Paul D'Angelo is the Chair of the Cape Fear Housing Coalition. His passion for affordable housing inspired him to create The Real Households of North Carolina tour, an event on Saturday, September 9 that will bring participants in contact with 8 affordable homes and the organizations that made them possible. Listen to Paul talk about the event above, and read our extended conversation below.
The Cape Fear Housing Coalition is a collection of people, organizations, and agencies interested in expanding access to affordable housing in the Cape Fear Region. Groups involved include Habitat for Humanity, Good Shepherd, Cape Fear Community Land Trust, AMEZ Housing, Wilmington Housing Authority, Cape Fear Regional Community Development Corporation and the Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry (WARM).
The tour begins at Waterline Brewing under the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and runs from 2:00pm-5:00pm. Buses running approximately every 15 minutes will take folks to the homes on the tour. In addition to learning about the state of housing in New Hanover County, participants will find snacks at each stop provided by Whole Foods--Paul says Whole Foods is participating as a business that pays employees a living wage. There is also a party at Waterline at the end. Tickets are available online and at the event.
Paul: I am the Chair of the Cape Fear Housing Coalition and we do what's called Solution Series to educate and advocate about affordable housing. And this is one of our Solutions Series for Real Households of New Hanover County.
Gina: The first thing I want you tell me about is, what's the problem? A lot of people don't know about affordable housing being a problem.
Paul: Sure. Well, I mean, I think most people would agree that there's definitely a social problem, there's an equity problem, community problem. And in a town like New Hanover County-a county like ours-60 percent of our workers are lower income service workers basically making 10 or 12 bucks an hour. So if you look at that wage versus the housing costs here, whether it's rental or particularly homeownership, there is a mismatch. And for us something that we've really focused on at the Cape Fear Housing Coalition is the economics behind this. If you're not providing housing, whether it's rental or homeownership, for the wages you're creating in the community, you're going to have that mismatch, you're going to be pushing people out to further counties, you're going to have people that are housing cost burden, where they're spending all their money on housing and not the money on life, life's other necessities or let alone supporting our local economy. And then if you have them pushed out to another county, they're spending all their money there shopping in grocery stores, so your own municipality is losing that tax base. That extra sales money. So it's a lot of issues. I think the one thing that people don't understand it's a big economic issue.
Gina: I think some people might say, well it's better for us to have housing that will require higher incomes and let those folks who can't afford it move to another county.
Paul: Well, I would think that'd be certainly the opposite definition of community, but if you are creating a service economy in a tourism economy, a majority of your workers are going to be in that industry with that pay level, which of course we'd love to see that rise, and it would naturally push people out to those other counties. But if you're one of those people who would love a luxury home all over the place but then you're also concerned about all the traffic issues, well, you're welcoming it by not providing housing for all members of your community. And so that would be an easy thing to point out with the traffic issues. Plus, something I joke about sometimes is when did the palace model become popular? Where the country people come in to service the palace and then go back to their homes? I think that the true definition of community is a place where everyone has the chance to live, work, and play. And I think that we should be able to figure out a way to do that in New Hanover County of all places.
Gina: Do you think that there are some factors that are pushing against that vision that you have?
Paul: Well, I would hope not. I would think-I would hope- that people, if they educated themselves on this issue which is part of the point of this tour that we're going to do, but I would hope that people saw the complete picture and didn't go against the idea of having housing for everybody. I think that there's been great discussions out there. The Housing Coalition and our basic thing is education and outreach. The ad hoc committee that was done with the city accounting recently on affordable housing talked about a public outreach campaign, so we're trying to carry that flag. But on the flipside, we're not seeing a whole bunch of action yet. So hopefully we'll see a little bit more of that. Some of the recommendations from that committee. Especially the education to get more people to understand how this is a larger issue than just a housing issue. It goes beyond that. And perhaps bringing in the private sector or the public sector-those partnerships that make a difference-and looking at what other cities do, that they're doing to create affordable housing. Hopefully people will focus on solutions and not so much of the nimby-ism "not in my backyard" type of answer. That doesn't help anything, I don't think, really.
But showcasing the partnerships, we're looking at any angle that we can come up with at the Housing Coalition to push this issue into a little bit more of the light so that people take the time to learn more about it and understand its importance to our community and the importance to our neighbors. You know, your neighbor, my neighbor, everyone's neighbor, they've got a son, a sister, themselves that are in the service sector and a tourist economy. And those wages aren't quite keeping up. The big wage stories about the challenge of increasing wages, it's not happening. So how do we make all of this work? And there are solutions out there.
Gina: Tell me about The Real Households of New Hanover County.
Paul: Affordable housing can be a fun topic to learn about, I promise. But we just tried to take a pop culture title to give a little bit more of attention to a not-so-cultural issue out there of affordable housing that people pay attention to. We just came up with a clever name when we were deciding to showcase real homes in the community, real partnerships, real organizations that are out there that are preserving, maintaining, and creating affordable homes for members of our community. So it popped up that somebody said yeah, we need to tour real homes. I don't spend a lot of time watching television but Real Households of New Hanover County we thought was a great catch and we thought it would be a great tour to showcase the organizations that are out there on the ground actually building and maintaining affordable housing.
Gina: And this tour starts at Waterline Brewing.
Paul: It does. We’re going to start at Waterline. They're very gracious with opening up their space and their parking lot and everything to us. So we'll have the tour start there and then we have eight homes-we're trying to keep it simple. Hopefully we can make this an annual event. And it will be a simple tour of eight homes throughout the community and hopefully we'll be dropping people off, picking them up, so they can spend as much time or as little time as they want at each house and they'll learn a lot hopefully, too.
Gina: And how do they get there?
Paul: You can come to Waterline Brewing and park your car and buses will be there, leaving about every 15 minutes, they will take you around. But people are welcome to walk the tour, they're welcome to take their bikes around, they could start at any house they want to. Maybe one of the houses is near their home. They can walk down to, say, the AMEZ housing home and then pick up the bus, as long as they have their ticket with them-we're not going to be too particular-and they can follow us along and stop by Waterline Brewing where we'll have even more information.
Gina: OK. And what do you think people will learn? What are people going to learn by doing this tour and visiting these eight homes?
Paul: Hopefully, if we do our job right, they're going to learn that there are organizations out there that are focused on the issues of affordable housing-preserving, maintain, and creating. Hopefully the Housing Coalition, if we do our job right, can do a good job of educating people about affordable housing in our community-how it affects us socially, equitably, economically. And then the other thing we're hoping to do is showcase and put a light on the inner city community. News that comes out sometimes can shed a light that people are scared of our inner city, they don't want to go down there and that one story can take hold. I live downtown. It's a great community. It's a great, diverse community that I live in and I love it. And I think that we want to showcase that community and the opportunities there. There's a lot of affordable housing that could be rented or purchased in the downtown community. It might take some more urban pioneers. The people that are already there love the community and we're looking for more people that want t0 help create an even better community out of it.
Gina: And are people living in these homes?
Paul: In the homes that we're seeing I think there's people living in almost all of them. We do have two homes, one that's vacant by AMEZ that they are going to be selling as an affordable home, one that's being constructed by the Cape Fear Regional CDC in partnership with the City of Wilmington that they're reconstructing an older home into about three or four apartments that are going to be affordable. And then the other houses will have homes and some, people will be able to go in, others there will be a booth out front where you can learn all about that organization-what they do, and hopefully the organizations will have information about being a volunteer, how can you donate, how can you be a member of their team. Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, the Community Land Trust, et cetera.
Gina: And how did you get passionate about housing? About affordable housing?
Paul: I had a background in the service sector. And for me, I think a lot of times our service economy and our tourism are kind of like the fun fabric of our community. And back in the day when I was a little younger it wasn't so hard to make it and live near where I was working. That's getting more and more difficult with stagnant wages and increasing housing costs. I see a lot of that and what I find is-I work part time at a hotel and some of our staff sometimes doesn't have a whole bunch of extra income because of their families and everything to really go out and enjoy the community the way the tourists who come into town can enjoy the community. So, for me, the passion comes out of the fact that everybody should be able to enjoy the community.
I think people living here should be able to enjoy it just as much as a tourist who is coming in town to enjoy a weekend. And I think with the economy and the 60 percent service workers, that's getting harder and harder to do here in Wilmington because people are spending so much on housing. So that's why it's an important issue for me. People really talk about those great communities in the cities comp plan and, you know, you live, work and play. We could do a better job, I think, trying to make that a reality for everybody.
Gina: Who's on your side?
Paul: We have a lot of good advocates on our side. I've got the team at the tour behind us and I think that there are a lot of City Council and the staff at the city and I think there's a lot of community members as well. I do think on the flip side there is some misinformation maybe on other levels where they don't understand the full scope of what affordable housing means and how it equates with those wages and housing costs and that it's not just public housing or senior housing or subsidized housing, it's a bigger story than that. And I think any of our political or policy leaders, this should be on their radar and they should take the time to really try to educate themselves. We'd love to have some of the candidates for city council join us on Saturday, or regular council members. Everybody would be welcome. I think it's a great, hopefully fun, learning opportunity.
Gina: Let's talk for a second about people who are making minimum wage. Because there's a lot of minimum wage workers who are not just teenagers anymore. That's just what people are paying.
Paul: That's right. $7.25 an hour. I think it's been that way since about 2006 or something.
Gina: And those wages don't go up. So they work full time at minimum wage- what kind of housing would be appropriate for them?
Paul: Well interestingly enough, there really...there really isn't an option. There is no county in the United States of America where a worker making minimum wage can afford to rent a simple two bedroom apartment. And when it comes to a one bedroom apartment, if you're a person making minimum wage, I think there's 12 counties in the whole entire country where you can actually find a place that you could rent that is in line with the definition of "you should not spend more than 30 percent of your income on housing cost." So back in the day I don't think that was as such a gap. But that is out there for sure now.
So asking what type of housing is available…that's a "good luck" question because it's really difficult to find that. And even in some of the statistics about doubling up your two minimum wage workers, I think 61 percent of our housing in Wilmington is still unaffordable even when you group up like that. So, that kind of data is out there to show that it's more and more difficult and actually, three quarters of the people who actually need housing assistance out there don't get it. So it's a very tight budget to get onto that waiting list for any kind of additional subsidy or any kind of tax credit housing where it's income limited. Those waiting lists can be up to a year, two, three years long. The housing authority, when they do offer like those chances and waiting lists, it will open and it will close for the following two or three years just because that money is very tight.
Not an easy solution. For us it was really important when we were partnering with the tour that we looked at some of these wages out there. So we're really happy that we're going to be working with Whole Foods for our eight houses to provide unique drinks and snacks at each one because Whole Foods is a great company that pays a living wage. So I would love to work and shop at a place like that that pays a living wage. And I think it's always great to take a look at that. Who's paying a living wage out there? Let's support them because we want to show, as a community, we support that company and that worker that pays a living wage.
There was just an article in the Charleston paper today that talked about a restaurant group down there-a larger restaurant group-that's actually going to provide a pathway to homeownership for its employees. So they're going to try to find a way to incentivize homeownership by making that part of their bonus system. Whether it's help with a down payment or putting money aside in a savings account, there are some really great innovative ideas. It just takes that conscious, compassionate capitalist to figure out a way to give back instead of take.