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Housing shortages are affecting all parts of WNC.

Recent media reports about housing in the Asheville area have drawn attention to the issue in the region’s largest urban market. But statements from the heads of public-housing agencies from Cherokee to Boone describe difficulties across the entire region as well.

Ned Fowler, executive director of the Northwestern Regional Housing Authority, covering seven counties in the western Piedmont and WNC, sees the problem getting much worse as the region’s housing supply continues to age. The building focus over the last few decades has been on expensive vacation housing rather than more affordable units, leaving families searching for housing in a particular bind.

“There’s not an incentive right now for the private market to replace that housing,” he said. “The people who are going to need replacement housing as that stuff ages out cannot compete in the rental and home market.

“That’s really the scariest part of this for me. Those are mostly young families starting out, or the elderly and disabled on fixed incomes. And the market is just not that interested in them.”

Fowler is not alone in his concerns. Heads of public-housing agencies in other counties also describe a lack of usable units fueling demand for their services.

Statistics gathered to track the situation often miss important parts of the story – with much of the vacancies that exist on paper consisting either of unaffordable luxury dwellings priced too high for most people or aged and decrepit housing in which no one wants to live. And market trends appear to be driving up the numbers of homes in those categories.

Taking stock

Faced with a particularly acute shortage as its popularity has grown but wages remained stagnant, the Asheville area has already paid attention to the housing challenge, with the city and local agencies trying to get a grasp on the extent of the shortage over the past several years.

The Asheville Regional Housing Consortium, a group of local housing agencies and governments, last year commissioned the Bowen Report, covering Buncombe, Madison, Henderson and Transylvania counties.

The consultants conducting the Bowen Report pulled together information from multiple agencies and reports, including the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and private research firms. The report also involved “stakeholder interviews” with public officials, developers, landlords, non-profit agencies, families seeking housing and more.

The report identified substantial housing shortages throughout the four-county area, with almost no vacancies in key categories, such as multifamily apartments or houses for sale.

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The issue extended beyond what was affordable for the area’s working class and well into middle-income levels. Unless people make more than $70,000 a year, the report found they would have a difficult time finding housing they could afford.

Based on the report, Asheville officials dubbed the situation a “crisis” and began searching for new ways to address the situation.

But while some WNC housing officials have cited critical shortages, assessing the situation in other areas can be difficult. Local authorities, often with limited budgets, don’t issue regular detailed reports like the Bowen document that measure the number of vacancies or the existence of a housing shortage.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t do this either. While it keeps detailed numbers on the amount of public housing offered throughout the region (nearly 10,000 WNC households receive some kind of federal housing assistance), it doesn’t monitor vacancy rates. In response to a Carolina Public Press records request, a representative of the department’s Atlanta office informed CPP that the agency doesn’t keep such statistics on hand.

However, the national Housing Assistance Council does compile county-by-county reports on a number of statistics, including vacancy rates. The HAC’s latest data, covering 2009-13, provides a glimpse into housing stock and shortages.

Like the Bowen report, the HAC draws from data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, especially the American Community Survey. That’s an ongoing survey conducted by the federal government that reaches about 1 in 38 Americans a year, and collects data on everything from internet usage to minority-owned businesses to, importantly, housing vacancy rates.

The average vacancy nationwide is 12.5 percent, according to those numbers. In WNC, every county but Buncombe has a higher vacancy rate than that, the HAC says. But those vacancy rates include everything from expensive homes intended as vacation getaways to more modest housing.

Notably, the Bowen report’s findings, which delved more into vacancies for specific types of units like multifamily apartments or senior citizens’ housing, found a tougher situation than the HAC reports might indicate at first glance.

Not the whole story

The Northwestern Regional Housing Authority and other agencies do use the HAC and census numbers, but are cautious about their reliability.

Fowler, who’s dealt with housing shortages in rural areas for more than three decades, notes that the vacancy rates don’t tell the whole story, and can sometimes give an idea of the amount of housing available in WNC that’s “a little misleading.”

“A lot of the stock that’s out there that’s vacant are — and I hate to use the vernacular — dogs,” he told CPP. “They’re dwelling units that are old, that haven’t been kept up.”

Fowler notes that the difficulty can particularly affect families, with three bedroom and up housing particularly difficult to find at any workable rate.

Aging housing, he said, is also a major issue that goes beyond the vacancy rate. While more than 60 percent of housing nationally was built at least 25 years ago, in rural counties facing poverty that housing’s more likely to show its age and even pose major health or safety issues.

Thirteen of WNC’s 18 counties have higher rates of older housing than the national average and in some — like Mitchell, Rutherford and McDowell — that rate is considerably higher.

Path to a housing shortage

Current or soon-to-be WNC residents doing their own housing searches will likely run headlong into the shortage.

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Searching around a site like Zillow, for example, reveals housing for sale or rent that is either quite expensive compared to other regional markets or no longer in good condition. The divide is something multiple housing officials have pointed to: aging or even decrepit housing alongside luxury homes.

While poverty has long been an issue in WNC, Fowler noted that the housing trend really shifted in the late 1980s when tax laws changed, giving developers far fewer incentives to build housing for locals.

“It especially hit Western North Carolina because private investment immediately went elsewhere,” he said.

Much of that spending went toward more expensive homes for well-off retirees or vacationers. Fowler said the last three decades have seen minimal investment in new rental housing at affordable rates, except for some student housing near universities.

“As a result of that, the rental-housing stock … in these small counties is older and does not have the amenities modern renters have come to expect,” Fowler said.

“The pent up demand over a 30-year period of no production is the reason we have housing stock problems.”

Regarding the situation in the counties his agency covers, Fowler said the lack of housing is clear when you begin checking into the market.

“If you talk to the larger rental management companies in the area, they’ll tell you,” he said. “In fact I’ve talked to them in the last two weeks — they’re full.

“Even if you get into the outlying counties the vacancy rates are a little misleading. There again, we have direct primary source data from folks going out looking. There’s very little to choose from.”

David Forbes

David Forbes is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press. Contact him at thebreakingtime@gmail.com.

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