Finding Home: Cost-Burdened Renters Face Challenges In Rural Counties

Aug 5, 2019

WFAE's Finding Home series has primarily focused on the affordable housing needs in Charlotte, but the issue is prevalent throughout our region — urban, suburban and rural areas.

Bill McCoy of UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute set out to find out how much. He joins WFAE's "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf to discuss his findings.

Lisa Worf: So, how much is this both an urban problem and a suburban and rural problem?

Bill McCoy: Perhaps not surprisingly it is almost the same kind of problem regardless of what the setting is whether it's rural, suburban or urban. We looked at affordability based on cost burden per household. It's cost burdened if they have to pay more than 30% of their income for housing.

So, that's a variable that we use to judge affordability. And looking at that variable, one of the wealthiest counties in this region, obviously Mecklenburg County, has almost the same cost burden as Richmond County, which is one of the poorest counties.

Worf: And what are we talking about as far as percentage?

McCoy: It's about 30%.

Worf: And why the similarity?

McCoy: Well, there are obviously differences between these two places. There's a demand difference. There's a whole lot less demand in Richmond County than in Mecklenburg. It is also a cost difference.

Housing has not risen in a more rural part of this region as it has in the more urban/suburban part. But even with that, the issue of salaries not keeping up with rising or even rising just a little bit housing cost is common across all of these counties.

Worf: So, as far as renters, how common is that to be paying more than 30% in rent?

Bill McCoy of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute stops by WFAE's studios to talk about affordable housing.
Credit GREG COLLARD / WFAE

McCoy: We have counties where it's almost 60%. People are in rental situations are cost burdened. In Mecklenburg County it's not that high. In the counties surrounding Mecklenburg it's not that high — there are suburban counties. But once you get in rural areas it is.

I think the rentals are escalating no matter where you are, not like it is in Charlotte. I mean, it's through the roof in Charlotte, but wherever you are in the region they're escalating, and the salaries in particularly in the rural areas are not changing at all.

Worf: So, for Richmond County, for example, counties like that: Is part of the problem that there aren't enough rentals available, that it's mostly homeowners and single-family homes available? 

McCoy: There are a lot of single-family homes that are for rent. They are not the common kind of multifamily units that you think — you know, apartment complexes. Not really there or any of the rural counties. One of the interesting findings, I think, is that the other kind of housing, other than single family detached, in 29 of the 32 counties is mobile homes.

So mobile homes are providing the affordable housing, whatever it is, in many of these rural counties, both ownership and rental. And some of these counties, I think, I believe Chesterfield, which is a South Carolina county, has the highest number of mobile homes. It's 34%.

Worf: Thirty-four percent of all available housing units?

McCoy: Yeah.

Worf: And what's the challenge of relying on mobile homes as far as filling an affordable housing need?

McCoy: Most political jurisdictions are adding regulations about how to cite mobile homes, both single lot, where you have to have a large drain field for the sewer system, or mobile home parks. So, it's getting more difficult all along the way to do that. So, I think it will diminish over time as a part of it but then you don't see any replacement for that in the rural counties.

What are they doing to replace mobile homes or, you know, provide other sorts of affordable housing? For the most part, this region is very young when it comes to housing. In Mecklenburg County and the areas right around it — like Cabarrus, York, Iredell — over 50% of the housing has been built since 1990.

The problem is that the new housing is not for people with low incomes. It's a stretch to find a new house in what used to be called the starter home category. 

Worf: So, knowing that there are so many similarities between Charlotte's shortage and rural communities in this region, suburban communities, what do you do with that?

Credit WFAE

McCoy: Well, what I think we ought to be done with that is it the conversation that has been going on in Charlotte for two, three, five years, that conversation should be extended to include trying to get the suburban counties and rural counties all to come together to speak. Although it goes often, you know, comes and goes in Charlotte for years.

But the seriousness of it right now seems that there's more action being taken than there ever has been before. But that doesn't translate across the border to other wants of these counties.

It's particularly important for the rural counties because they've got problems, they've got many problems to start out with, and you add the affordability of housing, the loss of housing. You know, what's going to turning around for them? What's going to give them some spark to come back and be an active community?

Worf: Any ideas?

McCoy: Well, we're seeing some things. Kannapolis a building a ballpark. Gastonia's building a ballpark. High Point — it's not quite, but it's a little bit close to this region — building a ballpark downtown. Pfeiffer (University) is locating a branch in downtown Albemarle.

Richmond County's community college is locating a branch in downtown Rockingham. So, these things are occurring, and because they understand that there's got to be some critical mass there for people to be attracted back to these towns.

Towns are also, or counties are also, investing in and doing just what we talked about. The economic development group in Rock Hill and York County invested in an apartment complex in downtown Rock Hill, just to get a place for young people to live.

What I'm fearful of is that many of those things occurring are occurring in this great economic times that we have. What's going to happen when the next recession hits and the money for those kinds of things begins to wane?