Welcome Home: A Room For Rent

Wilmington, NC – WHQR's affordable housing series continues this morning looking at how those barely able to make ends meet manage to put a roof over their heads.

Susan Park Hill sits in the tiny kitchen in the matchbox of a home she shares with two other people. A native of Arkansas Hill fled to Wilmington four years ago to kick a crack addiction and escape the environment that supported her habit.

I left everything, was in a strange town, missed everybody, lonely as I could be and my car broke down. So for the first time in my life I was homeless, riding the bus and that has never happened it me.

The A-C is broken so a fan in the kitchen works around the clock to keep the house cool. It's not a bad place, for $125 a week she gets a room, cable, phone and utilities. She says her rent is less than the going rate for a lot of rooms in Wilmington and the house is in better condition.

There was this one in the paper that said many extras well the many extras were the lawn mowers and the air conditioning was out

Getting to where she has a room of her own has been a struggle. Hill's spent her first month in Wilmington in recovery for her addiction. After that she bumped around town, picking up a job at Wendy's, then working at a recovery house. But it was a transitional housing program at Good Shepherd Ministry that kept her going.

My self-esteem has always been something that has held me back and they gave me strength when I didn't have it, strength to go on when I didn't want to. I don't know if I'd been alive if I didn't have that backbone.

Hill has PTSD from witnessing the murder of her husband. She also suffers from several chronic illnesses so her disability keeps her from working full time. But the $600 a month she gets for part time work at Good Shepherd keeps this roof over her head. And the same program that gave her a backbone also put her at the top of the list for Section 8 subsidy through Wilmington's Housing Authority.

With a voucher in hand, Hill can afford up to $650 a month in rent. She'll pay a third of that and HUD covers the rest.

If Hill were living in Pender County that help would be out of the question. That's because the county's housing authority closed its waiting list two years ago and only recently opened it back up.

With federal help in short supply non-profits often fill the gap - like the Interfaith Hospitality Network in Wilmington.

In 1980 someone earning the minimum wage at that time and working 40 hours would have to spend 35% of their income to rent the average two-bedroom apartment in Wilmington.

That's Interfaith Executive Director Steve Spain.

By 1990 that was up over 50%, This year, even with a dollar increase in the minimum wage that took affect in North Carolina this year, it takes 67% of a minimum wage earner's income to rent a two bedroom apartment in Wilmington.

Interfaith helps homeless families transition into permanent housing. During the day Interfaith families meet with social services and hunt for jobs. At night they sleep in spaces provided by a network of churches around Wilmington. Spain says his clients can find a minimum wage job in a day. They can save up for first month's rent and a down payment in about a month.

But making that last step out into an apartment can take months because affordable rents are in short supply.

Ann Barkley at New Hanover County's Department of Social Services says finding an apartment is only a start.

So it's not just a matter of finding a housing, it's a matter of keeping a housing you have as the rents go up.

That's why Spain says the next step for Interfaith is to buy homes and provide housing themselves.

You can't regulate what someone else will charge for rent, but you can control what you charge.

Spain says he sees housing moving father out of reach for Wilmington's working poor and expects a time when like Myrtle Beach, Wilmington find itself busing in the people who cook, clean and serve residents who can afford to either rent or own a home of their own.

Exploring Land Trusts

Interfaith is just one of many organizations in the region trying to create more affordable housing. But those groups say the skyrocketing cost of land has made their work much more difficult.

Pricey lots means charities can afford fewer parcels. The houses they do build are more expensive for their low-income clients. And when those first homeowners eventually resell, it's often at a much higher price, great for them, not so good for the overall stock of affordable housing.

In recent years, groups around the country have developed a new tool to solve this problem. It's called a land trust, and the Cape Fear region may soon be getting one of its own.

Barbara Birkenheuer, Executive Director of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, explains that if affordable housing has a cutting edge, this is it.

To put it in the simplest terms, the land is held in trust. The homeowner can live on the land, or their family, or their heirs. But they don't have to pay for it in their mortgage.

For instance, if Habitat were to start a land trust

Habitat would build its house, the same way we always do, and we would sell that house to the homeowner, the same way we always do, and they would pay a mortgage. But the cost of that house would be only the cost of the house, not the cost of the land.

Wilmington's Affordable Housing Coalition has had starting a land trust as its top priority for the past few years. They're at the lawyer stage right now - working out the complex legal details that separate houses from their dirt. Habitat for Humanity has signed on to eventually run the operation, but Birkenheuer says the land will be open for anyone to build.

Our intent is to have a community land trust, which means that Habitat could build in it, the Housing Authority could build in it, for-profit builders could build in it, as long as it was affordable housing, AME Zion could build in it. So that is the end goal that we're all reaching for.

Of course, the one thing a land trust really needs is land.

There are a couple of options. The city of Wilmington owns some land. Housing Authority owns some land. There may be a possibility there. Habitat owns a piece of land that we're willing to donate as the first land trust. It's just small, it would only be four houses, but from a Habitat perspective, we think that's probably a good way to start to kind of get the bugs out, if you will.

Cape Fear's Land Trust may still be a way off, but Birkenheuer says it's already having an effect.

We're talking with a family in town who might be interested in donating a tract of land heretofore that they had not been interested in donating, but because of this concept, they may consider doing that.