Despite ranking as one of the geographically largest counties in the state at 754.28 square miles, Wilkes County experiences one of North Carolina’s most extreme housing shortages. This election year, affordable housing, alongside attracting industry and town-sharing agreements emerged as top speaking points for North Wilkesboro’s mayoral and commissioner candidates.
Politics, town administration, industry, and nonprofit sectors all mentioned a chicken-and-egg challenge to local economic development: should small rural towns first develop industry to attract a taxbase and workforce (consumers and employees) or first develop the necessary housing necessary to keep human capital local? From a superficial financial perspective, commercial real estate is more lucrative for local governments, while residential requires more public utilities services and yields significantly lower tax returns.
Over the past few months I’ve spent in Wilkes, I’ve witnessed throughout politics, administration, industry, and community interactions the chicken-and-egg question to development arise in discussion again and again: should small rural towns first develop industry to attract a tax-base and workforce (consumers and employees) or first develop the necessary housing to keep human capital local?
From a simplistic financial perspective, commercial real estate is more lucrative for local governments, while residential places a greater demand on public utilities and yields lower tax returns. Superficially, one could assume developing industry is the first step to development.
Yet, readjusting the lens to look at the lived experience of Wilkes residents may say differently:
Wilkesboro’s Tyson processing plant is one of the largest in the country. A significant amount of its employee base draws from global refugees and migrants flowing out of the “port” of Greenville. Yet, many of these employees don’t live in the Wilkesboro area- or even Wilkes County-settling instead in Boone, West Jefferson, or even Winston where housing is not only affordable, but simply available. These employees, in addition to many others who work in Wilkesboro/North Wilkesboro, experience lengthy commutes. The result is a lack of economic activity in town once business hours end, little demand for community goods like grocery stores, and less commitment from employees as they have less opportunity to hold stake in the local community and are prone to leaving for job offers closer to their home.
The existing lack of affordable housing poses a cyclical limitation to solutions in the case of Wilkesboro’s Habitat for Humanity. The nonprofit organization assists low-income candidates with the process of home ownership, teaching them the skills needed to be a homebuyer, acting as the lending agency, and building the home themselves. Candidates must volunteer 200 “sweat” hours directly constructing their future home. For a low-income individuals under the stress of learning the homebuying process, working at least one job, and taking care of family members, these 200 hours are a significant commitment aimed to give insight on the responsibility of home ownership. But for candidates also facing the challenge of a hour or two commute, this ask is nearly impossible. As of October 2021, Habitat Wilkesboro mentioned not yet successfully serving a non-local-commuting candidate. So even with the assistance of the nonprofit sector, accessing affordable housing remains limited to those with the financial or social capital to already be living within the nearby area.
Local conceptions of home-ownership applying only to single-family homes may further complicate the path to affordable housing. Multi-family housing units (like townhomes or apartments) can allow municipalities to provide housing at a lower cost by placing more units in the same amount of space compared to single units. Habitat is adapting to the local challenge of perception and growing housing needs with Bryant Village: an in-the-works mixed-income housing development project that aims to maximize the street’s space and sense of community by placing houses much closer to one another.
Bryant Village reminds us that we can’t lean exclusively on general theories and use isomorphic mimicry in development, strategies have to consider and develop based on the specific contexts of a space.