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Affordable housing issues on Haywood County’s horizon

Affordable housing issues on Haywood County’s horizon

Anecdotal accounts of a tight housing market have long swirled about Haywood County, but a quick look at hard data shows why a task force has been studying the issue of affordable housing since March.

“This is really a community-led initiative,” said Dona J. Stewart, co-chair of the Haywood County Affordable Housing Task Force. “Back in March, Patsy Davis (executive director of Mountain Projects Community Action Agency and co-chair of the task force) gave a presentation to the board of county commissioners. As a practitioner and provider in the housing arena she — as well as others in that community — is seeing that there’s really a need for the county to take a look at it more holistically.”

Mountain Projects administers Section 8 rental assistance in Haywood and Jackson counties; clients who meet income thresholds can qualify for subsidy vouchers if their potential housing passes a basic inspection.

Davis said some years ago the Mountain Projects board of directors put a priority on serving the homeless, the elderly and the disabled. The organization began maintaining a waiting list for people in need of affordable housing units, but it didn’t take long for the list to get out of control. 

“We had to close the waiting lists because we had hundreds of names,” Davis said. “We were not prepared for the magnitude of need we saw.”

Mountain Projects began to look at the local rental market, comparing it to the median income in Haywood County. What Davis found was that an average person in Haywood County would have to work 2.5 jobs to pay their rent.  

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Davis said that she believes the area has a shortage of 11,000 affordable housing units. 

“There are people out there working incredibly hard and can’t afford rent,” she said. “So this motivated me to bring it to the attention of others. We alone can’t fix it, but hopefully the community can come up with some creative solutions.”

To that end, Stewart, who earned a Ph.D. in geography from the University of Florida, started work in April, and began conducting initial research in May. 

“It’s something I have personal interest in, and something that we collectively thought my skills would be well applied to,” she said. “So I started to work on an affordable housing assessment for the county.”

housinggraphThe overall goal of that assessment, Stewart said, is to provide a baseline from which findings can be made and a course of action can be plotted.  

“Once we have a better understanding of the situation then we can begin to look at what the task force is going to do, and what our strategy is going to be,” she said. 

Although she refused to discuss the results of that assessment or even the types of data collected, she said that she hoped the task force would release some of the findings in an Aug. 29 meeting.

Haywood County Manager Ira Dove, however, did tease out some details at an Aug. 22 Haywood County Council of Governments meeting in Maggie Valley.

One of the ideas behind the assessment, Dove said, is to determine how Haywood County is growing; he hinted at the differences between in-migration and natural increase by birth rate, and also mentioned that Haywood County’s already-elderly population will increase from 24 percent today to more than 30 percent by 2030.

Other interesting topics the 50-page report is likely to contain will provide what Dove called “deep statistics,” but at a very basic level, there are some easily discoverable realities about finding affordable housing in Haywood County. 

For example, elementary consumer economics dictates that buying a home comes down to two factors — the resources of the buyer, and the price dictated by the free market. 

A common rule of thumb when buying an affordable home is to look in a price range around two times one’s annual salary; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median value of owner-occupied housing units in Haywood County from 2010 to 2014 was $157,200 in 2014 dollars.

The problem is the median household income, which in Haywood County over the same period was just $41,795.

The median value of owner-occupied housing units as compared to the median household income works out to a ratio that is compared across countries, cities, and counties. 

According to The Economist, that ratio for the entire United States was 3.3 in the first quarter of 2015, meaning the average value of an American home was more than three times the income of those living in it. 

In cities with high-priced markets like San Francisco and New York, that number is much greater — 9.1 in Frisco, and 5.6 in the Big Apple. Closer to home, Atlanta is a more reasonable 2.7. 

Haywood County’s ratio works out to roughly 3.76, which means that in order for that average family to afford an average Haywood County home, they’d need to have a household income of $78,600 per year.  

Were that ratio closer to 2.0, the average family in Haywood County would be able to afford a home valued at just under $85,000. 

So what can one get for $85,000 in Haywood County? According to a property search conducted on the website of Waynesville’s ReMax Mountain Realty, not much. 

Only 28 homes were listed for sale in that price range on Aug. 22; of those, four had three bedrooms and 13 had two bedrooms, meaning a “household” comprised of more than one person — perhaps a married couple or domestic partners with a Plott Hound and a child or three — currently has just 17 options. 

The average square footage of those 28 properties was 804, but several of the homes on the list were in foreclosure or were not move-in ready. 

For a single person who still manages to earn as much as an entire household in Haywood County, the cheapest one bedroom available was a $35,000 868 square-foot lender-owned fixer-upper in Canton.

In outlying counties, the situation gets worse. 

Jackson and Macon Counties both have higher median property values than Haywood County, but both have lower median household incomes. Swain County has both the lowest property values, and the lowest median income. 

“It’s time for more than just talk,” Dove said. “And these are only the first steps.”

News Editor Jessi Stone contributed to this story.

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