By JOY CRIST
At the Dare County Board of Commissioners (BOC) meeting on June 4, Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce Board Chairman Bob Peele read a letter addressed to the BOC regarding the need for affordable housing.
“The housing crisis on the Outer Banks is real,” he said. “Help wanted signs are seen everywhere, and we hear from businesses daily about their inability to find workers. This is not just a seasonal challenge - it has become a year-round one.”
“Professional jobs go unfilled at our hospital and in our healthcare system; people are hired but can’t find reasonably priced housing options so they leave.”
This is by no means a new rallying cry.
When the BOC commissioned a year-long Economic Development study that was conducted by outside consultants in 2016, finding ways to establish more affordable housing was certainly on the to-do list for long-term goals.
And as any island local or seasonal worker will tell you, finding an affordable place to live is the hardest aspect of living here.
But the presentation of the letter, and the ensuing ideas that the Chamber of Commerce came up with via a committee’s research, rekindled the conversation of affordable housing by starting with more small-scale solutions.
“Basically, the Chamber had a three-pronged approach,” said Donna Creef, Planning Director for Dare County in a later interview. “The chamber asked for zoning changes when it came to ADUs [accessory dwelling units], duplexes, and multi-family structures.”
The complete letter to the BOC can be viewed here, https://www.outerbankschamber.com/outerbankshousingcrisis, but here’s an overview of the zoning changes the Chamber proposed that could affect Hatteras islanders:
Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)
• Amend to add ADU standards to RS-6, RS-8, R-2, R-2A, R-2B, R2-H, R2-AH, R-3, S-1, C-2, C-2-H, C-3, I1.
• Language needs to be consistent across all zoning districts that requires ADUs only be subordinate in size to primary structures and not exceed the total conditioned space of the primary use structure - with no specific size limitations. Obviously, in districts that have communities with covenants, the covenants would take precedence.
• Amend current ordinances within the County to allow ADUs in any and all districts possible.
• Remove the requirement that property owners, on parcels with ADUs, shall occupy the principal dwelling on the lot as their permanent residence.
• All other current conditions for ADUs (limit of one per lot, ADUs will not be in front yards, ADUs shall not be sold as a separate unit unless the property can be subdivided, ADUs shall be constructed according to all applicable state and federal rules, etc.) should stay in place.
• Amend districts to make minimum duplex lot sizes consistent with single-family in those districts that currently allow duplexes.
So how could these adjustments potentially play out on Hatteras Island? Let’s take a closer look at each specific arena of housing.
Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADUs)
Think of an accessory dwelling unit as a mother-in-law apartment. It’s essentially a secondary house or apartment that has its own kitchen, living area, or separate entrance that shares the property of a larger, primary house.
“The only areas [in Dare County] that specifically allow ADUs are newer districts – Manns Harbor, Wanchese and East Lake,” said Creef. “The idea is that we expand this to some of our older districts.”
So what this would mean is that through zoning changes, properties in areas without zoning restrictions could feasibly build and / or rent out existing ADUs to provide more housing. Subdivisions and communities with existing rules and covenants would obviously trump any zoning changes, but there are areas of the island where ADUs could be accessible.
“With Frisco and Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo not having zoning [restrictions], there are some opportunities there to do something constructive with ADUs,” said County Commissioner Danny Couch.
But there are some challenges that could make this hard to implement on Hatteras Island – namely, flood zones.
“If we amend the zoning, and you have the lot coverage and the ADU, then you’re still going to have to build it to the federal flood rules,” said Creef. “We can’t throw out those restrictions – you still have to build to applicable codes.”
Essentially, structures have to be above a base flood level determined by their Flood Zone, as classified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA.) So if you live in soundside Avon like I do and are in an AE flood zone, your base flood elevation is 8 ft. This means that many ground level garages, converted sheds or outbuildings, or other low-lying dwellings would not meet the criteria, and could not be used as an ADU – regardless of additional subdivision or zoning restrictions.
The duplexes proposal is arguably where Hatteras Island has the potential to have a little more leeway, and a few more options.
In theory, the way this would work is that larger homes with multiple bedrooms could be divvied up into smaller, multiple units with minimal red tape.
“There’s been discussions in the towns about multi-family [options] where if you can build one eight-bedroom house, can you build two four-bedroom townhouses on the same lot?” said County Manager Bobby Outten at the BOC meeting. “You can have the same density, but you can cut the price point in half. Can we do things like that through zoning? It doesn’t cost anything, so they become policy choices that local governments can make that can have an impact.”
“They’re not the solution, but they are a solution, and they can make an impact,” he added.
It’s a potential solution where Commissioner Couch sees some possibilities.
“I think we have a real opportunity here with existing structures, like older vacation rental homes, to make them available for affordable housing,” he said. “We have an abundance of big vacation homes, and perhaps there are some incentives we can explore for some of our older vacation homes to make them competitive, and to make them amendable to year-round housing.”
“Someone with a six-bedroom home that wants to turn it into two three-bedroom units, let’s work it out. Someone with a couple extra bedrooms that they might want to rent to seasonal workers, let’s explore that” he added. “It might not work with a family that needs their own space, but it could certainly help with the labor pool.”
But there are limitations and drawbacks to this solution as well. Septic system limits for individual properties is certainly a concern, as is an increased number of vehicles and parking, and the ensuing effect on neighbors. “These are all considerations that are going to have to be worked into the equation to make it successful,” said Couch.
The proposed solutions from the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce will go to the Planning Board early next week, and from there, a public hearing will likely be on the way. And Peele recognized at the meeting that the proposed zoning changes are by no means the end-all solution to the housing problem.
“We’re still looking at everything,” he said. “This is the low hanging fruit, if you will, where we feel there are some inconsistencies in the current zoning [that we can address now.] We’re not done yet.”
“One of the things that’s an issue is ‘How can we do something?’” said Outten at the meeting. “We recognize the limitations of land, large scale development, money… those kinds of things, so the question then becomes can we do something with the stock we have in place to make it available at a lower cost to people that need housing?”
So the proposed zoning changes are just a start. It’s something small, that can be done quickly, and which can help in a limited but hopefully noticeable way.
But it’s a step nevertheless, and it has rekindled the conversation about the housing crisis, which is not a bad thing at all. It’s always been at the back of everyone’s minds – or at the front if you are currently scrambling to find a place to live for the summer – but it’s retuning to the forefront as these new solutions are being examined.
And it’s good that new and fresh ideas are being proposed, because the housing crisis on Hatteras Island has been ongoing for years, and people who love this place will live just about anywhere – including ADUs or duplexes – to be here full time.
Case in point, when I was looking for a new place to live in the early 2000s, I rented a questionably-legal corner of a garage / basement apartment from a good friend. Said friend happened to have a huge pig who lived in the backyard, and who sometimes hung out in the garage, which connected with my bedroom via a door that didn’t latch all that well. So when there was a thunderstorm, (which was often), the pig would freak out and charge into my bedroom, making panicked squealing and screaming noises along the way.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been woken up by a giant pig having a mental breakdown in your bedroom before, but I assure you, it’s a very effective way to go from “deep sleep” to “fully awake.”
But I loved that place regardless for two reasons: One, it was affordable, and Two, it existed, and was available to rent. And I knew how lucky I was to have it.
Other people aren’t as lucky. Look at Craigslist, classifieds sections, or even Facebook, and you’ll see tons of people who are struggling to find a place to live on their income, along with a handful of places to rent year-round that are out of their price range.
“I think [the housing crisis] has intensified down here,” said Couch. “Not only do you have labor pool issues, but there’s a heightened awareness of how limited the labor pool is. Being able to have affordable housing to form a labor pool, as well as making sure teachers and everyday blue collar folks can afford to live here, is essential. We know our own backyard better than anybody, and I don’t think that anyone will dispute that we need affordable housing here.”
“But the conversation is heating up again,” he added. “It’s been fairly obvious that one of our biggest hindrances is our existing [zoning] rules. You have to be cautious with changing these restrictions, but it’s time to address this, and I think everyone is aware of that fact. I have confidence in our planning board and planning department to tackle this.”
“It’s time. The lack of affordable housing is creating more problems than can be solved.”