Survey says lack of housing affects local businesses

Published 6:00 am Saturday, February 18, 2023

The Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce emailed a survey to its members last month asking how housing in the area affected their businesses. 

The six-question survey had 82 respondents, but not all of the respondents answered every question. The first question asked respondents on a scale of one through five – one being not available and five being plentiful – how available is workforce housing for their employees. More than half of the 79 respondents answered one, not available. The next highest answer was two with 31 percent. 

Mohamed Darar, owner of the Mulberry House restaurant in downtown Washington, said it’s challenging to grow the local hospitality industry, because he has a “desperate need” to hire employees who live in surrounding areas. However, there are limited rental housing options for potential new employees who are willing to move to the city. 

To mitigate a housing shortage, Darar is making a second attempt to build an apartment complex in Washington with moderately priced units his employees and young people can afford. The complex is planned to have 96 units. 

He tried to build an apartment complex on Highland Drive next to the Slatestone Hills subdivision; however the project was denied by city council in November. Darar wanted 10.53 acres of his property to be rezoned from allowing single family homes to Office and Institutional which would allow for high density development like an apartment complex. The City of Washington told Darar he would have to wait six months (around May) until he could return with another rezoning proposal for Residential Multi Family zoning instead. 

More than three quarters of respondents echoed Darar in saying that finding availability of workforce housing has an impact in recruiting and retaining employees. Most respondents agreed that workforce housing was a “major factor” affecting their business and employees. 

Ninety-one percent of respondents agreed there was a lack of housing that is affordable for younger employees in Beaufort County. 

Darar added that housing is not the only issue small businesses like his face right now. He said the United States is in the “middle of a new era of employment.” In this era, many businesses are hiring, but there are few applicants. “Recruiting the right candidate for the position available in a small and mid-size business can be very challenging,” he said. He says there are lower numbers of young people “seeking jobs and qualifications due to a lack of education programs and training.” 

According to a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there are more than 10 million job openings, but there are 5.7 million unemployed workers. “ If every unemployed person in the country found a job, we would still have 4 million open jobs.” 

An interactive map published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce shows a “severe” worker shortage in North Carolina. There are 67 available workers for every 100 open jobs in the state as of this month. Broken down, there are 366,000 openings, but 200,940 unemployed workers. The labor force participation rate is 60.3% while the quit rate is 2.9% and the hiring rate is 4.7%. 

Even if there was workforce housing in Washington for people to rent or purchase, local businesses would have to overcome the challenge of not having enough people apply for open positions.