“For two-thirds of the country—people who own homes—the housing market is almost miraculous,” Matthew Desmond, sociologist and bestselling author of Poverty, by America and Evicted, told The Atlantic earlier this month. “Then you have this other one-third. The rental market is just utterly brutal, especially for the poorest among them.”

This statement couldn’t be more true when it comes to Wilmington.

The StarNews reported this week that Wilmington homeowners  “gained more wealth through homeownership than those in any other city in North Carolina” in the last decade, according to a National Association of Realtors report on the fourth quarter 2022

When you break the wealth increases down by race, white and Asian households gained the most, at $198,000 and $198,450, respectively. Black households saw an increase of $181,340 – notably above the $115,000 national average – and Hispanic households saw an increase of $141,860.

For white and Black households, those increases were the most of any North Carolina city the report featured, the StarNews noted.  

As Desmond told The Atlantic, homeownership is the best path to generational wealth because of property appreciation. And mortgages are often cheaper than rent, especially in Wilmington. 

For three years, I worked at the Cape Fear Collective, whose mission is to use data insights and a bank-backed impact investing program to build generational wealth. Our data showed that houses should be a first investment, both because of the promise of wealth creation and because the need is so acute.

Thirty-six percent of New Hanover County households are cost burdened, meaning that they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. These cost burdens are often higher for  renters, who, as Desmond put it, “rent at the bottom of the market and still fork over enormous chunks of their income.”

It takes an income of over $42,000 to rent a two-bedroom apartment in New Hanover County right now. Compare that to wages of some of the most common jobs in our region – food service, childcare, retail – and many households come up well short.

If you can’t afford rent, good luck trying to save the money you’d need to buy a home. 

And that’s the rub. Homeownership is the easy way to generational wealth, but the barriers to buying even a starter house are almost insurmountable, according to the collective’s Inclusive Economy report. Prices in southeastern North Carolina have increased 22 percent faster than the rest of the state in the last decade. In New Hanover, home sale prices have been increasing more than 5 percent each year since 2013.

What does that mean for the future? 

The remedy starts with a stable roof, which requires investment in affordable housing solutions. New Hanover County leaders did make a 5-year,  $15 million investment in February 2022. But they also axed the $50 million housing bond in 2021 – even as advocates said it was a necessary part of addressing housing affordability. 

The county’s nest egg of $350 million and the hospital sale endowment’s annual $50 million investments both offer potential to to move the needle without asking more of the taxpayer.

As WHQR’s Kelly Kenoyer reported in April, the joint Workforce Housing Advisory Committee has presented some ideas to address the issue, ranging from creating a gap financing fund to supplement the tax credits developers use for affordable housing projects, to expanding the city’s housing counseling and financial literacy programs that can get more people in the home-buying pipeline. 

The region has the means to turn the tide, and now is the time to execute. 

— Kevin Maurer

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Reaves Chapel in Navassa. (Julia Wall for The Assembly)

A drive through Brunswick County is a jarring mashup: one moment pine forests, the next torn-up lots with mounds of logs and bedraggled roots, and single-wide trailers across from huge developments of new pastel-colored homes. 

It’s a landscape of constant construction – the fastest growing county in the state. 

But the unchecked coastal development has rarely considered preservation of the local Gullah Geechee heritage sites. For The Assembly, Emily Jaeger takes a look at efforts to preserve what’s left, led by a handful of Brunswick County locals guided by passion and instinct to connect and preserve Gullah Geechee heritage.


What should—and can—be done to protect and preserve the fractured remnants of southeast North Carolina’s rich Gullah Geechee heritage?

“It’s All Natural”

House Bill 67, known as the Encourage Healthy NC Food in Schools, really only encourages one food – or, rather, beverage. 

The bill requires every public school, community college, and component institution of the University of North Carolina to provide 100 percent muscadine grape juice – squeezed from the state fruit.

The bill passed the House in March, with little pushback. Republicans uniformly supported it; Rep. Deb Butler of New Hanover County was one eight Democrats who voted against it.

“Legislators are neither educators, nor nutritionists,” Butler told WHQR. “Our public school system is grossly underfunded and this is an unfunded mandate that will cost schools more money. I also suspect much of this mandated ‘juice’ will wind up being wasted. I do not think legislators have any business dictating school menus.”

The bill is, as Butler noted, unfunded, although it does include a provision – from Republican co-sponsor Rep. Julia Howard – that requires the state to buy back unused grape juice. 

The bill survived crossover day, when most legislation must make it into the opposite chamber or perish, but it’s been sitting quietly in a Senate committee since then.

But, back up, how did this bill even come about?

As the Winston-Salem Journal reported, in 2016 Howard did receive a $2,700 donation from the owner of Mighty Muscadine, a company based in Howard’s own Davie County. But that seems like a rather small sum – and a long wait – for legislation mandating muscadine juice in schools.

We reached out to all three primary co-sponsors of the bill, asking (1) who, if anyone, lobbied for the bill, (2) why there was a need to require schools, colleges, and universities to provide it, and (3) if the representatives had any concerns about the sugar content of grape juice, given that sugary sodas are currently banned during instructional hours.

Only Howard responded.

“It is the state fruit. No added sugar,” was her initial, somewhat terse response.

When we noted that grape juice isn’t sugar-free, she replied that it “is all natural.”

Asked whether this was “picking winners and losers,” a common conservative critique of state incentives, Howard wrote, “Please go buy an apple/ orange juice, less than 20 percent juice and added sugar.”

— Ben Schachtman

Around the Region

WHQRAssault Charges Dropped For Suspect Who Allegedly Threw Drugs During Arrest

In early January, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office announced it was “shocked and appalled” after an alleged drug dealer “exposed a detective and two deputies to a dangerous opioid drug,” sending the officers to the hospital.

A prosecutor told the court that the suspect “intentionally opened a bag of drugs and threw it in the detective’s face.” But that story didn’t hold up after the detective himself contradicted it, and the charges were dropped.

StarNewsFrozen in Time

As we noted earlier, Brunswick is one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties. But it still has areas development hasn’t touched , and driving through these towns is like traveling back in time. How did places like Varnamtown, Navassa, Northwest, and Sandy Creek come to be, what’s  kept them small, and can they survive?

News & ObserverTopsail Planners Snub Pendo Founder’s Vacation Compound

Fondly referred to by locals as “The Point,” the last remaining undeveloped tract in Topsail is currently zoned for conservation. Todd Olson, CEO of software giant Pendo, has been seeking conditional rezoning for nearly 30 acres on the island’s southernmost tip to build a private estate for his family. 

Topsail’s planning board unanimously voted against it this week. It will now go to  Topsail’s board of commissioners on  June 14, which has the final say.

Statewide Stories

A Black Teen. A White Woman. A Life Sentence. 

Charles McNeair was 16 when a white woman accused him of rape. He accepted a plea deal because he thought his life was on the line. Now, his advocates say the case deserves another look.

The ‘Prophet’ and the Backlash

UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Gene Nichol regularly scorches the state’s Republican leadership—but it’s come at a price to the university. Even some who agree with him wish he’d tone it down.

What is Blue Cross NC Up To?

Legislation under discussion would grant the nonprofit insurer broad leeway to operate like a for-profit. But what is Blue Cross NC really after?

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