Severe shortages of rental and for-sale housing in Wilkes County for various income levels were identified in a five-month-long study completed in mid-August.

“There are communities where the need is heavy for some income levels or for one segment versus another. You’ve got it across the board,” said Patrick Bowen, whose firm did the study.

“That’s both good and bad. It’s good for opportunity, but it’s bad that you have such a need,” added Bowen, speaking about the study’s findings in a Sept. 22 presentation at the Stone Center in North Wilkesboro.

“There is tremendous pent up demand for affordable as well as market-rate housing” in Wilkes, Bowen told local government and business leaders at the event.

Only three vacancies were found in 871 apartments and other rental units in 22 multi-family properties identified in the study, conducted by Pickerington, Ohio-based Bowen National Research.

The 871 included 328 rental units that are market rate (non-subsidized) or allow housing tax credits in 11 complexes and 543 government-subsidized rental units in another 11 housing complexes. The tax credits are for people with 80% or less of area median income.

Among 22,487 owner-occupied houses in Wilkes, the study found only 186 (0.8%) for sale. “This is an extremely low rate and likely indicates a shortage of for-sale housing,” stated a 106-page report on the study, with additional pages of data.

Well-balanced markets normally have an availability rate of around 2-3% of all owner-occupied units in the market, it said.

Bowen is president of Bowen National Research, which has conducted thousands of housing assessments, market feasibility studies and similar work for private and public entities.

The report said another 995 rental and 1,511 for-sale residential units in diverse price ranges are needed in Wilkes in the next five years to meet needs and support growth.

“Whatever you do, housing issues should be addressed in conjunction with economic initiatives and plans,” said Bowen. “There is not a lot (in terms of housing) that would attract a business owner to come here.”

The recommendations section of the report said the county’s housing needs create a variety of development opportunities in Wilkes. These include:

• housing for smaller families, such as millennials, empty nesters and seniors. Examples of considerations include amenities for younger households and accessibility for older adults. It includes “walkability” for all ages;

• housing to encourage some of nearly 10,000 people who work in Wilkes and live outside the county to move here. “I think there is a great opportunity to try to capture some of those people and get them to stay here, but you need the housing,” said Bowen. The report said that among 22,553 jobs in Wilkes in 2017, commuters filled 44% (9,993) and residents filled the other 56%;

• rental housing with tax credits for households with incomes up to 80% of area median household income, generally earning below $47,000 a year;

• using local government funds to assist residential property owners with home repairs, bring properties up to code or help remove blight.

“Given the financial challenges often associated with development of affordable housing alternatives, local government may want to explore initiatives to help make the development of such housing more viable,” the report said. Example are gap financing, infrastructure aid, reduced development fees and density bonuses.

The report identified 30 potential sites in Wilkes, both with and without existing buildings, for all types of residential development. It recommended that the county market development potential and particular sites to developers and investors.

The report said a large percentage of older rental units and a lack of large apartment projects create opportunity for new rental housing. About 60% of rental housing in Wilkes was built before 1980 and only 6.6% in the last 20 years. Over half of the rental units are within structures of four units or less and almost a third are mobile homes.

Median residential monthly residential rents are $757 in Wilkesboro, $619 in North Wilkesboro and $682 in the rest of Wilkes. In very few instances is it above $1,000 a month.

The report said most government subsidized rental housing projects in Wilkes have a waiting list of up to 10 households.

According to Realtor records, 468 homes were sold in 2017 and 520 (11% more) in 2018. There were 524 homes sold in 2018, a 0.8% increase over the prior year’s total. The average year these homes were built is 1978.

Median sales prices were $130,000 in 2017, $149,900 in 2018 and $149,000 in 2019. The report said these prices represent the more affordable part of the market, but many of the units may have extra costs due to repair and accessibility issues.

It said homes are selling relatively fast (typically in three to four months) at virtually all price ranges in Wilkes. A little over half of estimated home values in Wilkes are between $100,000 and $299,999. The average construction date of a house on the market is 1978. Nearly three-fifths of available homes have three bedrooms, with an average size of just over 2,100 square feet.

“Residential (building) permit activity in Wilkes has declined over each of the past five years” ending 2019. “Based on our interviews with planning representatives, it was determined that there are no residential housing projects of notable size planned within Wilkes,” the report said.

Wilkes County’s population is projected to grow about 1% by 2025 (768 more people and over more 300 households) if no major economic shifts or initiatives occur. About 90% of the growth is expected outside the Wilkesboros.

Bowen said that by 2025, the age group with the most growth will be current residents 65 and older and the greatest renter growth will be households earning $60,000 to $100,000. He said this will fuel demand for maintenance-free rental housing for one or two people, but more for larger households is also needed.

Bowen cited a projected decline among people 25-34 and said this is likely due to the draw of larger metro areas.

The bulk of annual household income growth in the next five years will be in the $40,000-plus category, which Bowen said should create opportunity for higher end rental housing.

The report cited a decline in lower income households. “I don’t know where those folks are going, but affordability and availability is a challenge here in Wilkes County and I suspect some of the lower income folks are getting priced out of the market here and they can’t stay,” said Bowen.

The study was funded by the Wilkes Economic Development Corp., with $9,500; the Winston-Salem Association of Realtors and the National Association of Realtors, with $5,000; and the N.C. Homeowners Alliance, with $3,500. Wilkes EDC Board Chairman Brett Cothren introduced Bowen.

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