needed ordinance changes.

“We have a direction,” Edwards said.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com or call her at 704-797-4246.

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