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Affordable housing on the plateau

Each weekend, Carol Austin figures out what meals her family is going to eat during the upcoming workweek. She shops for groceries and fills her vehicle’s gasoline tank before Monday morning.


Austin works at Highlands Lawn and Garden but lives in nearby Satolah, Ga. She doesn’t want to buy anything in this resort area if it can be avoided.

“I drive here, I drive home,” Austin said. “I do not stop. You can’t afford to buy groceries up here, and you can’t afford to buy gas.”

Austin turns to two co-workers, also both from Satolah.

“Do you remember the last time you ate out?” she asks.

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The other two shook their heads as they continued to eat lunch, prepared that morning in their homes.


A sense of disassociation

Like much of the workforce serving Highlands and nearby Cashiers, Sapphire and Lake Toxaway, these women feel little kinship with the communities that line the crest of the Blue Ridge escarpment where North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina kiss.

They come here to work, but they do so in an area dedicated to providing fun times for the affluent. Highlands, founded as a summer resort, has long attracted flatlanders anxious to escape the heat and play in the mountains.

“You can’t live in Highlands if you don’t have old family land that just gets handed down to you,” nursery worker Donna Rogers said. “But just 10 miles down the mountain can make a world of difference.”

The sense of disassociation many workers express worries some in this Macon County resort town, which has a year-round population of just less than 950. The town’s chamber of commerce estimates that the Highlands’ area — which includes sections outside of town — has a total of about 3,200 full-time residents, with that number swelling to at least 18,000 during the summer months.


Building a sustainable community

“You ought to be able – if you want to – to live and work in the same community,” said MaryAnn Sloan, a Highlands resident and member of a town committee tasked with studying affordable housing.

The group met Friday (April 27) at Highlands’ Hudson Library.

In a recent survey by the affordable housing committee, 41 out of 145 people asked said they’d be interested in living in Highlands if moderately priced housing were available. Seventeen said they might be interested. The survey was sent to employees at the Highlands Police Department, Highlands School and the Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, which represent most of the year-round employees in this seasonal town.

Nursery worker Margie Owens would like to live in Highlands, and has enrolled her son, a sixth-grader, at Highlands School. But finding a home that’s affordable hasn’t been possible.

“It just keeps getting more expensive,” Owens said.

The inability of working-class people to integrate with others here threatens the “community-like flavor” of the town, said Lee Hodges, a member of the affordable housing committee.


What’s next

Hodges owns a commercial business with residential apartments overhead, probably the most common rental situation in Highlands. Tenants pay $700 a month for her 800-square-foot, fully furnished apartments. She’s on the low end of the area’s rental scale, where monthly payments can hit $1,000 for a single-family home.

The Housing and Urban Development agency defines affordable housing as meaning a household shouldn’t spend more than 30 percent of its income on rent and utilities.

The median home price in 2005 in Highlands was $662,000, and 291 houses in the district are valued at more than $1 million.

Sloan said the affordable housing committee, appointed by Mayor Don Mullen, believes that it is possible to stem the tide.

Following the meeting, members said they realized soon after forming that they needed to expand the original mission to truly address the unique needs facing Highlands. The eight members are now also studying how to get additional childcare into the area and, perhaps, an affordably priced retail store.

They plan to attend a housing conference in May to gather information, and to visit or contact other communities with similar issues.

Mission of the Affordable Housing Taskforce

• Study the need for affordable housing on the Highlands plateau.

• Investigate available resources.

• Submit findings to Planning Board and Town board within 3 to 6 months.

Highlands Housing Questionnaire

Survey group: police department, Highlands School, Highlands-Cashiers Hospital

Total responses: 145

Postal zip code of respondents:

Highlands: 47 (32 percent)

Cashiers: 13 (9 percent)

Clayton, Ga.: 4 (3 percent)

Cullowhee: 4 (3 percent)

Dillard: 5 (3 percent)

Franklin: 35 (24 percent)

Otto: 7 (5 percent)

Scaly Mountain: 6 (4 percent)

Other: 24 (17 percent)

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