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Mountain Projects tackles housing crisis

Mountain Projects tackles housing crisis

Social services Agency Mountain Projects continues to be at the forefront of solving the affordable housing crisis in Haywood and Jackson counties. 

While Mountain Projects has worked with the USDA in the past to develop affordable housing communities, it’s efforts have been taken a step further with the creation of the Smoky Mountain Housing Partnership. The mission of SMHP will be to improve the quality of life for families living in the communities it serves by advocating for and creating workforce housing opportunities and providing home purchasing, financial literacy, down payment, rental assistance and credit counseling assistance to residents. 

Davis said she was blessed to have dedicated volunteers and supporters who started an auxiliary committee for Mountain Projects. With the auxiliary Chairman Don McGowan’s experience and knowledge in the finance industry, she said the committee was willing to establish SMHP to try to move housing efforts down the road.

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“I’ve talked about the housing problems and have seen people paying $800 to $900 a month for rent and some of these places don’t even have floors,” Davis said. “The big goal here is to make it easier for people to become homeowners. Right now people are working 2.5 jobs to pay fair market rent in Haywood County. They could qualify for a mortgage but they don’t have the time or energy to achieve that or they don’t have enough for a down payment.”

Housing is said to be affordable when its costs are 30 percent or less of household income. When a family pays more than 30 percent of household income, they are considered to be “cost burdened.” In Haywood County, over half of all renters and 35 percent of homeowners are considered to be “housing cost burdened.” In Jackson County, 52 percent of renters and 21 percent of homeowners are “housing cost burdened.” 

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“Every day, families in Haywood and Jackson County are sacrificing basic needs like food and health care just to keep up with the rising cost of housing,” McGowan said. 

Mountain Projects also administers the Section 8 Housing program, which still has a long waiting list. Davis said there are still problems with people being kicked out by certain landlords when they are pushed to do repairs and upgrades to the units, showing that landlords have the upper hand in the market right now. In Jackson County, 261 families faced an eviction filing this year. That’s 10.3 percent of all cost burdened renters. 

“We have some great Section 8 landlords, but we also have a few that will kick them out if we complain,” Davis said. 

McCowan added that other factors impacting affordability include a lack of high-paying jobs, a strong regional real estate market that has driven up local housing prices, the large percentage of second home ownership and vacation rentals, and a lack of easy to develop land and attendant high construction costs. 

Davis said the SMHP would require pulling together every resource Mountain Projects can find to become a “one-stop shop” for those seeking help. The SMHP center will work in partnership with municipalities along with nonprofit housing providers, banks and credit unions, and state and governmental housing finance entities to provide opportunities, advice and counseling, it will also be counting on private donations and grant funding.

In order to provide start-up capital for SMHP, the Mountain Projects Auxiliary has initiated a fundraising campaign to raise $500,000. Seven families have pledged legacy gifts totaling $155,000 to support the effort and the auxiliary has made a legacy donation of $25,000. 

Davis said a total of $200,000 has been raised to date toward the $230,000 goal for contributions from “individuals and family foundations” with the remainder to come from foundations, municipalities and businesses.

Mountain Projects has developed plans to build 35 new homes for workforce housing at its Bethel Village development located in Jonathan Creek in Haywood County. Now under Mountain Projects’ ownership, Bethel Village was started by Richard Bates’ nonprofit organization, Camp Bethel, in 2012. The 50-acre tract already has several small affordable homes and the projects relied on volunteer labor and donated projects to keep the cost of the homes down for the residents. 

SMHP hopes to complete the 40-lot development. The workforce housing will be targeted for policemen and policewomen, firefighters, teachers, and EMS employees.

Plans are also being developed for building five units of workforce housing on Second Avenue in Sylva. 

In addition to its workforce housing plans, SMHP is exploring the idea of a tiny home demonstration project. SMHP will work with Western Carolina University and the Tiny Home Development Center to design and build a tiny home development of five to 10 homes that will be available at affordable rents. Target populations will include seniors and military veterans in need. The development will include a community garden, tenant gathering area and edible landscaping. 

“We’re exploring tiny houses as a concept. I wasn’t a fan of tiny houses at first but after attending an affordable housing conference in Atlanta and seeing them firsthand I think they’re great and could work here,” Davis said. 

She also visited a tiny home village in Greensboro and met people who had worked their way from prison to owning his own business thanks to a tiny house. 

“Tiny houses could be a solution for Pathways and people that are on the road to recovery,” Davis said. “But also, I had an elderly couple contact me and specifically wanted a tiny house because they didn’t want a big house to take care of. There’s so much opportunity there.”

Mountain Projects has been a long-time player in the region’s affordable housing effort. It manages the section 8 voucher program, rehabilitates housing and has developed more than 50 new affordable housing units. Haywood Habitat for Humanity is the only other nonprofit agency in the county that has produced just as many affordable houses for those who qualify. 

To make a donation to the Smoky Mountain Housing Partnership, send a check to Mountain Projects, 2177 Asheville Rd., Waynesville, NC 28786, or visit mountainprojects.org.

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