Realtors respond

A June 22 ceremony at Pack's Tavern in downtown Asheville honored 51 local real estate agents for completing the North Carolina Workforce Housing Specialist program. Created by the National Association of Realtors last year, the course teaches real estate professionals about the federal, state and local programs designed to help working families afford to own their own home.

To date, Asheville leads the nation in the number of participants who've been certified. The Asheville Board of Realtors offered the course between February and May of this year as one of only a few pilot programs in the state. Asheville was chosen because of the high percentage of its working population that can't afford to buy a home here.

Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy attended the graduation ceremony, along with Buncombe County Commissioners Carol Peterson, Holly Jones and K. Ray Bailey. Voicing praise for the graduates, Bellamy also thanked the members of the Asheville Board of Realtors for their leadership in promoting affordable housing locally.

According to figures released by the North Carolina Association of Realtors, as much as 80 percent of Asheville's work force — including such critical occupations as teachers, police officers, firefighters and journalists — doesn't earn enough to afford the area's median-priced home.

"Wages are not keeping pace with housing costs in the Asheville area," noted Diane Greene, director of community outreach for the North Carolina Association of Realtors.

"The median home price in Asheville is around $180,000, which requires an income of about $57,631 to purchase," said Greene. "A licensed practical nurse makes, on average, $36,439 annually; a police officer $45,802, a firefighter $37,203, and an elementary-school teacher makes $46,351. None can afford that home. And those are averages: Entry-level wages are even lower."

Meanwhile, the N.C. Commission on Workforce Development predicts that a high percentage of the jobs that will be created in the state in the future will be "low-skill" offerings paying only about 60 percent of current average earnings.

Ironically, these workers are often further squeezed by the fact that they make too much to qualify for typical housing subsidies but not enough to afford a median-priced home. Instead, they tend to rent, often giving up entirely on the idea of owning their own home, notes John Newman, president of Homes4NC — a nonprofit arm of the state Association of Realtors. Owning rather than renting, stresses Newman, benefits individuals, their families and their communities: "Research shows that home ownership not only grounds workers in their community but improves the educational performance of children, improves health and lowers crime rates."

Bank of America is a major sponsor of the new certification program, and James McDuffie, vice president for business development, traveled here from Charlotte to thank Asheville realtors for their hard work and commitment to serving their entire community. Other participating groups include OnTrack Financial Education and Counseling, Mountain Housing Opportunities, USDA Rural Development, Habitat for Humanity and the Self-Help Credit Union.

For more information on programs designed to help you afford your own home, or to find a local realtor who's been certified through the program, visit http://homes4nc.org.

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