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Housing trust fund plan under development in Jackson

Housing trust fund plan under development in Jackson

Housing is an issue across Western North Carolina, and Jackson County is no exception. Since June 2018, a newly created Housing Committee has been working toward solutions, and during an Aug. 13 work session the group showed county commissioners an early draft of a document to establish a housing trust fund for Jackson. 

The trust fund would enact a system of grants and loans designed to enhance housing opportunities affordable for people making a maximum 120 percent of the area median income, a ceiling of $54,000 based on 2017 numbers. “Affordable,” according to the draft document, means that the total cost of housing doesn’t exceed 30 percent of household income — that would be $1,300 per month for somebody making 120 percent of the area median income. 

“We’re not getting our door beat down with developers wanting to come in and provide this type of service, so we’re not quite sure who’s going to come in and ask the question and what their needs might be, so we tried to be a little more broad so we could capture more ideas and vet those ideas based on their proposals,” Planning Director Michael Poston said during an Aug. 13 work session. 

As planning director, Poston is a member of the committee, which also includes the economic development director, county attorney and one representative each from the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority and Mountain Projects. 

Once established, the Jackson County Housing Trust Fund would aim to address eight different priorities: development of one, two and three-bedroom affordable rental housing; transportation-oriented development; removal of health and safety risks in existing housing stock; projects that satisfy more than one need and/or involve several partner entities; prioritizing projects in which trust fund money serves as gap financing that enables projects to move forward that otherwise would not; acquiring land for mixed-income housing; developing housing for people with disabilities; and developing housing with tenant selection plans that comply with the Fair Housing Act of 1968. 

A variety of activities would be eligible for assistance under the draft plan. The trust fund could offer loans to developers to install infrastructure, purchase land, convert non-residential buildings into housing or rehabilitate substandard housing units. Income-eligible homeowners could receive loans for housing repairs or grants for emergency housing repairs. Grants could also be given to help acquire land for housing development, construct housing units, acquire vacant housing for rehabilitation, improve the public water and sewer system, and complete street and pedestrian improvements. 

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Those offerings wouldn’t come free. Some of the money for the trust fund would come from county coffers, but the plan is to also pursue funding from the N.C. Housing Finance Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as grants from private foundations. 

Still, it may not be possible to attack all eight priorities at once. At some point, said County Manager Don Adams, commissioners will need to prioritize their goals. The task force is currently working on a housing survey to get a better read on what particular needs exist in Jackson County, and those results will likely help commissioners make those decisions, Poston said. 

“What we want to do is make sure we understand the priorities of the board, but we also want the data to back up those priorities,” said Adams. 

Jackson County is not the only local government interested in spurring the development of affordable and workforce housing within its jurisdiction. In January, the Town of Waynesville unanimously adopted an affordable housing policy that allows the town to offer grants to developers as gap funding to offset the cost of construction and occupancy for such housing. However, Jackson’s draft plan calls for a program much more extensive than that now in place in Waynesville. Instead of providing only grants, and only to housing developers, the program would offer loans as well and provide options for homeowners, public housing agencies and local governments in addition to developers. 

“Grants typically would be a smaller dollar amount, but loans at a lower interest rate than what they may be able to find elsewhere may be more appealing, especially for larger projects,” said Poston. 

The draft plan gives a pretty strong outline of what the county is considering, but several key points are yet to be decided. The document would state the maximum grant amount that could be awarded as well as a system for determining the maximum loan amount that could be awarded to any given developer or homeowner, but so far those numbers are blank. Commissioners will be asked to help fill in those blanks at a later date, said Adams. 

Overall, commissioners seemed favorable toward the concepts presented. 

“I ran into a young couple who have been living here in Jackson County and renting and were ready to buy a home, and they said they looked everywhere in Jackson County and could not find a home that they could afford, and so they’re buying in Macon County. And it just broke my heart,” said Commissioner Gayle Woody. “They’re the kind of people we would love to have in our community. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think this is a great start.”

The county should also look at reaching out to contractors, Woody said. Part of the problem is that they’re able to stay busy with building more lucrative, higher-end projects, meaning that there’s little interest in tackling affordable and workforce housing developments. Perhaps the county could offer a workshop or some type of forum for developers to learn about grants or other options that might make such projects more attractive, she said. 

“A lot of it comes down to personal preference,” added Chairman Brian McMahan. 

Much of Jackson’s housing stock is older, constructed in the 1950s or so. If a potential resident is looking for something newer, they might end up passing on the options available in Jackson County. 

“We have a lot of consumers today that walk into the market with an idea in their mind of this is what I have to have, and maybe available housing stock doesn’t meet that idea, so that’s why they end up going to Macon County,” McMahan said. 

The availability of broadband internet plays into it as well, said Economic Development Director Rich Price. 

“We hear from some of the larger employers that they recruit people in, if they can find a place that they like and they can afford, they probably won’t buy it because it doesn’t have access to high-speed internet,” he said. “So it’s a problem that has multiple roots.”

Commissioners also discussed how open-ended they should leave the plan. Should it contain strict criteria as to how much assistance and for what the trust fund could be used? Or should those decisions be made on a case-by-case basis?

“This is almost an economic development conversation. It is an economic development conversation,” said Adams. “So when you look at potential incentives or a deal that Rich (Price) would get directly involved in, we don’t have a set standard because Rich is trying to work with a developer to try to find that point to help them make that decision. That point for them, that’s different for different businesses.”

It’s a knotty problem, but the county has to find answers that work for the era it’s in. McMahan told the group about a little book he’s got that his grandpa kept when he was building his house while working at the Dayco rubber plant. 

“I’ve got a list of the materials, said McMahan. So and so provided this lumber. He went down to the sawmill and got this lumber. This one did the framing, this one done this. There was a group of men come together and they built the house and it’s still standing, probably much sturdier today than what a lot of houses are. 

“But it’s a whole different time that we live in. Building is so complicated today.”

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