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Inside Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes’s Push for Affordable Housing

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For the Wake County commissioners, 2015 was the year of education, with school funding increased by $44.6 million. Twenty-sixteen was the year of transit, as they placed a successful referendum on the November ballot to fund a far-reaching transit plan. Now 2017, it seems, will be the year of affordable housing.

On Monday, with new commissioners Greg Ford and Erv Portman sitting in on their first meeting, the board named appointees to a thirty-two-member steering committee it created back in September. The committee, chaired by Commissioner Jessica Holmes, will report monthly to the board of commissioners.

"Our goal is to take a long-range look at affordable housing needs within the county and to develop a twenty-year plan that explores ways to increase the stock of affordable housing in the county," says Holmes, who represents Cary and has spearheaded affordable housing efforts. (At the conclusion of Monday night's meeting, Holmes stunned her colleagues by abruptly announcing her resignation. The next day, she emailed to say she had reconsidered: "An opportunity had presented itself to me, and in part out of frustration, I had decided to pursue it." However, she continued, "the overwhelming voice of my constituents" led her to change her mind.)

The vote was originally scheduled for November 21, but it was delayed following a motion by Commissioner John Burns, who wanted more information about how committee members were selected. On Monday, before the commission voted unanimously to appoint members to the committee, Burns issued a statement expressing his full support: "I am happy to say that the short delay did result in a better understanding of the goals of the committee and the roles that needed to be filled by various members, as well as a better understanding of the process by which the memberships of such boards are compiled."

This is the first step in an effort to attack homelessness—according to the 2016 "point in time" survey, more than eight hundred Wake residents, including 150 children and 80 veterans, were homeless—and the county's burgeoning affordable housing crisis. Up until now, the board, which became wholly Democratic after the 2014 elections, hasn't taken an aggressive posture. For a county that's growing by sixty-three people a day, and where a Wake County reassessment last year found that property values were back up to pre-housing-crash levels, that presents a serious challenge.

Holmes, meanwhile, has garnered attention from local media for advocating some innovative ideas on affordable housing, including a proposal for the county to build housing on unused land owned by Wake County Public Schools. All of that land—four sites—is outside of Raleigh and Cary. Holmes says that could solve the problem of clustering impoverished students in the same high schools.

"The goals of this committee are to advance low-density affordable housing options dispersed across the county, so not any particular neighborhood community," she says. "A byproduct of that could be addressing high-poverty schools by sort of leveling out the number of students who live in poverty being congested in any particular school or district."

Homelessness among Wake County students skyrocketed following the Great Recession. A November 2015 report by the school system found that 2,736 Wake students were homeless, up 29 percent from the 2009–10 school year. Those students are four times as likely to be sick and have development issues as their peers.

Holmes says another plank of her plan would address chronic homelessness, particularly the homeless who suffer from mental illness. "It's about time we acknowledge the interaction between chronic homelessness and mental illness and talk about not only providing housing, but wraparound services," she says.

One idea Holmes mentions has taken off elsewhere, including Dallas and San Francisco: ending chronic homelessness by simply giving people a place to live.

"It's very possible, and there's evidence to support, that housing these individuals may be more cost-effective than leaving them on the street, and then they end up in the ER," she says. "So this is not only the right thing; it's the most fiscally responsible way to use taxpayer dollars in relation to poverty."

In 2005, Utah—hardly a bastion of liberalism—provided housing to the chronically homeless at a cost of $50 per month or 30 percent of the homeless person's monthly income, whichever was more. By 2015, the number of chronically homeless people in that state had plummeted by 91 percent.

Of course, all of these ideas are just that right now: ideas. The steering committee is the first step in bringing them to fruition. Of the committee's thirty-two members (counting Holmes), there are twenty "subject matter experts"—including developer Gregg Warren, Raleigh housing director Larry Jarvis, and former Wake County Superior Court judge Howard Manning—seven residents, and four "stakeholders," including Cary town council member Lori Bush, Morrisville council member Vicki Scroggins-Johnson, and a representative each from Wake County Public Schools and the Wake County Human Services Board.

Now that the committee is formed, it'll hold monthly meetings for a year and present a report to the commissioners next October. But Holmes tells the INDY she's pushing for affordable housing to be included in the next budget, which the board will vote on in June.

"I'm passionate about this issue," Holmes says. "I'm ready to move forward and welcome partners in the community. Anyone who wants to be a part of this conversation, we welcome your thoughts."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Housing starts."

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