By Sandy Semans Ross | Outer Banks Voice on September 24, 2021
The lack of affordable housing for sale or rent in Dare County has a profound effect on many people — they include seasonal and year-round workers, the businesses and organizations that rely on them, and seniors living on the Outer Banks.
The statistics highlight the core of the affordability problem. Bestplaces.net reports that on a scale of living with 100 being the median, the cost of living in Dare County is 112 compared to 90.6 for the remainder of the state. The website reports that the median home cost here is $341,400 compared to $187,300 for the state and $231,200 nationally.
In 2016, Research Triangle International (RTI), a nonprofit research institute, did an analysis of the county’s housing issues. In that report, it was estimated that 38.5 percent of renters in the county spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
RTI reported that many of those incomes come from relatively low-paying service sector jobs. Of the estimated 19,400 workers in the county, 4,700 people were employed in accommodation and food services and another 3,700 were employed in retail. These two sectors made up 43 percent of total employment in the area. Statewide, these sectors only make up 21 percent of total employment.
Dare County also has a relatively large elderly population, with 25 percent of residents over 60 years of age while neighboring counties have an elderly population of closer to 15 percent. Many elderly individuals are no longer actively involved in the labor force and rely on modest fixed incomes which don’t increase when the rent does.
At the same time, more than 80 percent of the land in Dare County is owned by local, state and federal government entities so there is a shortage of buildable properties. And according to Dare County tax records, more than half the residential structures are for seasonal rentals.
Local governmental bodies in the county report staff shortages due at least in part to wages lower than what is needed to pay rent. Many of these workers must commute from other locations. “It’s a problem for us,” said Dare County Sheriff Doug Doughtie. “It is particularly bad for new hires who aren’t certified yet. Many of our employees drive in from other counties.”
Towns also are feeling the crunch. Kitty Hawk Mayor Gary Perry said that town has been built out so there is no place to put affordable housing projects. “We are allowing ADUs – Alternative Dwelling Units – and we’ve changed some zoning regulations to allow some building. We are just built out,” said Perry.
The municipalities also are also feeling the heat over not having affordable housing for their employees. RTI reported in 2016 that the AMI – Average Median Income – for a family of four in Dare County is $67,000, which assumes two salaries supporting the family. This is the cutoff for many government-sponsored rent programs.
The maximum AMI for an individual to be considered for such rent programs is $39,120. More than half the job openings listed by the Dare County government pay less than that, thus making them eligible for rent assistance.
Webb Fuller, Nags Head Commissioner and former town manager, said his town adopted a policy of paying all positions a minimum of $15 per hour. That is more than some local governments are paying, but $31,000 per year is still considered low income and would qualify for some types of rentals with fixed prices.
“It’s kind of crazy,” said Dare County Commissioner Ervin Bateman. “A fireman making $50,000 can’t afford to buy a $300,000 home. It’s supply and demand. Rental cottages have replaced homes and motels where some stayed in the winter.”
Fifteen years ago, the prices of homes began to soar in Dare County due largely to those purchasing houses to turn them into lucrative vacation rentals.
Houses also were being flipped – sold, increased prices and then sold again. When the market crashed, it was reported in the Dare County 2009 Land Use Plan that there was an expectation that prices would go back down to affordable levels. That didn’t happen.
At the same time, businesses that relied on foreign help in the summer were wrestling with ways to house their workers. Some employers were renting or buying homes and then charging the foreign students to stay in them. The 2009 Land Use Plan mentions the problems of employers placing too many such workers in the houses and thus causing problems for neighbors.
As the years ticked by, each summer there was more discussion about housing for the seasonal workers, but improving the situation proved difficult. And the demand for year-round rental grew while the market kept tightening up.
A four-bedroom house is easily replaced with a 12- to 20-bedroom tourist rental home. The time when many enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere of the Outer Banks created by small houses and much less traffic has been replaced by large houses that allow multiple families to share a vacation.
The increase in summer population also has attracted large box stores to replace the mom-and-pop stores of yesteryear. Many of the locally owned stores on the Beach Road have sold and been replaced with more large rentals. And many rental owners have decided to convert from year-round to seasonal tourist accommodations to make more money.
Just when it looked like nothing else could happen, almost 600 rental properties in Dare County are now appearing on Airbnb. Many are entire houses, but there also are a number of private rooms in residential houses and studio apartments added to homes.
One bright spot is that new teachers in Dare County have received some relief through renting apartments from the Dare Education Foundation (DEF). The foundation built 24 two-bedroom two-bath apartments in Kill Devil Hills, said Barbara Davidson, DEF executive director.
Opened in 2008, the apartments are rented to teachers for $850 per month. Leases are one-year and four years is the maximum that individuals may rent there. There is a list of wannabe tenants.
Davidson said that being on the list is step one if there is an opening. If a teacher is assigned a role which is underfilled, that teacher would move up on the list.
Additional apartments for teachers also have been built on Hatteras Island. Funded through the State Employees Credit Union, if there is an unfilled opening at either of the rental properties, the credit union allows rentals to other state workers. Currently, there is a Highway Patrol member and a state park ranger living there.