After new Wake County manager David Ellis unveils his first recommended budget Wednesday night, the headlines will focus on the question that dominated Tuesday's primary elections: How much new funding will the county give the school system?
As it turns out, Ellis will recommend about $30 million, just over half of the $58.9 million the school board says it needs, but enough to bring the county to its highest-ever level of per-pupil funding, the INDY has learned. On its own, that will require a property tax-rate hike of about two cents, or about $40 a year for a home appraised at $200,000.
But just as important is a groundbreaking recommendation for another penny property-tax-rate increase—about $15 million this year—for affordable housing, an investment that could have far-reaching implications for a fast-growing region in which the supply of housing is not keeping up with the demand.
This push builds off of the work of the Affordable Housing Steering Committee, which commissioners established in 2016 and which issued its plan in October. Helmed by Commissioner Jessica Holmes, the committee sought to address a daunting challenge: as of 2015, Wake had an unmet need of 56,000 affordable units; by 2035, that need could reach 150,000.
The committee envisioned three strategies. The first is to encourage the county's municipalities to create more housing—for instance, in Raleigh, by allowing accessory dwelling units and changing zoning rules to foster higher density, particularly along transit corridors. The second involves leveraging existing programs to create or preserve more subsidized units. The third is to obtain additional funds for affordable housing and evaluate whether the county's surplus properties could be developed as housing.
Since she took office in December 2014, Holmes says, the public has become more aware of the crunch many families are facing, with some teachers and other middle-class employees having to live outside of the county and commute because they can't afford to live here.
"The number of people impacted has increased substantially," Holmes says.
Among other things, Ellis's proposed budget will create permanent supportive housing for the county's roughly one hundred homeless veterans, with the goal of ending veteran homelessness within three years; partner with Urban Ministries of Wake County to build a new shelter for homeless single women; and reorganize the county's Human Services Department so that the county's housing operation becomes a standalone entity with its own director.
In addition, the county will work with municipalities, nonprofits, and developers to acquire affordable housing developments, including loaning organizations money to prevent existing affordable housing from being converted into something more profitable, as happened last year with Forest Hills Apartments in Garner. Along those lines, Holmes also wants the county to develop a database that will let officials know when an affordable development's tax credits are about to expire so that the county can act before residents get letters telling them to leave.
Besides the penny tax hike, Holmes says the county will also use less-predictable revenues from the Wake County Board of Alcoholic Control for one-time costs, as it did last month to cover cost overruns for the Oak City Multi-Services Center.
Despite the acrimony over school funding in last year's budget, Holmes doesn't expect the affordable housing initiative to be divisive.
"I'm not concerned about housing competing with other county priorities," Holmes says, "because there's the reality that a child can't learn when they're not housed. We're taking a whole-child approach to student learning."