County's housing trust sets new focus
by Kellen Moore
Instead of pursuing single-family home ownership as its ultimate goal, the nonprofit is now exploring the possibility of a short-term, rental-based community aimed toward workers who don't make enough to live in the Boone area.
"I don't think it's a step back," said Scott Eggers, a member of the housing trust board of directors. "I think it's a step into reality for us."
The housing trust has its roots in a May 2002 summit hosted by the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce. With wide community interest in affordable or workforce housing, an ad hoc committee formed, later morphing into a task force and then breaking off into a "penniless, landless" independent nonprofit in 2009, Eggers said.
"The population group we're really focused on are those people who make too much to qualify for government-assisted housing but a heck of a lot less than is necessary to actually purchase a reasonable or a decent home in our area," Eggers said.
In specific terms, the primary target is families who earn between 80 percent and 120 percent of the area's median income, said county Planning and Inspections Director Joe Furman, an at-large member of the housing trust. That equates to roughly $45,000 to $60,000 per year for a family of four, he said.
The generally accepted rule is that housing that is "affordable" will consume no more than 30 percent of the family's annual income, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Despite continued discussion and interest in the topic, advocates have not been able to achieve many tangible, affordable housing options in Watauga County.
At a November 2012 meeting, Furman happened to be seated next to Alan Rice Jr., the executive director of the Rural Faith Development Community Development Corporation. Rice's corporation consults with faith groups and nonprofits to improve rural communities, and the two talked about the difficulties the housing trust has experienced, Rice said.
That triggered a partnership in which Rice began helping the housing trust to re-identify its priorities and strategies. The result was a decision to work toward a community of renters instead of homeowners.
"It was a sobering reality but, nonetheless, necessary if we were going to have any type of success," Eggers said. "Obviously, 11 years later, just something tangible is what's really important, that we in some way address this and then crawl before we walk. We may have been, for a long time, trying to sprint."
Now, the board is preparing to have a master plan and sketch created that it hopes to present to the commissioners in late spring, Eggers said. Community input and feedback will be key, he said.
The housing trust is interested in using a 14-acre, county-owned property near the Ted Mackorell Soccer Complex, Eggers said, and the plan will be created with that property in mind.
The ideal project would be a public-private partnership, with local governments providing land, as well as water and sewer access, and a private developer constructing the buildings, Eggers said.
The housing trust believes it could legally prohibit students from renting the apartments, but Eggers said the plan is not far enough along to determine how residents would become part of the community.
The housing trust recently visited Rose Glen Village, a senior housing community in Wilkesboro, to get a sense of the scale that might be appropriate for affordable housing in Watauga County. Eggers said he was surprised to learn that it would probably take about 100-120 units to attract developer interest, he said.
"What they designed, at least at Rose Glen, doesn't have that complex feel," he said. "It feels homey."
While the details are far from complete, members of the housing trust agree that the need for workforce housing is still present.
"The statistics seem to show that the needs are the same, and the talk around the community is that the needs are the same," Furman said.
Just weeks ago, the Boone Town Council approved additions to its multi-family housing regulations designed to create more housing suitable for families and the workforce, although critics are skeptical it will have the intended effect.
Rice said Boone and the surrounding area are pinched because of a series of "wonderful problems," including a growing university and highly valued mountain land.
"Who gets pushed out of that are not only the folks on the lower end of the economic spectrum, but the very people you want to recruit to your town," Rice said.
Rice said the housing trust includes strong representatives who are committed to finding solutions for affordable housing, a point that Eggers echoed.
"We're at a real crossroads," Eggers said. "It's time to stop meeting and put a vision on paper, and then the community, and the commissioners, as well as the town of Boone, would have to decide if indeed that were a priority that everybody jumped on the bandwagon and brought to reality."