Apartment hunters keep hunting and hunting, as housing directors report long waits.

Mareena Wright organizes items she plans to sell in a yard sale before she and husband, Richard, move to a new Asheville apartment. ‘There are so few choices for us,’ she said. Click to view slideshow. Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

The Craigslist ad tears at your heart. Under the heading of Asheville housing, it reads, “Retired couple seeking room.”

“We are a retired couple, in our mid 50s, seeking housing,” it says. “Husband is disabled and uses a wheelchair. Wife is artist and caregiver. We can pay up to $600 per month. We have two well-behaved cats. We are quiet, friendly, and enjoy living in community.

‘An impossible task’

Mareena and Richard Wright, both in their late 50s and living in town, were having a hard time finding a suitable, affordable place to live. Mareena looked all around, calling numbers she saw in IWANNA and responding to posts she saw on Craigslist. The only ad she heard back from, though, was posted by a reporter to three dozen people looking to rent, asking them to talk about how easy or difficult it is to find an affordable place in Western North Carolina.

“It felt like an impossible task, and pretty hopeless,” was Mareena’s recent assessment of trying to find an apartment. Richard, a bilateral amputee, listened nearby. “There are so few choices for us, and we don’t have very much money. Apartments are expensive in Asheville. The least expensive ones we found were $550, $600” a month, she said.

Demand fuels market

Like many cities, Asheville’s rental market is expensive because demand is high. Job layoffs, reduced hours, foreclosures and an overall sluggish economy are some of the reasons people are turning to the rental market. Even many with good jobs prefer to rent because they don’t think they can get a loan.

“So a lot of folks are sitting back and waiting until they have more confidence to buy,” said Scott Dedman, executive director of Mountain Housing Opportunities, an affordable housing agency in Asheville. “They have to live somewhere, so they’re renting. And that increases the demand, relative to the supply.”

The median contract rent in Buncombe County in 2010 was $642, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, that rent in Mitchell County between 2006-2010 was $316. The Census Bureau estimates that one out of four renters in Mitchell County is paying more than 35 percent of their income for housing. Housing officials consider housing affordable if it consumes no more than 30 percent of a household’s income.

“The economy has put us in a situation where there is definitely a greater demand,” said Lanell Ramsey, housing director of the Isothermal Planning and Development Commission, which serves Rutherford, Cleveland, Polk and McDowell counties.

It opened its Section 8 housing assistance waiting list in November 2011, and within two days, it had 500 applicants (300 were deemed eligible, Ramsey said).

“That’s an indication of extreme need,” she said. Isothermal closed the application process and won’t open it again until everyone on the list have been served.

The list is down to 190 families, and the other families have been issued housing vouchers. But “we’ll be lucky” if 60 percent of them are able to pay security and utility deposits and find housing that meets federal requirements, Ramsey said. For example, only 230 families of the 366 that received vouchers in fiscal year 2011 were able to initiate a lease.

A potential year-long wait?

The Wrights moved to Asheville in 2007 to be closer to their daughter. They had been living in Washington, D.C., where Mareena was a research methodologist doing work for government agencies and Richard, before he lost a leg in a motorcycle accident (and the other to a wound that wouldn’t heal), was a dialysis technician. Richard, Mareena’s husband of 35 years, has heart disease and trouble breathing. A tank of oxygen rides on his electric wheelchair. He sleeps in a hospital-type bed. His condition got worse during the move from D.C.

The Wrights live on Richard’s $1,200 monthly disability check. Richard’s disability is getting worse – he almost died last year, his wife said – and needs wide doors and a curbless threshold to get into the house with his wheelchair. They can afford about $600 a month, if the place includes utilities.

His special needs made it harder than average to find a place. All the people with rooms that Mareena called said it wouldn’t work – their place wasn’t handicapped accessible, or they didn’t want a couple or they didn’t want cats.

Mareena Wright (right) spreads lotion on her husband, Richard, last Friday. Like many renters looking for housing options, the two searched for a long time to find an affordable and accessible apartment in Asheville. Their search was particularly challenging because Richard is confined to a wheelchair. Click to view slideshow. Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

The Wrights didn’t want much – a room was fine and actually preferred, Mareena said. They’d tried finding one last summer but gave up in part because they were continually told no. She called the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville and was told they’d be on the waiting list for more than a year.

More than 1,000 waiting for Housing Authority help

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Noele Tackett, the resident selection coordinator for Housing Authority of the City of Asheville.

Its public housing waiting list has 1,050 names on it.

One-bedroom units are the most requested situation – 850 people on the waiting list want one, but they’ll wait anywhere between one and two years for it, Tackett said. For a two- to five-bedroom apartment, the wait is 6 to 12 months.

There’s been so much demand for the Section 8 voucher program that the Asheville housing authority closed the waiting list in May, with 1,400 names on it. Tackett estimates it will take 2 to 5 years to serve all those people, at which time the authority will reopen the program. It gets calls “daily” from people who don’t know the list is closed, she said.

“We hear a lot of folks say their hours have decreased at work, or they’ve lost their jobs,” Tackett said.

John Tripp, in his early 40s, has tried to live in Asheville several times, but he just can’t make it here, it seems.

“There’s just not the work in Asheville,” he said recently from Charleston, S.C.

The last time he tried to find work – he’s a waiter when he’s not building Web sites – he camped in the Mills River area of the Pisgah National Forest. This was just a few months ago. He set up his tent in a free primitive camping area.

The experience was unsettling in many ways. He opened his tent one day, and there was a mama bear and her cubs.

“They ran off,” he said, “and it scared me. But what I was more concerned about were people.”

Some of his fellow campers were families, some were loners. Many seemed destitute, he said. Someone broke into his tent while he was gone and stole some expensive camping gear. After weeks of trying to find a server’s job and a house to share, he gave up on Asheville again, packing up his tent and moving to the Low Country, where he’s making mad money working in a restaurant. He moved into a house, finding the situation he’d hoped to find in Asheville.

“What I tell people is to come to Charleston,” he said. “I got a job here in a week.”

Even employed people are having a hard time finding affordable rentals, it seems.

In 2010, when Mountain Housing Opportunities opened up leases on 60 affordably priced apartments it created in a new building next to the old Glen Rock Hotel on Depot Street, it received more than 2,000 telephone calls and over 500 applications, Dedman said.

In downtown, where MHO and the Eagle-Market Streets Development Corp. hope to build 70 apartments in the historic hub of Asheville’s African-American community, they have learned from a market study “that we could build several thousand apartments and still lease them quickly,” Dedman said.

Finally. An apartment.

After several weeks of searching, the Wrights got lucky. One of the rent-subsidized apartment complexes that Mareena called had a space, but only because the wheelchair occupant who had it had died just two days before. “The apartment had literally just come open,” Mareena said. She and Richard plan to move in on May 4.

Because the rent is limited to 30 percent of their income, the Wrights will pay $400 a month. Water and garbage service are included, but they’ll have to arrange for their own electricity and cable. As this story was being written, they hadn’t seen the apartment. But Mareena didn’t care.

“I said as long as I can get in the door and the bathroom, I don’t really care what it looks like,” she said.

Richard and Mareena Wright, of Asheville, found an Asheville apartment after a difficult search. Click to view slideshow. Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated the location of Mountain Housing Opportunities’ new apartments on Depot Street. They are in a new building next to the Glen Rock Hotel. “Later this year, we will be renovating the top two floors of the old hotel building for an additional 22 affordable apartments,” Executive Director Scott Dedman said.

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Paul Clark is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at paulgclark@charter.net.

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