Extensive waiting lists — some up to a year long — reported in parts of WNC
Editor’s note: This story is part of our month-long investigative and in-depth series looking at housing issues facing Western North Carolina. For more reporting from Carolina Public Press, go here.
While public housing is generally thought of as a more urban phenomenon, it, in fact, exists — in some form — in each one of Western North Carolina’s 18 counties.
Numbers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the country’s housing authorities, show that from 2009 to 2013, the supply of public housing and housing vouchers stayed relatively flat even as a hard economy, shrinking budgets and departing manufacturing jobs created what many housing officials across Western North Carolina say is a more difficult housing situation than ever.
Nine counties in WNC saw the number of public housing units and vouchers decrease during that time, with the biggest (a drop of 21 vouchers, or 20 percent of its public housing help) in Swain County. Meanwhile, seven counties saw an increase in the numbers of public housing units, with Cherokee seeing the largest rise, adding 25 percent more public housing units and vouchers. Two counties, Macon and Madison, saw their housing numbers stay the same.
In total, the public housing system in WNC reaches about 10,000 households, as much as the population of some of the area’s smaller cities.
The first is through public housing units. These are what most people think of when they think of public housing communities. These are buildings directly owned and managed by local housing authorities, backed by federal HUD funding, that provide housing and sharply reduced rents. Most of these developments were constructed in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, with construction in WNC and throughout the country declining in recent decades, though not disappearing entirely.
Across the mountains, public housing developments exist in nine other counties besides Buncombe, and in towns including Murphy, Hot Springs and Hendersonville. While Asheville has the majority of public housing developments in the region, more than 1,000 other households throughout WNC rely on them to keep a roof over their head.
From 2009-13, the number of public housing units in WNC (including Buncombe County) stayed fairly flat, only inching up from 2,790 to 2,820. That increase was due to a jump in public housing units in Cherokee, which saw a rise from 88 units to 134. All other counties saw their numbers of units stay the same or decline slightly. This is not uncommon, as the developments tend to be older buildings, and units are occasionally taken offline for renovations or turned into community space.
The other main program housing authorities oversee is widely called “Section 8.” Technically, this refers two programs: an older one that provides subsidies to building owners who house tenants in new or rehabilitated units, and the housing choice voucher program that subsidizes rent and utilities for residents to get housing on their own. HUD defines the latter program as “the federal government’s major program for assisting very low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled to afford decent, safe, and sanitary housing in the private market.”
In recent decades, housing authorities across the country have increasingly shifted to the second program to deal with rising demand, rather than building new housing developments. Federal funding for Section 8 has largely remained more consistent than that for public housing.
Many housing authorities lump these two program’s numbers together, and simply refer to them as Section 8. Also, and unlike the management public housing developments, they’re sometimes administered by independent nonprofits instead of housing authorities.
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Why the increase – or the decrease?
All 18 counties in WNC have some amount of Section 8 housing, ranging from 85 in Swain County to 2,160 in Buncombe in 2013.
Since 2009, the number of Section 8 vouchers saw more variation than the number of public housing units across the mountains — though not by much. In 2009, WNC’s housing authorities and nonprofits had 6,907 Section 8 vouchers. In 2013, it was 6,989.
Next to Buncombe, the county with the highest amount of public housing and vouchers wasn’t Henderson County (the next-most populous WNC county), but Haywood County. There, 851 households live in public housing or units backed by Section 8 vouchers. In Henderson, 831 do.
While housing authorities and, in some cases, the nonprofits that administer the Section 8 program, face different challenges from their urban counterparts, some of the issues faced by both urban and rural authorities are quite similar: shrinking budgets and rising demand.
The Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, for example, has embarked on a controversial overhaul of its funding and management structure after its budget was cut nearly 20 percent in hopes to both shore up its existing resources and allow for renovation of its aging communities, some of which were built as far back in the 50s. Additionally, it’s trying to partner with the city of Asheville to overhaul the city’s oldest public housing development, Lee Walker Heights, which was built in 1950.
This means that the stable number of public housing units and vouchers may have less to do with demand than action, or lack thereof, by federal authorities, and the resources local authorities (who overwhelmingly rely on HUD for funding) have to deal with conditions in their communities.
Steady stock, rising need
And while it seems like 2009, in the depths of the recession, might have been a time of more acute public housing need, every housing official Carolina Public Press interviewed about this topic said that the problem has worsened in the last five years.
All said the cause is because the need has grown as family and individual savings have run out and the effects of the recession have fully sunken in, especially in the WNC counties that face harsher economic situations.
Interviewed last summer, Ned Fowler, director of the Northwest Regional Housing Authority, which oversees housing in seven counties in WNC and the western Piedmont, said that the federal agencies he deals with estimate that there’s only enough vouchers and public housing units to help every one out of every five families nationwide that needs their services. The agency serves Ashe, Alleghany, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey counties.
“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,” Fowler, who’s worked in public housing for 35 years, said at the time.
Likewise, the nonprofit Western Carolina Community Action, which administers 646 Section 8 vouchers in Transylvania and Henderson counties, hasn’t seen the number of vouchers it’s allotted change significantly since 1998, even as it’s faced a declining budget and rising demand.
“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,” director Sheryl Fortune wrote in an email to Carolina Public Press this summer.
That assessment makes sense to Crystal Holder, manager of the Madison County Housing Authority, which oversees 40 public housing units. She’s worked there for over 17 years, and in that time, she said, funding cuts worsened an already dire situation.
This, she said, is where the official numbers can be deceiving. On paper, for example, the authority also has 191 Section 8 vouchers to help out local residents.
But the reality, Holder said, is that with the funding the authority has available, they can only give out 160 to 165 vouchers.
“The expectation is we should be able to supply immediate housing and pay for it all,” Holder said. “On our Section 8 program, we have such a waiting list that if folks apply today, we probably couldn’t get to them for 12 months.”
At the same time the organization has “seen a major decrease” in funding, Holder added.
“We’re totally funded by the department of Housing and Urban Development, so our budget’s related to their budget,” Janelle King, the Madison County authority’s director, said. “Bottom line is: it’s Congress.”
At the same time, “with the recession, folks have really seen hard times, and the demand has dramatically increased,” she added, noting that there’s so many applicants that there’s a yearlong waiting list for Section 8 vouchers, and many people simply don’t complete the application because they can’t afford to wait that long.
While not attracting quite the same attention as Asheville, Madison’s faced some of the same issues. During the five years elapsed, King notes, Madison has seen a spike in rental costs, especially as the number of college students in the area has expanded but housing stock hasn’t kept up.
“The county as a whole has a real rental housing shortage,” she said. “The college here has really affected the affordability of low-income housing. I’ve been here 15 years and when I started, the cost of a two-bedroom was $250 and now people are expecting $750 or $800 a month for the same unit. It’s simply because if they rent to a low-income person, it knocks them out of renting to college students who have more resources to pay a higher rent.”
Some other organizations have managed to weather the cuts reasonably well, like the Murphy Housing Authority, which oversees 84 units of public housing in two developments built in 1963 and 1972.
“It’s been such a little difference that it’s not really affected us greatly,” manager Lea Scroggs, who’s worked with the authority for 17 years, said of the cuts. “We’re very frugal, and we’re very careful.”
Nonetheless, she said, the issues continue to mount as industries leave the mountains of WNC, an area already hurting for jobs.
“Basically, it’s jobs,” she said, as the lack of employment and the departure of higher-paying manufacturing drives leave locals looking for a place to live. “Around here with the area it’s industry: we’ve had several plants close. It’s been going on longer than five years, but it’s really trickled down during the last five years.”
“I have more applications now than I’ve probably ever had,” Scroggs noted. “The last six months seem to be even worse. That’s because the local rentals have skyrocketed. People can’t find affordable places to rent.”