Filling the gap

Once upon a time, affordable housing in Western North Carolina meant log cabins. They were sturdy and could be made from the materials at hand, Patricia Beaver told participants in the first-ever Housing WNC conference, held Nov. 2 at the Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain.

“Building on Our Heritage” was the conference’s theme, and Beaver (who teaches at Appalachian State University) traced the evolution of housing in the region. As early as the 1830s, log cabins were beginning to be supplanted by frame houses, as community sawmills made cut timber more readily available, she explained. Such homes typically started out small and were gradually expanded to meet the needs of growing families: The Mast family farm in Valle Crucis, for example, began as a homely log cabin and evolved into a 13-room frame house — with just one bath, noted Beaver. In the late 1800s, even freed slaves could afford homes like the Baxter house in Chunn’s Cove.

But the advent of the local resort industry and the set-aside of federal lands over the last century launched a trend of ever-increasing land prices and decreasing land availability. And local wages simply haven’t been able to keep up, said Beaver, who served as project director for the Appalachian Land Ownership Study, completed in 1983. “Madison County has the highest poverty rate in the region, but the average home [there] costs $120,000,” she pointed out.

Where do WNC’s low- and moderate-income families turn for housing? Since 1990, the number of mobile homes in Western North Carolina has increased by roughly 50 percent, reported Beaver, noting, “Mobile homes provide an opportunity for home ownership to those who couldn’t otherwise buy.” Typically, however, mobile homes don’t appreciate in value, as site-built homes often do.

Families that have been in the mountains for generations can barely afford to live here now. Beaver relayed the tale of a Watauga County woman named Mary Jane, whose family had sold its 5,500-acre plot to an outside developer decades ago, eking out a living on the fringes of the old estate. All of Mary Jane’s family now live in mobile homes, in a region where quarter-million-dollar houses on $40,000 lots are becoming more and more common.

And the growing demand for luxury homes can also ratchet up the cost of even low-end homes, putting them beyond the reach of families like Mary Jane’s, added Asheville Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan. “A developer can make more money out of building … 4,000-square foot homes than building a few modest-sized homes,” she commented.

But developing homes and rental units that young people, the working poor, the disabled, the elderly and other moderate-income residents can afford isn’t easy, asserted Caplan.

Many WNC counties and municipalities lack the resources or the expertise to develop affordable housing in their communities, she continued. Earlier this year, Caplan and former Affordable Housing Coalition Director Beth Maczka attended a statewide housing conference in Raleigh. But that’s too far away, and few local officials or housing advocates attended. So the two women pushed for a local affordable-housing conference. And, with help from the Land-of-Sky Regional Council and the Isothermal Planning Commission, the Nov. 2 conference came to pass, said Caplan.

“We thought people working on the issue in the region needed to share their experience,” she said, citing the example of The Western North Carolina Housing Partnership. The Rutherford County-based group has coordinated projects across the region, such as a 48-unit Catawba County complex for the elderly, who are often hurt by the high cost of local housing. Such projects, Caplan explained, can have a broader impact, giving other housing advocates and local officials ideas they can bring back to their own communities.

“Developing affordable housing is a long and difficult process. You’re working on the edge of what’s financially feasible. You’re in the gap between totally subsidized housing and what the market can provide,” she said.

And to fill that gap, commented Beaver, “We need creative minds … and planning.”

To that end, conference participants had their choice of workshops on smart-growth planning, government funding for rural projects, partnerships with for-profit developers, building support for local housing trust funds, and more. Said Caplan, “This conference is an opportunity for networking and … forming the first steps for collaboration.”

For more information about regional and local affordable-housing efforts, call the Isothermal Planning Commission at (828) 287-2281, or Caplan at 259-5721.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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