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Living United: Even planned growth has a social impact
Mary Fuller
Mary Fuller, United Way of the Coastal Empire Bryan County Area Director.

Mary Fuller, United Way.

One of my roles as the Bryan County Area Director for United Way of the Coastal Empire is to assess community needs and find ways to meet those needs if they don’t already exist within the county. When presenting to community groups, I am often asked what our biggest need in Bryan County is. Without hesitation, I can confidently and quickly reply – affordable housing.

We all are aware that Bryan County is growing at an incredible rate, especially the south end of the county. You can see it along Harris Trail and Belfast River with all the new subdivisions. You can see it in the orange construction cones marking off major expansion projects throughout Richmond Hill. New businesses like Medline and the new private industrial park near I-16 promise to bring new jobs to our area.

We’ll have great things happening in Bryan County in the next few years, and I think we are all excited to see what our growth brings. The new I-95 exit will bring new restaurants, shops and other services. The new industries will bring career opportunities and more people. All this growth will increase the tax base and help our area thrive. But we also need to plan for how this growth could negatively affect our area, potentially amplifying some issues we already have – one of which is affordable housing.

As new restaurants and shops are built, new healthcare facilities come into our area, and our school system expands, all these services need workers. This all sounds great on the surface, but even right now, we have people who work in Bryan County who can not afford to live here. Let’s break this down. The U.S. Census indicates that the median gross rent for Bryan County is $1,214; in Richmond Hill it is even a little bit higher at $1,336 per month. If we go by the standard rule of not spending more than 30% of your income on housing (including utilities), a household would need to make a minimum of $48,560 per year or $23.23 per hour a year in order to live in Bryan County. 

Now, here are some actual starting salaries for some of our local professional workforce: city firefighters ($17.37/hour), school teachers (approximately $39,380 annually) and other school personnel (school nurse $44,901 annually), and healthcare workers (medical assistant around $18 per hour). None of these professionals make enough money to pay the rental costs that currently exist. Now, I am not saying they couldn’t find anywhere to live in Bryan County. I am saying that they would either need to live with family or friends, secure a second source of income (another job), or hope to find a space in the limited number of rental units that rent for less than the median cost.

Kids Count data shows that 25.8% of our children in Bryan County live in single-parent families. That means, 1 in 4 children live in a household with only one income. If that single parent has only one job, often they are not able to find an affordable place to live. So, what we see every day are hardworking families and individuals – sometimes with 2 or 3 jobs – who experience one single crisis that causes them to fail financially, meaning they’re not able to pay the rent or utilities because more than 50% of their income had been going toward housing expenses. They pay the exorbitant costs so they minimize their commute time and costs, so they can ensure their children achieve success, and so they can feel safe in their neighborhoods. A sudden car repair or medical emergency should not mean residents are forced to choose between paying rent and tending to the unexpected problem.

But that’s exactly what it means for so many. Are you going to say that we don’t want firefighters, teachers, medical assistants, and people who work 3 different jobs to make ends meet to live in Bryan County? How do we attract industries to come here if we don’t have housing that is affordable for their workers? As we grow, isn’t this issue just going to get bigger? More jobs will become available, but they won’t come with a wage to support the local standard of living. We will have job openings that we will not be able to fill. I believe some of our business owners and municipalities are already feeling this void. 

So, what do we do?

Affordable housing is a complex, multi-faceted issue so it will take us all – service providers, elected officials, private business owners, developers, and all our citizens – to figure it out. In May 2019, we started Bryan County PATH (Partnership Advocating for Transformative Housing) – a community collaborative looking for ways to prevent homelessness and increase affordable housing in Bryan County. In Pembroke, the city and mayor have applied for CBDG funding and looked at other funding to start addressing their affordable housing needs. These are all a good start, but we will need a concerted, committed effort of entities working together to really make a difference. As a community, we have been planning for our growth for several years and, hopefully, we will also plan for the social impact of that growth.

To join Bryan County PATH, please reach out to the United Way office in Bryan County.

Mary Fuller is United Way’s Bryan County Area Director.

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