From the ground up: here's how affordable housing will grow in Haywood

Jan. 25—If an "affordable home" these days is considered to be in the $250,000 range, $7 million would provide homes for about 28 families or rent at $1,000 a month for 290 families for two years.

That's assuming there are homes on the market in that price range and decent rentals available at all, which there aren't.

Haywood County now has $7 million in federal grant funds to help build affordable housing that will permanently alter the housing landscape in the county for decades to come.

Housing constructed with the grant will be "flipped" to eligible homeowners, and the sale proceeds would be plowed back in the fund — providing a continuous and recurring source of money to build out affordable housing inventory.

"It's all about building capacity," said David Francis, Haywood County's community and economic development director who will be overseeing the grant. "Our community partners have institutional knowledge of the affordable housing issue, and that is how we will get the best use of these funds."

In addition to building housing, grant money can be used to buy land and install infrastructure for affordable housing developments, or assist families with down payments and revolving loans.

In anticipation of the grant award, Francis met with nonprofit organizations in the region that have been working to solve the affordable housing crisis for years.

"We've been piece-mealing it for years because we just didn't have the funds," he said. "This will allow us to build our capacity out."

Those with projects to be considered have plenty of hurdles to clear at the county, state and federal level, but all say they are up for the task.

Mountain Projects

For Patsy Davis, executive director of Mountain Projects, there are two specific projects in the works that could be ideal candidates for funding.

One is completing the build out of Bethel Village, an affordable housing development where lots are available for up to 39 modular homes. About a dozen homes have already been built in the subdivision in the Jonathan Creek community.

The second is the called the Harkins Avenue Subdivision where up to 23 modular homes will be built on property between Canton and Clyde. With federal funding to help offset the upfront cost of putting in infrastructure, Davis is confident Mountain Projects can make the units fit the affordability criteria set forth in the federal grant.

"It looks like we can keep the home prices in the mid-$240,000s, for sure under $250,000," she said. "That's more than we had hoped for, but that's the cost of building these days."

While homes priced in that range may not fit the affordability criteria, Mountain Projects has a separate division, Smoky Mountain Housing Partnership, that works with potential home owners on securing low-interest financing and soft second mortgages.

"Interest rates are lower than anywhere else," she said of the USDA financing available through SMHP.

In addition, Francis said, the terms of the housing grant allow for funding to be used to assist qualifying homeowners with down payments.

While climbing interest rates are challenging, Davis said there are other ways to address the issue of affordability. For example, the cost of the homes can be lowered by using grant funding to install infrastructure, like roads and utilities. If those are covered up front, the costs don't have to be tacked on to the home prices.

The beauty of the program is that once a homeowner gets financing for the home built by SMHP, the funds are immediately put to use building the next home.

"That's how we build capacity," Francis said. "Right now Mountain Projects might only have funding to build three houses at a time. We can put part of the $7 million in a revolving loan fund so they may be able to build six houses at a time."

Davis agreed additional funding would make a huge difference because money isn't always available to start on the next home until the loan documents are finalized and a homeowner mortgage is in place so the SMHP is reimbursed for construction costs.

Waynesville Housing Authority

In 1966, visionary leaders in Waynesville created a housing authority to leverage federal funds for affordable housing. The Waynesville Housing Authority built and now manages 100 rental units in the town, from the 60-unit Waynesville Towers that houses senior citizens and disabled people to smaller, scattered units tailored to provide affordable housing to those who qualify.

The authority is poised to step up an create additional rentals, said Board Chairman Brian Cagle.

"We have a waiting list of 121, so there is definitely a need," Cagle said.

The Waynesville Housing Authority board has been exploring a number of options to expand, he said, but the plans are about a month out before they will be ready to share.

Currently, the authority must operate within the town limits of Waynesville, but the option of expanding to all of Haywood County is being explored, he said.

If the organization is to undertake a large project, available land is limited within the town limits, so the ability to broaden the property search could make a difference.

Haywood Habitat for Humanity

Since 1988, Haywood Habitat for Humanity has raised funds and provided volunteers to help selected families build nearly 60 homes.

This year, the organization completed four homes, the highest number in the organization's history, said Ryan Newell, executive director.

"We are increasing productivity, but our Achille's heel is land," Newell said. "If we just had more land, we could do a lot more."

Newell said Habitat is open to building a housing community in Canton, the zip code area that saw the most flood damage, but has been unable to any suitable sites.

Newell said he believes the organization's volunteers are the very best around, but also said they are aging. Younger volunteers are stepping up, but more are needed, he added.

Habitat for Humanity works with qualifying families to build their affordable home. As with the Mountain Projects housing programs, once a home is built and financed by the new homeowners, it's sale provides funds for the next project.

In recent years, the organization has been building neighborhoods as opposed to scattered housing sites. The approach has allowed more homes to be built annually, but Newell said once the five remaining homesites in the Chestnut Park development in Waynesville are complete, Haywood Habitat has no more property to build on.

"If some of this money could go toward staff and building capacity, that would be great," he said.