Can Ocracoke solve its affordable housing problem?

Nathan Law

The inside of the temporary Ocracoke School in modular units. The school is looking to fill a few teacher positions and those new teachers will need housing. Photo: C. Leinbach By Sara Teaster Last year, a group of concerned Ocracoke residents began discussing affordable housing.  After two meetings of the […]

The inside of the temporary Ocracoke School in modular units. The school is looking to fill a few teacher positions and those new teachers will need housing. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Sara Teaster

Last year, a group of concerned Ocracoke residents began discussing affordable housing.  After two meetings of the Affordable Housing Coalition, one Ocracoke family found a home as a result.

Then COVID-19 hit, adding a new set of challenges to our community, making the old problem of lack of housing much worse.

As people around the country flocked to the Outer Banks, tourism numbers surged.

Those who were able to work remotely, assisted by low interest rates, purchased homes in the north beaches as fast as they could be listed.

Homes on Ocracoke also have been selling at a rapid rate.  Houses that had been for sale for several years now have new owners.

Martha Garrish, a broker at Ocracoke Island Realty, said this year’s real estate sales market is still booming.

“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and this is the best year of my career,” she said. “It’s exceeding 2020. Our inventory is pretty low.”

People purchased homes on Ocracoke as vacation homes or to have an income generating rental. Some moved here permanently.

On a tiny island like Ocracoke where space is so limited, home prices have soared, and weekly rentals are booked far in advance.

Home sale prices everywhere are breaking records. Last month, the median national home price rose to $363,300, a rate 23% higher than June of 2020.

…our own Ocracoke School has posted about the need to find three spaces for incoming staff and teacher positions.

Lumber prices also soared during the pandemic, adding an average of $24,000 to the price of new home construction due to tariffs, labor shortages at mills and a rise in demand due to pandemic DIY projects and rebuilding from natural disasters.

The cost of living on Ocracoke also was impacted by a natural disaster.

Hurricane Dorian on Sept. 6, 2019, literally changed the village’s landscape as we lost a portion of our housing stock to floodwaters.  Many of the demolished homes were year-round residences.

Some homeowners without adequate insurance had to take on debt to repair them, causing some to transition to the weekly rental market to recover the cost of repairs.

These issues have led to a crisis.

Businesses all along the Outer Banks have been experiencing staff shortages due to the lack of workforce housing, including Ocracoke.

In a survey conducted at the beginning of the season, a majority of Ocracoke employers said they would likely experience staffing shortages over the season, citing a lack of housing for staff as a reason.

This impacts businesses’ bottom lines, as well as the visitor experience.  But it’s not just profits that are impacted by the lack of housing.  Community services are also being impacted.

A recent posting on a local message board asked for assistance in finding housing for hospital staff in Nags Head, and our own Ocracoke School has posted about the need to find three spaces for incoming staff and teacher positions.

“Long term, affordable housing has always been an issue and since Dorian it’s been even more of an issue,” said Leslie Cole, Ocracoke School principal. “We really need to look at options that we as a community can do to provide long term affordable housing.”

Dare County has the highest average teacher pay in the state, an effort to accommodate for the high cost of living.

But Hyde County is a bit different, making buying a home for a new teacher on the island nearly impossible.

As does the rest of the Outer Banks, Ocracoke Island needs affordable housing for workers. Photo: C. Leinbach

For sale on the island now is a cute one-bedroom condo for $199,000 and the next property is listed at $325,000 and they go up from there.

“Affordable” housing does not mean a free ride.

To be considered “affordable” one’s monthly mortgage or rent should not exceed 30% of gross salary.

If someone earns $40,000 a year, to live affordably, their monthly rent or mortgage should be no more than $1,000 per month.

On Ocracoke, you are lucky to find ANY place to rent.

But help may be on the way.

The American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion dollar package aimed at helping to rebuild the economy, has set aside $575 million dollars for North Carolina specifically for affordable housing projects.

These funds do not have to be used until 2026 and they don’t have to be designated until the end of 2024, which gives localities time to analyze their needs and create projects that will best serve their communities.

Each county’s allocation has not yet been set; but once that’s done each county will decide how the money will be spent.

This is an exciting prospect for the future, as funds can be used for both new construction and rehabilitation projects.

But the need right now is dire and while we can look to the future for these funds and their potential, we need to take some actions right now to address this crisis.

You may be able to help.

If you are a property owner on the island, please consider switching to a year-round rental model.  Families with children, teachers, ferry workers and restaurant staff need year-round homes.

Maybe your property is damaged still, and you need help repairing it?

The Affordable Housing Coalition can help connect you with people who may be able to do repairs in exchange for a long-term lease.

Maybe you have a garage apartment that is underutilized that you would be willing to rent out?  Maybe you are willing to list your property for sale, for an affordable value to go to someone who is ready to buy, but just can’t afford the current over-inflated market?

Please reach out to [email protected] if you own a property that might suit one of these needs, or if you would like to assist the Ocracoke Affordable Housing Coalition with projects in the future.

Sara Teaster is a member of the Ocracoke Affordable Housing Coalition.

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