County looks to push affordable rental housing

Proposed modifications to the Sussex County Rental Program were presented to the Sussex County Council on Tuesday, July 26, by Brandy Nauman, the County’s housing coordinator and fair housing compliance officer.

Nauman said that, at the height of the real estate boom in 2004/2005, stakeholders worked with County staff to create a solution for low- and moderate-income households needing more affordable housing.

Through those efforts, the Sussex County Moderately Priced Housing ordinance was passed in 2006, with six initial applicants. In 2008, the Sussex County Rental Program ordinance was passed, with only one initial applicant.

Due to the market collapse, all applications stalled. Currently, said Nauman, there are no active applicants or projects.

“The need in the county has shifted from homeownership to rental, is what we’re seeing,” she said. “We need to update this program so that it properly reflects the current market conditions.”

Nauman said the United States Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) is “cautiously supportive” of the proposed changes.

Referring to the 2016 “Who Can Afford to Live in Delaware?” study conducted by the Delaware Housing Coalition, for tenants in Sussex County, Nauman said, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,012. The average renter makes $10.92 per hour; but to afford the two-bedroom housing unit they would have to make $19.46 per hour or work 94 hours per week at a minimum-wage job.

The number of renter households in Sussex County is more than 17,000. She noted that an affordable monthly rent for a low-income individual is considered to be $464.

“That’s a pretty big gap,” said Nauman.

Nauman noted that the “30 percent rule,” originated during the Great Depression, states that the accepted norm is “one week’s pay for one month’s rent.”

“Anyone who spends more than 30 percent of their income on housing and utilities is considered cost-burdened. Anyone who spends more than 50 percent of their income on housing and utilities is considered extremely cost-burdened.”

To qualify for the current rental program, a development must have a minimum of 25 total rental units, be located within a town center, developing area or environmentally sensitive developing area, and have access to public water and sewer.

Developer incentives include bonus density of 20 percent and expedited review through the County’s Planning & Zoning process.

Tenants must live and work in Sussex County for one year and meet income qualifications, and the rental units must be maintained as affordable for 30 years.

The proposed changes to the program include setting fixed rental rates for each bedroom size, based on 50 percent of area median income (AMI) and to serve households making 80 percent of AMI or below.

She added that the developer would be responsible for qualifying the applicants, which would remove that burden from County staff.

“We’re going to try to foster some relationships between nonprofit housing providers and for-profit developers. It’s not something we would put in the ordinance, but it was something that came out of a meeting,” she said. “Nonprofits have access to significant subsidies and better financing, so maybe they could help leverage some funding for some of these projects.”

The council directed Nauman to move forward to prepare an amendment that would come before council in the early fall.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Joe Thomas, director of emergency operations, presented the council with a request to enter into a contract to purchase a new mobile command unit.

The purchase, he said, would be made through a state contract vendor, with the unit being used during weather-related incidents, as a backup 911 service and on-site during large events within the state.

“We are able to page all the volunteer fire departments and paramedics out of this vehicle,” he explained.

The current mobile command unit is 15 years old and has “outdated technology,” said Thomas.

“As we all know, there are pieces of equipment involved in all of our services, and at times those pieces of equipment have failures. We have to be prepared to back those up.”

The new mobile command unit would be made through a state contract, as Government Support Services, Office of Management & Budget, has entered into a cooperative agreement with the Houston-Galveston Area Council of Governments.

“It allows us to use cooperative purchasing, and we’re able to build out and use other contracting sources through Delaware.”

The cost of the unit and related equipment is $1,620,400; however, Thomas said more than 50 percent of the cost would be recouped, due to Homeland Security and Emergency Management Performance grants.

Councilman Sam Wilson asked how many times the unit would be used. Thomas said it would be used 30 to 35 times per year.

“I am prayerful it is never used,” said Councilman Rob Arlett.

The council deferred on a vote until its Aug. 2 meeting, as Council President Michael Vincent recused himself from voting and Councilman George Cole was absent.