The quest for affordable housing: Why the numbers don’t work

By on September 24, 2021

By Sandy Semans Ross | Outer Banks Voice
(First in a two-part analysis)

Sheriff Doug Doughtie: “Many of our employees drive in from other counties.” Commissioner Ervin Bateman: “It’s kind of crazy, A fireman making $50,000 can’t afford to buy a $300,000 home.” (Sheriff Doug Doughtie file photo credit: Edward L. Mullins)

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. 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.”


How we got here?

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.


A success story in teacher housing

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.

Second in a two-part analysis: The quest for affordable housing: The Bowsertown saga | By Sandy Semans Ross | Outer Banks Voice


  • zarina

    While all that was written is true, the bottom line is greed and lack of planning.

    Friday, Sep 24 @ 12:46 pm
  • Lillie

    “Wannabe tenants” to the teacher housing connotates something negative. Most people on the list literally cannot afford to accept a job with Dare County Schools unless an apartment opens up. If you want to be able to attract decent teachers to this county, housing MUST be available. Unlike many professions, Dare County can’t choose to pay teachers more to offset the cost of living.

    Friday, Sep 24 @ 1:34 pm
  • Breynn

    This is fantastic information and continues the conversation forward. I would like to know what firefighters are making $50,000 a year. This whole situation just stacks. Two income housing demands child care and youth left alone after school…a need for after school care or sports activities but no adults available to fill those positions because everyone is working. Idle youth get in to trouble and then possibly drugs. Children being moved around constantly as seasonal housing is not available to year round residents in the summer. Students consistently changing school districts. The whole thing just spirals and snowballs. The further you live from your job the increased risk in absences and late arrivals. Added stress of the commute and cost of fuel and maintenance. Forcing employers to over pay substandard employees. Lots of solutions needed or many layers of hurdles.

    Friday, Sep 24 @ 1:42 pm
  • Nosy obxer

    To raise the federal government’s housing assistance program to above the middle class 67K salary , one must vote blue. Enough said. Just look at the bills the GOP majority passed in 2017 only one and it was a corporate tax cut from 35% to 21% when they were asking cut to 28% . Why? The middle class got the shaft and stuck with yearly increments of higher taxes. Pay attention folks.

    Friday, Sep 24 @ 1:50 pm
  • Travis

    This again.

    The chosen political party of every person quoted in this article has steadfastly pushed back against raising the minimum wage and the GOP is rarely accused of being “employee friendly” in any form or fashion. They play the merry game of crying out for affordable housing but continue to pay wages that are not only inadequate for this area but which also allow their workers to be essentially subsidized by the government through assistance programs paid for by taxpayers. Of course to round out the hypocrisy, the QOPers then vigorously oppose the aforementioned assistance programs for promoting laziness and reliance on handouts.

    County wages have been held in check for over a decade by elected officials who hail from (checks notes) the Republican party. Were wages crap when the board was Democratic? Mmmm….debatable. But let’s just say for the sake of argument they were. So is the Republican excuse that they are no worse than the Dems or that they can not muster the courage to do better? Given the stated political philosophy of the QOP, there’s a fair argument to be made that they simply don’t want to bring salaries in line with the actual cost of living here.

    Friday, Sep 24 @ 2:08 pm
  • Otis

    Why is local government responsible for addressing housing, except for those who work for local government? Aren’t the employers ultimately responsibility for this ?

    Friday, Sep 24 @ 4:19 pm
  • mike honcho

    Last i saw we had a democrat in the white house and in the governors mansion. How is this a republican problem?

    Friday, Sep 24 @ 5:01 pm
  • hightider

    Recently a full time Eliz City employee went to the media to say he still could not scrape up enough money for a rental in Eliz City where more than 60% of houses are rentals. The city manager got in trouble for putting him up for 2 1/2 months in a motel for $5500. You can rent a dump here for $600-800. I cannot imagine what OBX rentals run. I am sympathetic but I also would advocate eliminating fast food establishments because until 30 years ago, they were staffed by part time workers in their teens. Now jobs traditionally for teens like fast food and paper delivery are full time jobs for unskilled adults. I see no way a completely unskilled worker can make $20 an hour especially when they will soon enough replaced by AI. The OBX has too many useless businesses that rely on unskilled labor who can’t afford to live or commute here. Teachers, firemen, LE, nurses, technicians deserve a wage that allows them to live near their work. The OBX does not need more tee shirt and souvenir shops or fast food joints. Let the owners staff those places themselves.

    Friday, Sep 24 @ 6:07 pm
  • zarina

    Mike Honcho — Don’t pretend this is a new issue. It has nothing to do with democrat/republican, unless you want to look at the county usually run by republicans. When I started vacationing here in the 70s, it quickly became an issue. They were bussing employees from inland to work at the fast food places. Lack of planning over the past 50 years! And greed — not wanting to “waste” valuable land to build affordable housing when you can build a mini-mansion and get big bucks!

    Friday, Sep 24 @ 6:18 pm
  • Charles Mills

    Thank you for this report. Very informative.

    Saturday, Sep 25 @ 6:55 am
  • George

    I know what the problem is and DMC is part of the solution. Dare Minority Coalition Inc 501c3 nonprofit a small organization started in the end of 2018 for this reason. In 2019 we present our solution but no support from local municipalities. DMC solutions will be announced by the end of this year.

    Saturday, Sep 25 @ 7:27 am
  • Kendra

    Hey, would anyone like to explain why Manteo is working on building dorms for foreign students here on educational visas. Educational visas CAN NOT work legally in the United States. These dorms will provide housing so the students may attend COA. COA isn’t a four year college, but instead of thinking of our youth or trying to help the unskilled locals get “Skilled” or use said land to build for local housing for “Workers”. Nope, locals are handed more excuses for lack of housing but again the county’s interest shows local housing is an after thought.

    Saturday, Sep 25 @ 7:31 am
  • Sandman

    Gotta love all the people talking about vote blue to fix this problem… yeah right.. this place is beautiful and if this is our worst problem then we’re doing just fine. Please don’t come here and bring your poor voting habits and ruin this place by turning into another liberal trash can. You can move right on down the road where you may flip hamburgers and live in a cheap liberal neighborhood while dodging bullets on the way to your McJob. Do not bring that garbage here.

    Saturday, Sep 25 @ 9:28 am
  • Cathy

    There’s a misconception about affordable housing (low income housing tax credit per IRC 42), which is income based housing geared to those earning 30% to 80% AMI. It was designed for low to middle income and the working class. The figure you quote relates to the loan the developer received: an agreement to cap the property at 50% or 60% AMI. But, eligible residents can earn as much as 80% AMI — but no market rents. The rents for each unit are based on household incomes. Neighbors in the same size unit might pay different rents based on the household income. The problem we have throughout the US is affordable housing is non-compliant, since greedy management companies don’t understand the properties are mandated under Federal codes, especially fair housing laws, which mandate we cannot deny affordable housing to the very people for whom it was created.

    The problem Dare County created for itself with housing is it allowed developers to build high dollar homes to accommodate the tourist industry which is only substantial for about 4 months out of the year. High home prices affect the area’s cost of living. Then, OBX which are wetland barrier Islands are at risk of erosion and infrastructure damage due to overdevelopment. Dare County did nothing to protect its residents in the name of the almighty dollar amen. The problem isn’t only with non-compliant affordable housing.

    Saturday, Sep 25 @ 9:33 am
  • HIBuxton

    County must think outside the box or there will be no workers to service the tourist. Burnout is common already. Restaurants, fishing/outdoor sports recreational supplies and artistic shops are part of OBX vacations. ADU’s make sense, tiny house communities built to hurricane standards and affordable apartments or condos. Perhaps a tax on tourist housing to support building affordable housing and a land use plan. Thank you for continuing to raise this basic human needs issue.

    Saturday, Sep 25 @ 9:50 am
  • Linda

    @Kendra, what COA dorms are you talking about? This is the first I’ve heard of them.

    Saturday, Sep 25 @ 7:55 pm
  • Kitty Haw kk er

    To Zarina, I’m not sure exactly what you do are talking about the housing problem starting in the 70’s. This beach used to be a year around long term rental machine. I cannot begin to list the places I rented over the years here as a restaurant worker. They have all fell by the wayside along with a the majority of Mom and Pop hotels and the heart and soul of this community. I am disheartened to know that my children will not be able to experience the same Outer Banks of my youth – cheap rent, work hard, play hard and travel for the winter.

    Sunday, Sep 26 @ 1:05 am
  • Louise

    @ Kitty Haw kk er, I agree with everything you said. I could have written that myself. So sad we will never get that back again. We will rely on good memories. Peace

    Sunday, Sep 26 @ 8:29 pm
  • Nate

    Is it really true that 80% of the land in Dare County is owned by government entities? That seems like a misprint.

    Monday, Sep 27 @ 9:35 am
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    It is true.

    Monday, Sep 27 @ 10:46 am
  • Economics Rule

    Everyone wants an answer and seemingly wants someone else to fund it. Those funds have to be extracted from you and your neighbors. To think that local, state or federal government has the answer is pure folly. Or to think business has some obligation to pay more than market price for labor is outlandish.

    The market has allocated the limited land for the highest return in the form of rental/vacation homes. Plan and simple.

    There is no solution for the lack of affordable housing in Dare County. Why do you think 25+ years later people are still bemoaning the lack of affordable housing in Dare County. Hopefully I will still be above ground for the 50th anniversary handwringing event for affordable housing.

    Tuesday, Sep 28 @ 6:07 am