Editor’s note: This story concludes our month-long investigative and in-depth series looking at public and affordable housing issues facing Western North Carolina. For more reporting from Carolina Public Press, go here.
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There was a time when local leaders, and even congressional legislators, didn’t believe Western North Carolina’s population would ever need — or accept — the help of a public housing agency.
“When we first started back in the ’70s there really were no dollars for federal public housing assistance in Western North Carolina,” Ned Fowler, director of the Northwestern Regional Housing Authority, recalled. “There was a preponderance of thought at the time that landlords in the area would not cooperate with that kind of federal intervention. Those fears turned out to be unfounded. Within three years we had 400 families assisted with 50 rental landlords and within 10 or 15 years we had 2,000 [families assisted].”
Today the agency he heads — and helped found 35 years ago — oversees public housing developments and the Section 8 vouchers more commonly used in rural areas — in seven counties in WNC and the western Piedmont. Northwestern Regional Housing Authority serves Ashe, Alleghany, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey counties.
“Those fears of too much government red tape, the fierce independence of the mountain people not wanting to ask for or receive government assistance, none of that slowed down the quiet success of that initiative,” he added.
In early ’80s, Fowler testified twice before U.S. Congressional committees on the need for housing help in rural areas like the one the Northwestern Regional Housing Authority oversees, areas that until that time had received less help than their urban counterparts but faced their own issues of having to serve large, decentralized areas with dwindling jobs and often abject poverty.
Also, they face the same challenges as many of their urban counterparts, as their budgets are tied to that of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The urban core of Asheville, and the housing authority that oversees housing there, is the largest housing authority in the region in terms of the units it deals with. As such, it gets most of the focus.
But in fact, outside of Buncombe County there are 1,289 households in public housing developments and 4,912 households using Section 8 vouchers, the vast majority residing across the mountain’s rural communities.
And today, Fowler noted, demand for housing is high.
Public housing Section 8 units in every county in WNC have minimal or no vacancy rates. Northwestern Regional Housing Authority’s waiting list is six- to 12-months long and, he said, that’s on the good side. In Madison County, also, a resident would have to wait a year before receiving a Section 8 housing voucher.
“If you look at Hickory and Charlotte, you’re looking at four to six years, but we have a substantial waiting list and it’s almost always the same number. If we’re assisting 2,000 people, we’ve got another 2,000 on the list,” Fowler said.
Different problems, different approaches
Most public housing agencies, including in rural areas, run two different types of programs. The first is public housing, where the organization directly owns and manages a development. The latter is Section 8, where people receive vouchers they can use to obtain housing. In some cases, this can mean that a private landlord is renting to both Section 8 and non-Section 8 tenants in the same building.
While there are exceptions, Fowler said, public housing has encountered many problems, and these days Section 8 is the favored method to provide housing help, especially in rural areas.
“There are examples of well thought-out, well-located public housing, but they’re few and far between,” he said. “For the most part what we hear about are the bad concentrations of public housing that are too great a concentration of low-income households, often located well, ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ comes to mind. Governments would just put them over there. Public housing nationwide has been an important local public resources, but as a social experiment it’s not been a happy one. Some of the people placing public housing units in the ’60s and ’70s really did a disservice to the people they were trying to help.”
While the Northwestern Regional Housing Authority manages 83 public housing units, the vast majority of its assistance comes in the form of over 2,000 Section 8 vouchers, a program Fowler says offers many advantages, especially in a rural area.
“In Western North Carolina, the better answer by far is the Section 8 program,” he said. “Local governments and the federal government like it because it operates quietly and successfully and it houses people that are in great need. Sixty percent of the folks it houses have elderly or disabled household members. It provides anonymous assistance: your next-door neighbor might be receiving the benefit of Section 8 voucher assistance and you may not know it. It does not require that the person move into a ‘project.’ They can lease anywhere in the open market. It’s popular from that standpoint.
“The one drawback is that there are 4 to 5 million American households that benefit from some kind of voucher or public housing and by HUD’s own numbers there are 15 million more that need it and can’t get it,” he added. “The numbers have remained flat; we were already at 99.7 percent leasing for 2014 and now we’re at 100 percent.”
The few exceptions have been vouchers for specific populations, like veterans, and those tend to go to more urban areas.
Since the 1980s, he also noted, a tax credit program from the IRS has been the main driver of the creation of new units for low-income households, as funding for the creation of new public housing has stalled or dwindled.
Agencies like the Northwestern Regional Housing Authority competes, along with nonprofits and private companies, for those annual credits to build more housing, as Section 8 doesn’t meet the need for some households.
Representatives of multiple agencies across the mountain region have said that they face issues with the rising cost of housing and the departure of manufacturing jobs while the number of public housing units and Section 8 vouchers stands relatively still. That’s all true, Fowler said. Additionally, in many cases rural areas in particular face a sheer lack of units to meet the needs.
“We work in seven counties and 19 municipalities; almost all of them have affordability problems, particularly for seniors and singles moms,” Fowler said. “They also have availability problems. There is simply not enough decent rental housing stock.”
As one example, he said: “Ashe County is particularly affected by this problem; they’ve had a lot of manufacturing that’s moved out over the years. They’ve got a lot of folks in need, and every time we issue vouchers, especially if it’s in a small, one- or two-bedroom rentals, they are unfortunately having an extremely difficult time finding anything in that market that they can rent with that voucher. There’s simply not enough at any price.”
Watauga County is also similarly affected, though for different reasons, as more rental housing near the university and the local bus system is turned over to student housing rather than to Section 8.
“Those units are then unavailable to, for instance, disabled people that have a voucher that need to be near a bus route,” he said.
In each case, he emphasizes, urban and rural housing agencies have some different advantages and some different challenges.
Fowler said he doesn’t envy urban authorities who have to deal with drugs and violent crime, for example, “to a greater extent than we do.”
“The problems that we deal with, our urban counterparts probably wouldn’t want to take these on either,” he emphasized. “Our rural problems that we deal with are abject poverty right around the corner from some of the most expensive single-family developments in the state. Serving a dispersed rural population poses logistical challenges. It’s a half-an-hour to an hour-and-a-half drive between any of our housing field offices.”
You can help fill a knowledge gap
Despite the extent of public housing, much about the agencies controlling them in WNC remains hard to find.
In the course of covering this issue since last year, Carolina Public Press has repeatedly called every housing authority in the area. Of the nearly 17 agencies and nonprofits overseeing public housing units and Section 8 vouchers, only six agreed to answer basic questions about their operations.
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