By Beth Lawrence
As Jackson County grows, so grows the need for housing, and that need extends far beyond vacation rentals and second homes.
There is a dire need for affordable housing, or workforce housing, for individuals who keep a community running and growing such as teachers, first responders and service industry staff.
The issue has troubled the county for some time and looks to continue, Mountain Projects Director Patsy Davis said.
“We do a comprehensive needs assessment every three years,” Davis said. “The first needs assessment in my career as a director was in 1999; and in 1999 that Community Needs Assessment showed one of the greatest needs in our community was affordable housing.”
The reasons are many, but one large obstacle is the beautiful landscape that draws many to the area, said Planning Director Mike Poston.
“In the broad sense, at least from the Planning perspective, it’s hard to develop in Jackson County,” Poston said. “Part of that is due to our topography.”
The county’s 2040 Land Use Plan contains a county map showing the potential for development across Jackson.
“The low development potential has a purple hue,” Poston said. “And you see a lot of purple on that map. That includes steep slopes over 36 percent, floodways, land that’s in federal control. We have 70,000 acres-plus that’s under federal control.”
There is moderately developable land such as slopes between 20 and 35 percent and developable floodplain.
A third category is land more easily improved.
The problem with those areas is they are already largely established.
“It’s where you’d expect it to be because it’s where development already is,” Poston said. “Sylva, Dillsboro, Webster, Cullowhee, Forest Hills areas, the 441 corridor, in and around the Qualla Boundary, the Cashiers area which is the areas that happen to be developed. I think that’s the first thing I kind of point out to folks that’s something we have to look at. It’s any development, but it certainly impacts housing.”
Fewer improvable areas are available because Jackson’s valleys are less broad than neighboring counties like Macon.
When a piece of property is developable, topography again comes into play when preparing for construction with grading, drainage issues and soil erosion concerns.
Rock can be an issue when running utilities like electricity or water and sewer.
Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority frequently encounters rock on projects. To run the necessary lines they must blast or drill through.
“We try to avoid that by rerouting, when possible, but often that is not an option,” TWSA Director Daniel Manring said.
The extra work put into site development increases construction costs.
Sometimes those costs put building a new home out of the reach of the average working person and make it difficult for developers who would build apartments or subdivisions to offer them to consumers at affordable rates.
Davis believes the scarcity of available housing can be attributed to more than lack of development. One issue she sees is more development of high-end housing and less housing for all income levels.
Davis noted a study that counted the number of lower income housing units in the 200s.
Another factor is tourism.
“In Jackson County we are really struggling with losing rental units to VRBO and Airbnb,” Davis said. “And we are seeing more and more people, investors, come into our community and buy properties and use them for that purpose where in years past they were on the Section 8 program.”
Mountain Projects has found fewer available properties accepting housing vouchers because landlords realize they can rent a few weeks a month as a vacation rental and make more than long-term leasing, she said.
Senior housing deficit
Increased housing costs also impact older residents.
“Jackson County has a deficit of over 300 units that are needed, according to a Dogwood study, for senior housing,” Davis said.
Davis believes that need will only increase based on available data.
The dearth of housing goes beyond academic discussions of the matter. It has real-world implications for residents and the county.
“One of the questions I get asked a lot is what’s affordable housing; who does that help,” Davis said. “I think it’s important for everybody to understand that’s relative to the person. Affordable housing, depending on the person, means different things.”
Housing and Urban Development guidelines say a household should not pay more than 30 percent of its income on housing-related expenses.
The median income for Jackson is $48,000, according to Census.gov.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that you need something for everyone starting with lower wage earners at minimum wage and going all the way through,” Davis said. “What we see is folks that are 80 percent of area median income. The people that are in our grocery stores, the people who are working in retail, and they may be making $14 an hour or $15 an hour, and so they still need an affordable place to live. That’s not low income; it’s median income.”
Flight from area
The repercussions could mean workers living elsewhere and commuting to Jackson, less property taxes on homes and vehicles and sales tax revenue for the county, or people leaving altogether.
“A lot of times they relocate out of our mountain area because they can’t find affordable housing,” Davis said.
People moving away diminishes the workforce.
When faced with the possibility of homelessness, struggling to pay housing costs or moving, people get creative.
“I’ve watched it grow and grow as our mountains become more of a destination location and our community changes and the second home market grows,” Davis said. “I’ve watched that have an effect on increasing numbers of homelessness. From time to time, I hear stories about multiple families going together and sharing the cost of one home. Desperate people do desperate things.”
Davis cited a study from the N.C. Budget and Tax Center which found that rent was unaffordable for 48 percent of the county’s renters and the county’s population increased by 7 percent in the past decade.
“I would love for people to understand that if you need help with housing or you can’t afford the best of housing that doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, doesn’t mean you’re not working,” Davis said. “The majority of our clients work or are elderly or disabled. And everybody has to pay a part of their rent.
“Housing is the foundation of the community. A community can’t grow if people don’t have a place to live. It directly ties, in my perception, to economic development and those types of things.”