By Beth Lawrence
Jackson County has had issues meeting rental housing needs for years, especially affordable housing, but the problem has reached a breaking point this year.
Mountain Projects Director Patsy Davis has seen the problem worsen steadily each year to the point that the organization can no longer even offer people the hope of signing onto a waiting list for assistance.
“The waiting list for Section 8 is closed, so there’s a bottleneck in the pipeline where people can’t even apply for help,” Davis said. “We have to make that difficult decision about closing it when there get to be more names on that list than we can manage. We’re here to help the community; we’re here to help people, (but) there comes a point in time where you just can’t offer the help that people need.”
Mountain Projects closed the Section 8 list in August. The income-based program offers financial assistance to tenants whose rent would exceed 30 percent of their total income. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds the program. HUD standards allow for rent no greater than $646 a month for a zero bedroom flat to $1,339 per month for a four-bedroom home. Subsidies are paid directly to the landlord.
The list closes when hundreds of applicants are backlogged and Mountain Projects would not be able to assist each person within two years, Assistant Director Brooke Smith said.
Not only is the list long, no one is dropping off. Typically, those who are waiting find other assistance, find housing they can afford or their financial situation improves.
“We send out our interest letter (asking), ‘Are you still interested in your voucher,” she said. “What’s happening in Jackson County is there’s still interest. A lot of time you’ll send letters out, and their situation will have changed. They no longer need the assistance, and they won’t reply to it, but for every round of letters that we send out, we’re getting people returning the packet, contacting us and saying, ‘I’m still interested; I still need this assistance.’”
The problem is compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. People already receiving Section 8 have lost jobs or had work hours reduced and require more help with rent thereby decreasing funds to help new applicants. Additionally, new rentals are not becoming available in an already tight market due to an eviction moratorium which lasts through Jan. 31.
Smith is happy people are not being thrown into the streets, but the moratorium further complicates her job.
Another complication arises when a landlord has the option of charging an independent renter more for a home than HUD allows, the owner often chooses the market rate tenant, Davis said.
A lack of affordable housing, whether market rate or subsidized, impacts the county’s economy. Renters move to counties with available housing they can afford taking them out of the county’s workforce and taking revenue elsewhere.
“The lack of affordable housing, or simply housing in general, causes Jackson County to be a net importer of workforce to serve our community,” Economic Development Director, Rich Price said. “Jackson County’s largest employers, including WCU, Harris Regional, Harrah’s Cherokee, and others, employee a significant number of people that are living outside of Jackson County. Our small business community, from Cashiers to Qualla, finds it difficult to identify, hire and retain employees simply because of the lack of availability of affordable housing. Intuitively, those individuals are then spending more money in those surrounding counties for goods and services, which causes revenue leakage and furthers a negative economic impact here at home.”
A recent study of housing needs found a great need for both subsidized and market rate housing. The investigation found in part the Sylva area could accommodate up to 92 market rate, or workforce rentals. The need for subsidized housing was greater. In total, the study found that the county needs to add up to 500 subsidized rental units and 200 affordable units over the next five years to meet growing needs.
Davis believes incentives at the national, state, and local levels might spur developers to invest in constructing affordable housing.
She does not know what can be done to help those that might fall by the wayside in the meantime.
“Unfortunately, I think we’re going to be dealing with the fallout of this pandemic for years to come,” Davis said. “Even when those moratoriums end, my great fear is that we’re going to see increased homelessness at a rapid pace. It’s so discouraging when you can’t help meet all the needs that you see, especially when people didn’t do anything wrong. They’re victims of what’s going on in the world right now.”