Housing projects are generally associated with more urban environs. But people facing economic hardship exist throughout the 18 counties of Western North Carolina, and many are relying on public housing developments to provide roofs over their heads.
While Asheville has the largest single housing authority in the region, with 1,500 units, there are 10 others throughout the region. Combined with an array of nonprofits, they also manage public housing and Section 8 vouchers, which help pay rent and utilities for low-income households. These programs serve thousands of the area’s neediest residents.
But many of these local organizations, which are funded and overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, are under an increasing financial pressures while a shaky economy has left more demand for their services than ever. In Asheville, for example, housing agency leaders are considering a plan today (Wednesday, June 25) that will change how they manage and fund the agency, a change that has some residents worried both about the process and the results.
Even federal housing officials now admit that its budget constraints are so tight that it can only serve one in five of the people in most desperate need of public housing, said Ned Fowler, founder and director of the Boone-based Northwest Regional Housing Authority, which owns and manages housing in seven counties in WNC and the Western Piedmont.
“The need for the assistance has grown exponentially in the years I’ve been involved in the industry, and the funding of course has not,” said Fowler, who has worked on housing issues for 35 years. “In most recent years, the funding’s not just frozen, it’s reduced. You’ve got huge demand and a scarce resource.”
Things have grown particularly dire thanks to sequestration, federal, state and local budget cuts in recent years, and the situation is getting worse, according to housing administrators throughout WNC.
The Northwest Regional Housing Authority owns and manages 83 units of public housing and around 2,000 Section 8 units. Fowler said that while the organization is still in sound shape, the current fiscal year was the first in more than a decade the organization has had to draw on its reserves, mostly due to federal cuts (the authority also receives state and private funds).
Even still, the need persists.
“There’s never been enough federal resources for helping those who are priced out of the market,” he said.
“Folks may come to us with a very severe and dire immediate need, and the only thing we can do is put them on a waiting list,” he added. “We’re only able to help as many as we can convince as many as we can convince HUD and the U.S. Congress to send money to WNC to help.”
In its area are Boone and towns with a rising cost of housing as well as more rural areas where there simply aren’t that many homes, “so we face both the affordability and the availability problem,” Fowler said, “there’s just not enough housing stock in many of these small Blue Ridge communities.”
As for the Rental Assistance Demonstration program the Asheville housing authority is pursuing to try to address its own issues with cuts in federal funding, Fowler noted that his agency is interested in it, though its needs are different, with less large old housing projects, especially for overdue updates and repairs.
Some housing authorities manage both low-rent units and the Section 8 voucher program, others just one of the two.
In Henderson County, the Hendersonville Housing Authority administers 375 units in Hendersonville, Fletcher and Etowah. Like Asheville, Hendersonville’s seeing economic growth, but with too few affordable housing units to go around.
“Our biggest challenge is housing for individuals 35-60 needing one-bedroom units,” Connie Stevens, the authority’s housing manager, said. “Everybody had to tighten up during the recession, but we have a pretty tight operation in place, so we’re doing pretty good” on the budgetary front.
“There’s a greater demand, but we’re not building more,” she added. “We probably have the slimmest list for two- to five-bedrooms we’ve ever had, but the one-bedrooms are so in demand.”
With the Henderson County Board of Commissioners recently rejecting an affordable housing development proposed by a local nonprofit, she said she expects the situation to worsen.
“People need affordable housing, and we just don’t have it in Henderson County,” she said.
Meanwhile, Section 8 housing in Henderson and Transylvania Counties is handled by nonprofit Western Carolina Community Action, which administers vouchers for 646 units in the two counties.
But due to “extreme cuts” in federal funding available for it to administer the program, WCCA director Sheryl Fortune said the organization has had to cut staff and spread out their duties among its remaining employees.
“The duties of eliminated positions have been spread among remaining staff; however, most are working at full capacity and then some, and I believe the full impact is yet to be felt,” Fortune wrote in an email to Carolina Public Press. “It takes people to help people, and we are nearing the point of not being able to help as many simply because we do not have the necessary staff to do all that is required by HUD.”
Despite a rising cost of living and a worsening situation for many low-income residents, WCCA only has the same numbers of vouchers to help locals that it did in 1998, Fortune said.
Most of the vouchers created in the ensuing years, she said, have been slated to help only specific populations like veterans or non-elderly disabled residents. Like housing authorities throughout the region, WCCA is feeling the crunch of federal cuts.
“What we’re seeing is a federal government backing away from the commitment to the affordable housing it created,” Fowler said.