The Search for Affordable Housing: The Bowsertown Saga
By Outer Banks Voice on September 25, 2021
By Sandy Semans Ross | Voice of the outer banks
(Second in a two-part analysis)
In 2005, buying a home in Dare County became an issue as prices rose steadily, leaving many looking to buy homes.
The short-term rental market accelerated, moving into areas previously designated for year-round rental of apartments. Since state lawmakers refused to allow short-term rentals as commercial, ratings were based on what all properties were being sold for, which increased the cost of all properties.
To address the housing problem, Dare County officials met to develop a plan of action.
The Dare County Board of Commissioners’ Affordable Housing Committee (AFC) met in July 2005. The subject of discussion was the acquisition of two properties in Bowsertown, Roanoke Island, by the county from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission to Dare. had been transferred county and approved by the NC Council of State.
The plan was to build houses on the property with the county retaining ownership of the land but transferring the structures to the buyers. The houses could be resold, but with some restrictions in determining the sales figures. Owners would gain equity, but not the amounts that appear in the private sales markets.
In October 2006, Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, chairman of the committee, Commissioner Richard Johnson, and district planners Ray Sturza and Donna Creef met with Bill Parker, chairman of the Manteo Planning Board, Manteo Town Manager Kermit Skinner and Erin Trebisacci, the town planner.
The result of the meeting was a list of information the city needed before Manteo would consider annexing the Bowsertown property so it could be connected to the city’s sewer system. About a year later, the Affordable Housing Committee met with Community Development Corporation (CDC) chairman Bob Muller to advance plans for the housing estate the CDC was then leading.
In July 2008, Muller notified the committee that Dare County’s Ben Cahoon had been hired on the project. The Dare County Capital Improvement Committee, which had been briefed on the project, expressed general support for the project and preferred a three-phase construction approach. Cahoon presented a site plan in which two-bedroom units were approximately 1,000 square feet and three-bedroom units were approximately 1,200 square feet.
However, efforts to have the Manteo property annexed so that it could be served by the city’s sewers failed mainly because of concerns about the system’s ability to handle the project and still meet the needs of existing landowners in the city. The project stalled in 2008 due to budget cuts in the county caused by the Great Recession of 2008-09.
Dare County’s 2009 Land Use Plan, approved by District Commissioners in December 2010, also addressed the lack of affordable housing in Dare County.
The document points to the economic slowdown in 2008-09 and also predicts that many homes will be opened for rental, which could alleviate the need for affordable housing. What it did not expect was the replacement of more traditional size houses with very large houses that were rented out as tourist apartments.
The CDC continued to operate until 2012 before filing for bankruptcy due to a lack of sustainable funding. In addition to supporting some affordable housing projects, the group also built a large building with offices for nonprofits and apartments for Outer Banks Hotline customers.
In 2016, the county canceled the Bowsertown project.
But turn the calendar forward a few years and now the county has turned to the UNC School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative (DFI) for help. The program started in early 2020 by identifying housing needs and opportunities to complete projects. Two objects come into consideration for the apartments.
The thought of building houses to buy is over; the effort is instead to get a developer to build homes on the county’s Bowsertown property and Elizabethan Inn. There are tax credit programs that the property developer could benefit from and the properties meet most of the required criteria. including close proximity to grocery stores, pharmacies, and other major businesses.
However, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, Bob Woodard, pointed out a concern: “There’s the NIMBY – not in my back yard – when it comes to higher density buildings like apartments.”
And since the land of Bowsertown is outside the city limits of Manteo, it would most likely need to be annexed in order for the city to drain it. Manteo city planner Melissa Dickerson said there had been no discussion of this with Manteo officials.
For his part, Dare County Manager Bobby Outten said an interested property developer would most likely contact the city to apply for annexation and to discuss zoning and building regulations.
The other property under consideration is the Elizabethan Inn in the north of the city. Most of these properties are located within the city limits and have sewerage. The DFI is talking to the developers about the renovation of the building in one, two and three-room apartments.
Dickerson said she had a two-hour phone call with DFI last year to clarify what would and would not work for the motel.
But cost will be one of the determining factors, and Outten said the county and landowners have not yet discussed how much the property would cost to buy even though they are interested in selling it.
The county recently hired an experienced architect to create site plans for both parcels so that DFI can present something to potential developers.
When the DFI can find a developer interested in either property, claim the tax credits and take care of all the other points, the county has to decide how much in subsidies to pay to the company.
When the projects become a reality, the rent for each unit will be based on the applicant’s salary. The upper limit is approximately $ 39,000 to qualify for any of the units.
DFI reports that 60 percent of the 2,300 low-income residents who rent Dare County spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. The DFI also announces that at least 1,200 additional rental units will be needed to meet the existing demand.
“The rents are set based on income and cannot be changed to market prices, so the developer has to know that he can make money,” said Outten. “The county has to determine how much subsidy it can pay to the developer that enables it to work for it.”
“It’s complicated,” he added.