By Sarah Nagem
The sounds of jackhammers and bulldozers have become common in some parts of Lumberton where developers are building apartments for lower-income residents.
And more projects are likely on the way: The Lumberton City Council voted this month to rezone three separate land tracts where developers hope to use a tax-credit program run by the state to add more than 180 new apartments.
The construction boom is welcome news in this Robeson County community devastated by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018. Years later, a housing shortage exacerbated by the storms has left many families in hotels or with relatives.
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Between 400 and 500 homes, many of them on the west and south sides of Lumberton, were damaged or destroyed by the storms, said City Manager Wayne Horne.
Meanwhile, nearly 270 of the 729 public housing units operated by the Lumberton Housing Authority were damaged or destroyed, said Executive Director Adrian Lowery. Today, 170 of those units are still unlivable.
After the storms, Horne said, “We were trying to catch up and build new homes and new apartments. That’s why these apartments are filling up so quick. As soon as they come online, in a matter of 30 to 60 days, they’re full.”
Efforts to rebuild Lumberton and other eastern North Carolina communities devastated by the storms have been slowed by several factors. State lawmakers have criticized the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency, known as ReBuild NC, for the way it has handled contractors hired to do the work.
In Robeson County, 390 homes have been repaired or rebuilt since Hurricane Matthew under Rebuild NC, according to spokesperson Janet Kelly-Scholle. (More than half of those homes were completed by a locally run program in 2018 and 2019, as reported by NC Newsline.)
Within Lumberton’s city limits, 135 homes have been rebuilt or repaired, including five in January and February this year, Kelly-Scholle said.
Meanwhile, nearly seven years after Matthew, some displaced residents continue to deal with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Lumberton Housing Authority has blasted the agency for its response, particularly toward the Turner Terrace public-housing development where 30% of the units were destroyed.
“For us, it’s the travesty of dealing with FEMA,” Lowery said.
Incentive to build affordable housing
Under the low-income housing program run by the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, private developers can get a tax break of 9% of the construction cost each year for a decade. The program says it is “highly competitive,” with only about 25% of proposed projects winning approval.
Horne said all three new projects proposed in Lumberton likely won’t be approved by the finance agency this year but will probably become part of the program in the next few years.
As reported by The Robesonian, developer Dunn Street LLC wants to build 56 apartments on Dunn Road. Developers Mark Morgan and Mills Construction both want to build 64 apartments near Elizabethtown Road on the east side of the city.
City leaders rezoned the sites on April 5 – a necessary step in the application process with the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency.
Mills Construction already has two affordable housing complexes in Lumberton, including Northeast Pointe Apartments that opened about six years ago on Harrill Road. A third complex, next to Northeast Pointe, is in the second phase of construction, said Tammy Stern, a development associate for Mills Construction.
The Raleigh-based company builds affordable housing across the state, but Stern said Robeson County is a high priority.
“There’s a huge housing need due to past storm damage,” she said.
Such apartments help fill that need, but Lowery said they often leave out Lumberton’s poorest residents. While rents are set at below-market prices, tenants must meet certain income requirements. So those who were paying as little as $50 a month to the Lumberton Housing Authority wouldn’t qualify, he said.
“These private investors are getting stuff built all around us,” Lowery said. “And here we are, and some of the people that we serve, they can’t get into those. … Because they’re poor, because they can’t invest in anything, they have no voice. We try to be their voice, but it’s like screaming in the dark.”
‘I lost everything’
The housing crisis has become so severe in Robeson County, Lowery said, that some people are paying $400 a month to rent one bedroom inside a home.
Now, the Lumberton Housing Authority is rebuilding 72 units that were destroyed by Hurricane Matthew.
The project, which will be located near the Robeson County Health Department, has had plenty of hiccups. City leaders denied the housing authority’s initial site. Then, Lowery said, the N.C. Department of Transportation said the project must include a turn lane to ease traffic.
Total costs were first estimated at $11 million to $12 million, Lowery said. But with increased construction prices, he said he won’t be surprised if the price tag rises to $16 million when the housing authority puts out a bid for the project in the next couple of months. (The North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency is contributing nearly $6 million.)
“The fight for us comes, as a public housing authority, where do we get those dollars from then?” Lowery said.
Once the project is completed, Lowery said, the Lumberton Housing Authority will still be about 100 units short of pre-Matthew housing.
Unlike many people, Barbara Richburg was able to secure another public housing unit in the city after her south Lumberton home was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew. But she had to stay in a hotel in Chapel Hill for nearly a year.
“I lost everything,” Richburg said, explaining that she walked through neck-deep water to reach a neighbor’s home and wait for a boat to rescue her and her dog.
Brandon Love, Lumberton’s assistant city manager, said the community simply needs more housing. He was told that a new physician at UNC Health Southeastern struggled for months to find a home.
“The need for housing is not just for folks that were hurt by the hurricanes, not just for low- to moderate-income individuals,” Love said.