“I have no idea what we’re going to do”: Housing shortage leaves NC low-income renters stymied

Julia Stokes and her daughter moved into the Helen Wright Center, a Raleigh shelter for women experiencing homelessness, late last year after a family dispute left them without a place to live.

With a monthly income of just under $1,900 — a combination of survivor’s benefits for Stokes and federal assistance for the daughter who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair — Triangle-area rents are well out of the reach for the 70-year-old caretaker.

“You tell me, because I don’t have the answer,” Stokes responded when asked if she knew of a place where one could live on her monthly income. “That’s why this is so frustrating. I take two steps up, and two steps backwards.”

Daunting numbers

A recent North Carolina Housing Coalition report found that 48% of North Carolina renters — 604,365 households — have difficulty affording their rents. As set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, fair market rent in North Carolina is $1,083 per month, 38% higher than it was five years ago. That amount would consume more than half of Stokes’s income.

Stokes, who has been on waitlists for subsidized housing in Durham and in Butner for more than a year, is among a large and growing group for whom the price of housing is not just burdensome, but prohibitive.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s recent report — The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes — found that there are 326,751 extremely low-income households in North Carolina but only 130,930 affordable rental homes available to them.

That means there are just 40 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income households in the state. Seventy-one percent of extremely low-income renters in North Carolina spend more than half of their household income on housing.

a map of the U.S. shows the availability of affordable housing for extremely low-income households by state
 Source: National Low-Income Housing Coalition 

“Our state and counties’ need for affordable housing isn’t going anywhere. It’s growing,” Stephanie Watkins-Cruz, director of housing policy at the NC Housing Coalition, said in a news release to share the report. “But it is disproportionately carried by those earning low or extremely low incomes. And this hurts the health, wealth, and resiliency of our communities. We need greater investment in housing to meet the scale of the true need.”

Extremely low incomes are defined as those below the federal poverty line or 30% of a local area’s median income. The 2024 area median income for Raleigh is $72,996. Thirty percent of the area median for Raleigh is $21,898. Meanwhile, the federal poverty line for a family of two is $20,440.

Stokes’s income places her below the federal poverty line and well below the area median income in Raleigh. According to The Gap report, 31% of the nation’s extremely low-income renters are senior citizens like Stokes. More than a third of low-income renters are also low-wage workers. Eighteen percent have a disability and 7% are students or single-adult caregivers.

Across the country, the authors of The Gap report found that there is a shortage of 7.3 million rental homes affordable and available to renters with extremely low incomes. Extremely low-income renters face a shortage in every state and major metropolitan area.

“I’m not the only one out here looking for affordable housing,” Stokes said.” I know how hard it is, and there are many people out there looking for affordable housing, a place to stay.”

Nationwide, the shortage of affordable rental housing is more acute than it was before the pandemic. Between 2019 and 2022, the shortage of affordable and available rental homes for extremely low-income renters increased by over 480,000.

The Gap report provides in-depth analysis of the nation’s top 50 metropolitan areas. Here is a snapshot of what researchers found in North Carolina:

  • The Charlotte metropolitan area has 70,498 extremely low-income households, and a gap of 45,765 available and affordable units.
  • The Raleigh metropolitan area has 37,297 extremely low-income households, and a gap of 23,357 available and affordable units.
  • The Virginia Beach-Norfolk-northeastern North Carolina metropolitan area is also rolled into the report. There are 57,818 extremely low-income households, and a gap of 42,532 available and affordable units in that area.

Black, Latino, and Indigenous households are disproportionately extremely low-income renters and disproportionately affected by the housing shortage. Nineteen percent of Black households, 16% of American Indian or Alaska Native households and 13% of Latino households are extremely low-income renters, compared to only 6% of white non-Latino households.

The authors of The Gap report concluded that the private market “has not, and will not, serve the lowest-income renters because the cost of providing affordable housing outweighs what the lowest-income renters can pay.”

“While state and local governments have an important role to play through zoning reform and housing support funding, solving our affordable housing crisis requires sustained and strengthened federal investment in affordable housing solutions that are tailored to the needs of renters with the lowest incomes,” the report’s authors wrote. “With the supply of affordable and available rental homes worsening, Congress must recognize the urgent need for expanding our supply of affordable rental housing, preserving the supply that already exists, and providing short-term assistance when financial crises hit vulnerable households.”

A statewide problem

Higher rents in urban areas such as Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh and the state’s other cities have been thoroughly documented. It’s worth nothing that renters in small, rural cities and towns such as New Bern in Craven County are also feeling the pinch.

Dinah Foskey
 Dinah Foskey (Photo: Facebook screenshot) 

Dinah Foskey has become a leader in the fight for tenants’ rights in Craven County. She was in despair this week when she spoke with Newsline about the challenges renters with extremely low-income have finding decent, affordable housing in New Bern.

April hasn’t been a good month, said Foskey, an unemployed mother of four, who also cares for two grandchildren. She explained that she lost her job at a health clinic earlier this year after the owners moved away.

“I woke up this morning and my car insurance was canceled,” Foskey said. “Then on top of that, I actually had to reach out to resources to get help with my electric bill. I am struggling and when I say struggling, I mean tremendously.”

In June, Foskey could find herself in an even tighter financial pickle. She faces a rent increase that could push her monthly payment from $1,350 to $2,085 for a four-bedroom house that she shares with her children and grandchildren.

Foskey’s federal Section 8 voucher is worth only $1,000 per month. She would be responsible for paying the difference. Currently, Foskey receives $104-a-week unemployment check.

“I have no idea what we’re going to do [when the rent hike goes into effect],” Foskey said. “If they [landlords] continue to raise rents, everyone is going to be homeless, everyone who doesn’t have money.”

Cynthia Herson
 Cynthia Herson (Courtesy photo) 

In Winston-Salem, Cynthia Herson has been at the center of the fight for tenants’ rights. She frequently attends city council meeting to advocate for affordable housing.

By today’s standards, the city-owned apartment she occupies isn’t expensive. Herson pays just $420 a month. She has a monthly income of $1,132 a month, which is a combination of federal Supplemental Security Income and money she earns at a part-time job.

But next year, Herson and the other tenants of the affordable housing units on Willie Davis Drive will have to move out while the city renovates the apartments and makes repairs.

Herson worries that after the repairs, the modest rent she enjoys will increase. “You can’t expect to do repairs or renovate without a cost increase,” said Herson, who has asked the city to pledge to keep the rents the same after the renovations. “We’ve only got another year here before I believe they’re going to go up on our rent.”

a graph compares the housing cost burden for different racial and ethnic groups
 Source: National Low-Income Housing Coalition 

If rents are raised, Herson said she’ll have to find someplace else to live.

“I’ll have to move in with my daughter,” Herson said. “That would be my only solution unless I found a senior place, but I don’t know how that would work.”

Julia Stokes often thinks about how her life might be different if her husband had not died. His death, she said, led her and their daughter down a path to homelessness.

“He left us in this situation,” Stokes said, acknowledging that she sometimes gets angry at him. “If he was here, I’d still be in my house.”

The toughest thing about not having a permanent residence?

“Being a failure,” Stokes said, pausing to regain her composure. “I feel like I failed my daughter and I feel like I’ve failed myself.”

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