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Boone Town Council Disbands Affordable Housing Task Force: What’s Next?

By Joe Wiswell

On July 19, the Boone Town Council voted to disband the town’s Affordable Housing Task Force. The Task Force had just wrapped up a study on population and housing demographics when it asked the Town Council for further direction, which led to a conversation about its viability. Joe Furman, a founding member of the Task Force, said early this summer that the Task Force has always had “no staff and no money, so there’s little possibility of success in building [affordable] housing.” Over the past few years what little power it did have has dwindled. Many people on its all-volunteer team have lost interest; many recent meetings have been canceled due to failure to meet quorum.

“I wish it hadn’t come to this conclusion,” said Lynne Mason, another founding member of the Task Force and Town Council member. However, she continued saying, “affordable housing is not dead, just on hold for now.”

Affordable housing remains a pressing issue in the High Country, and a significant drag on the economy. Expensive land and rugged terrain drive up development costs, and competition from students and second home owners reduces incentives to develop low-cost housing. Many working-class people–people who earn between 80 percent and 120 percent of median income–have difficulty finding housing, which destabilizes the local workforce. They often end up either in homes that are too expensive, or commuting long distance, both of which means less money circulating in the local community.

Mason said that the Boone and Watauga County governments might look into creating a paid housing coordinator position with the town or county to help deal with this problem on a full-time basis.

Another option under consideration is a community land trust–a private non-profit corporation that would develop affordable housing without needing to turn a profit. A land trust would sell houses to people through a contract with a provision to buy them back after a long period of time, thereby keeping all the land under the trust’s long-term control. This would help develop homes in the much-needed $250,000 to $350,000 range.

Other proposals include changing water and sewer zoning restrictions, tax incentives, and a loan pool (a way to make loans with extremely low interest rates). However, all these options are on hold for now, awaiting further action by the Town Council.

Other housing issues in Watauga County that deserve attention are lower price housing and homelessness. Homelessness has been a major issue in the High Country since the 1970s, when shifts in national policy turned mentally ill people out of institutions and many federal housing programs ended. Traumatized Vietnam veterans were among the most likely to end up on the streets. 2011, though, saw a massive increase in the number of homeless families with children in Watauga County. Hospitality House resources for families have been working at or beyond capacity ever since.

This housing problem is different from the one the Affordable Housing Task Force has been working on. At this price point the solutions are different. Todd Carter, director of communications for the Hospitality House, said in an interview that “if we are serious about ending homelessness, we need to do two things: we need more affordable housing and we need living wage jobs.” The Hospitality House can build some affordable housing using federal grants, though the applications are difficult. More living wage jobs would require serious action from local governments.

Homelessness is also a major drag on the local economy. A homeless person costs taxpayers on average $35,578 a year. If placed in Permanent Supportive Housing–affordable housing combined with supportive services–that cost goes down by $4,800 (endhomelessness.org).