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LETTERS / Boone Has Become Inhospitable Despite its Good Qualities

Dear Readers,

If anything good can be said about COVID-19, it is how our community has awoken to the hunger crisis at its core.

On April 21st, 2020 the Boone Town Council adopted a motion to call on the North Carolina and federal government to impose a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments.

Here are some comments from community members who pushed for this resolution to pass:

“Knowing that many in Boone already live paycheck to paycheck and already must decide between paying rent, other bills, for medicine, or for food everyday, and that so many would be laid off due to the pandemic, a rent and mortgage freeze was obvious. We made a petition, spoke with some members of the town council, and asked them to call on the state and federal government for a rent and mortgage freeze. The state and federal government have the power to do this and take the responsibility of a pandemic off of individuals. The stimulus checks are a bandaid that doesn’t cover the entire wound. Many will not receive a check, many will not have a job to go back to when businesses open back up, and many will have no savings to fall back on if there is any personal emergency after this wave of the crisis. Hearing of most rental companies in Boone not being flexible about rent payments, we formed WNC Renters Help where we work directly with renters by connecting tenants to legal support, putting pressure on landlords who refuse to work with tenants, conducting fundraisers to help individuals make rent, and more. This kind of support is necessary for the short and long-term well-being of renters as most of the rental companies expect full payment, late fees, and debt to be paid either now or later. This is not an option for so many who already struggle to afford housing.” -Taylor Hochwarth

“Affordable housing in Boone has long been a problem, and the coronavirus only emphasized these needs. One third of all renters in the United States couldn’t pay rent in April, and many more will fail to in the upcoming months. I don’t want those people who can’t pay to feel ashamed or to be alone, that’s why I wanted to help get something going. The Town Council Rent and Mortgage moratorium was to show that we as a town want to protect those people who need it the most. It’s not fair for people to be charged with bills if they can’t work, and we all know that social distancing is impossible for people who can’t stay home. As tenants, we need to stick together and support each other so that none of us has to suffer from government inaction and predatory landlords. I encourage any concerned landlords to not double down on tenants who are struggling to get by. They need to turn around to the big banks and the government too and demand that their bills be paid. The fight is not between each other as neighbors, but to protect our community as best we can. I encourage people to visit WNC Renters Help for resources and support, and to talk to your neighbors, because we’re not alone in this.” -Eric Halvarson

The epidemic has intensified the High Country’s growing hunger crisis. Data from local food pantries show that about 5,000 Wataugans require food assistance on a regular basis— nearly 1 in 10 members of our community requests supplemental assistance to avoid starvation each month.

This has been true long before Coronavirus, but a global pandemic is what it took for our community to really take stock of itself and see how fragile our economy has become. The threat of further food shortages and eviction due to wage loss increase the vulnerability of our community to new waves of the virus more than anything else.

The High Country community has stepped up, and many independent groups have taken it upon themselves to provide food assistance with weekly boxes and direct delivery. It’s great to see all of this inspiring work, but if we can take a step back and realize the crisis has exposed our region’s deepest problems, we can enact lasting changes that will strengthen Watauga County through this epidemic and beyond.

This work is not a “fight” against hunger. There is no “war” on poverty. These concepts are not enemies we can defeat with one more food pantry or one more fundraiser. They can only be held at bay for a few more hours.

No. Hunger and poverty are the symptoms of a societal disease as dangerous as COVID-19, the end result of living costs climbing to rates that are untenable for workers in our small rural economy. The sad truth is, the prosperity of ASU and Watauga’s tourism and real estate market have not been shared by the whole community. An increasingly large percentage of residents qualify for services, currently 46% of Wataugans.

With a county homeownership rate of just 21% compared to a national rate of over 63%, Watauga is driven by renters who more and more can’t afford to rent in Watauga. The Fair Market Rate for rent is more expensive than 82% of counties nationally. At the same time, the median income for our area is $7,000 lower than the state rate and $15,000 lower than the U.S.A. More than 14% of Wataugans make less than $10,000 a year, compared to 6.3% nationally.

With 24% of our economy based in the hard-hit tourism and hospitality economy, this crisis will tighten the ratchet even more for our community’s vulnerable working class and hunger will continue to win the “fight.”

All of this has been happening despite our local food pantries increasing the amount of food distributed every year. Addressing hunger does not affect these underlying trends. Direct services can temporarily reduce the pains of poverty, but we need to strike deeper at the root problems that create it.

This isn’t an indictment of business owners, landlords, or second homeowners. This isn’t the work of any one person or class or people. We are just a taking a moment of reality to state what we’ve learned: the problems we have been facing since before the COVID-19 crisis will only continue to get worse unless systematic, deep-reaching action is taken to stabilize income and housing ratios in Watauga.

While we encourage the extra effort we see devoted to food distribution, we also urge everyone to look deeper than the immediate needs, which is why this town council action is so monumental.

Community member, developer, and property owner action to support this symbolic resolution is the needed next step for anyone interested in addressing our community’s issues long-term. This step would make a more significant impact on hunger than opening 100 new food pantries, by reducing the pressure faced by each household and allowing rent funds to be used for food, medicine, and other immediate needs.

Our town’s nonprofit and mutual aid organizations can do a lot to slow down daily hunger, especially with the coordination and support of our community. But to truly reduce the number of hungry kids and families, we need to restock Watauga County with affordable housing, period, full stop. Many programs for affordable housing development are offered for developers through HUD, the USDA, state-level programs and incentives written into our local statutes, and all are underutilized.

We call on everyone rising to face this threat to support this laudable resolution by the town council and encourage local housing developers to do their part to create housing that meets with the actual income of area residents.

This perilous moment is a chance to break Watauga’s slow march into poverty. The threat has always been there, but has become more real to all of us, high income and low. This is an opportunity to reorient and address the deep-seated inequalities in the High Country’s economy, and come out stronger, safer, and more connected than ever before.

Together, we have the potential create the most secure, well-fed, and prosperous small town in America; this I truly believe and would love to speak to you more about how we get there.

Thank you for your time,

Benjamin Loomis

WNC Renters Help