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Public Gets Chance to Voice Opinions on Minimum Housing Standard, Proposed County Budget

The Watauga County commissioners meet on May 16th. Photo by Zack Hill.

By Zack Hill

Watauga County residents got a chance to sound off on the need for minimum housing standards and the proposed county budget at commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, May 16th.

County officials are proposing a $94 million budget that maintains a 3.18 cent property tax rate for 2023-2024.

But before speakers addressed the budget, others decried the fact that the county has no minimum housing code. People are living in substandard conditions, they said, and there is currently nothing they can do about it.

Many members of Down Home North Carolina, an organization that advocates for adequate housing, solutions to social problems and other issues for small-town and rural, working class people, spoke about the need for minimum housing standards in Watauga County.

“I’m here to ask the board to implement minimum housing standards,” Alana Baird said. “Research shows improvements in health and poverty indicators when people are out of suboptimal and dangerous housing situations. The benefits to our community go beyond humanitarian aspects.”

“My niece lived in an apartment that had mold and she just had a baby. When she contacted her landlord they didn’t do anything about it. But because our county doesn’t have minimum housing standards, they [property owners] didn’t have to do anything. So she’s having to focus on basics family safety needs and it’s making it hard for her to work towards other goals.”

Many spoke of their experiences with Bradford Park, a site on Bamboo Road with several dozen mobile homes.

“There’s a lack of trash services, unsafe stairs, doors that don’t seal or lock securely, siding with holes and rot, loose electrical outlets and porches collapsing only to be inadequately repaired,” J.B. Brych said. “The water is shut off there multiple times a year. The people living in these conditions are our neighbors, the elderly, people working in the community and their children who didn’t get to decide where they live.”

“They may lose water without notice or contract illnesses from black mold, all from places they’re paying hundreds of dollars to rent. Without minimum housing codes, it’s lawless.”

Maegan Furman works with Brych on housing issues said that many tenants at Bradford Park and other places often have no recourse when it comes to their situations.

“State standards are not doing it,” Furman said. “When I pushed for changes to be made [at Bradford Park] I received a cease and desist letter. I couldn’t provide food or continue to raise their [residents’] concerns. I receive calls from people who are still struggling to have their needs met. They just need a healthy and safe standard of living and leaving it up to property owners or other agencies is just not working.”

Commissioner Ray Russell said he believed that the lack of available housing created in part by yearly increases in Appalachian State’s enrollment is at the core of the issue.

“I look at housing issues a lot, I’ve read a lot,” Russell said. “No community can address this problem without addressing the cost of housing and the cost of building.”

“I would encourage all of us to think of the big picture, not just one aspect, because it is a complex problem. At the root of the problem is availability. I want us to think about that along with the issues you’ve raised. The number of people being put into town by App State is at the root of the availability issue.”

Commissioner Todd Castle agreed.

“Along with commissioner Russell, I know this doesn’t solve all the issues, but we have a growth problem here,” Castle said. “It’s like the Wild West. I don’t know what it is but we have to do something to stop unchecked growth. We have a lot of people coming here and rent is out of control. I had a neighbor who passed away from unsafe housing molds.”

Commissioner Charlie Wallin was concerned that minimum housing standards would cause rent to increase.

“I know there’s a trade-off,” Wallin said. “If we do this it will raise rent and will get some people thrown out. I look forward to this dialogue. We can do so much better for a lot of people and we have to figure out a way to do that.”

Those at the meeting also had a chance to comment on the proposed 2023-2024 fiscal year county budget.

The budget, which is yet to receive final approval, has been available to the public since early May. Much of the audience was there to tell commissioners their thoughts and ask for additional funding.

President and CEO of the Boone Chamber of Commerce David Jackson spoke on behalf of the Economic Development Authority. He thanked the commissioners for their support of the EDA and asked for childcare funding to ensure parents can maintain steady employment.

“I know not all funding opportunities can be completed like we’d like to see them,” Jackson said. “Our primary goals at our recent meeting were housing and childcare. 87 percent of North Carolinians surveyed say taking action to make sure working families have access to affordable child care is important. Childcare continues to be a workforce issue.”

Alicia Childers, executive director of the Children’s Council of Watauga County, also focused on helping working parents.

“I appeal to you to increase the allocation to the Children’s Council from $50,000 to the $200,000 we requested,” Childers said. “It will help address our current staffing crisis. Our community providers cannot service all the children they are licensed to because they can’t afford the staff to do that. Together we are making a difference but it’s time to move this project to another level.”

Early education director for the Children’s Council Hunter Veripapa expounded on Childers’ message while focusing in particular on teachers.

“Watauga is considered a childcare desert. Our economies suffer when workers can’t find places for childcare,” Veripapa said. “We need to take care of the people who take care of our children. I’m here to ask for more support from county commissioners to protect our most vulnerable citizens — children who can’t speak for themselves. Children are our future so please make more funding available for our most valuable asset.”

“I’ve worked in this field for over two decades and seen the struggles of families and children to find care and afford it. Within a short amount of time they’re disheartened by wages they cannot survive on. Teachers are paid low wages and have an extremely important job to educate our local population and our nation. Our teachers and educators need more to survive.”

Chair of the Digital Watauga Project Eric Plaag asked the commissioners to consider additional funding for Watauga County Public Library. 

“I’m here to speak to the proposed expansion of Watauga Library,” Plaag said. “I’m intimately familiar with the space constraints of the library. It was built to one-third of the original proposed size. Friends of the Library and Digital Watauga currently have a ten-by-twenty foot room and have to rent space off-site. It’s like playing Tetris. These conditions are deeply demoralizing to staff and residents of this county and the budget’s proposed contribution of only $50,000 to library expansion is not enough.”

County librarian Monica Caruso saw library funding as inadequate as well.

“I’m disappointed to see only $50,000 committed to library expansion,” Caruso said. “We are under the minimum tier [of library size for population] by N.C. library system standards.”

Director of development for WAMY Community Action Allison Jennings spoke on behalf of the organization.

“I want to share with you my concern with the budget proposal and lack of funds dedicated to WAMY, which addresses an all important issue: housing,” Jennings said. “WAMY is the oldest human service non-profit in the High Country.”

She mentioned WAMY’s role in bringing senior centers and public transportation to the area as well as the Head Start program to public schools.

“We fast forward to 2023 and the needs and challenges of this community are different. One recurring need is housing. The number one need we face today is affordable, available, safe housing.”

Emily Bish, chair of the Watauga County Democratic party, asked for the board of elections budget request to be fully funded. The board of elections discussed that only $90,000 of their requested $150,000 from the county was set to be funded at their last meeting.

“Please fully fund the board of elections,” Bish said. “The new voter ID law the state is putting down will cause extra funding to be needed for extra expenses. We don’t know quite yet what’s going to have to happen. I’m here to ask you to please consider it.”

Commissioner Braxton Eggers comments reflected the sentiments of all the commissioners.

“I wish we had the money to do all the things we need to get done,” Eggers said. “But we have to make sure we have our priorities in order and we just aren’t able to find the full funding for everything, even the things we know we really want to get done.”