By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on June 2, 2021
At their June 1 special meeting, the Dare County Commissioners agreed to ask the UNC School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative (DFI) to develop a conceptual plan for affordable housing at the county-owned Bowsertown property on Roanoke Island and possibly, the Elizabethan Inn as well. That work would also entail soliciting developers to invest in the combined project at both sites.
Back in February 2020, the commissioners hired DFI to identify potential sites in the community for such housing. At the direction of the board, the UNC group paused its work twice since then – once due to COVID-19 and a second time, according to DFI project manager Sara Odio, because the county was pursuing other affordable housing avenues.
At the June 1 special board meeting, Dare Commissioners Chair Bob Woodard seemed to express some frustration at the slow pace of progress on the housing front.
“Our board has been working on essential housing workforce housing for longer than I choose to admit,” he asserted. “I called this special meeting because, I don’t know of any other way to politely say, it’s time for us to move. It’s time for us to have a plan. It’s time for us to leave today with a consensus that we’re going to move in one direction or the other.”
“This board is going to have to have skin in the game,” Woodard added. “If we want to see this project done…it can’t be done without us spending some money.”
As part of its June 1 consensus, the board asked DFI to develop a plan that features a mix of affordable and workforce housing at the sites for renters of varying income levels. Woodard also said the board was informed that the Elizabethan Inn owners would consider selling the property for the cause.
Commissioners also asked DFI’s Odio to explore other possible sites that have recently been brought to the county’s attention – including acreage in Kitty Hawk and on Colington Island.
The June 1 meeting comes as the Outer Banks experiences a critical shortage of affordable housing, one that is significantly impacting the crucial summer workforce. And the debate on how to tackle the problem continues. During initial studies on affordable housing in Dare County, DFI found that an estimated 1,200 units were needed to meet current demand for low-income residents here.
Most recently, on May 19, the Manteo Board of Commissioners denied a zoning text amendment request by SAGA Construction and the Taft Mills Group that would have paved the way for a 72-unit complex, with a few dozen units priced under market rent, on Russell Twiford Road. The consensus of the Manteo Board in that decision was that the project was too dense for the neighborhood.
Shortly after, the two entities made an informal, but similar offer to the county at the Bowsertown site. However, the June 1 move by the board to enlist DFI essentially ends the immediate possibility of the SAGA-Taft Mills proposal moving forward.
Of her group’s mission, DFI’s Odio said, “Our primary goal is to really bridge that gap between the private sector and the public sector, so that you can get to a project that meets the public need…We’re asking you all to trust us and let’s go, let’s do this.”
DFI advises communities on attracting private investments for projects such as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) Program, which provides a tax incentive to developers to construct affordable rental housing.
“Our goal…is to really understand what’s happening on these sites that could impact costs,” said Odio, adding that DFI would also support the county during development agreement negotiations. The next steps of DFI’s work in Dare County would be to examine the physical and regulatory constraints, as well as the financial feasibility, for both the investors and the county.
County Manager Bobby Outten told the Voice following the meeting that DFI will present the county with a plan that offers the biggest bang for the buck, and commissioners will determine from there whether to proceed.
At the board’s direction, DFI will also explore other possible sites in the county. Pam Anderson, owner of Ocean Sands Canine Resort on Williams Drive, addressed the need for more affordable housing in the county during the meeting. She told the board she had four acres of land on that road that could be used for such a purpose.
Anderson told the board that she rents three units out on her property for $800 each, including utilities. “The last opening we had – we had one hundred inquiries within a matter of two hours. The people are crying, begging for these affordable places,” Anderson asserted, emphasizing that it’s important to her and her family to keep rents low.
“It’s not a matter of getting rich,” she said. “It’s a matter of investing in our community.”