Accessibility the Focus of Latest Watauga County Housing Forum

Posted By: David Jackson Chamber News ,

As momentum continues to build in the conversation around housing impacts in Watauga County, discussion shifted toward accessibility during the latest session of the Watauga County Housing Forums. The community-led work session was held Monday night at the Watauga County Community Recreation Center in front of 135 in-person participants and 70-virtual attendees.

Lead organizer Kellie Reed-Ashcraft moderated a panel discussion that featured Marisa Cornell, Executive Director of the Mediation and Restorative Justice Center, Jorge Escobar, Co-Chair of the Immigrant Justice Coalition, and Marnie Slawson, Service Coordinator: Homeless Prevention and Diversion / Rapid Rehousing with Hospitality House of Northwest North Carolina. Each discussed how their agencies interact with community members who have encountered a range of accessibility issues, ranging from discrimination and stereotypes to the number of people looking for housing outweighing the number of available units and homes in the area.

The audience viewed a video produced by the event’s Community Voices sub-committee, featuring Watauga County residents with impactful stories about their experiences with accessibility of housing. The snapshots included residents that have been forced from rental housing due to the sale of the property to a new owner, issues with number of handicap accessible units in the available housing inventory, restrictions placed on renters due to lack of credit or a history of arrest or incarceration, and the impacts that a scarcity of housing can have on rental and home purchase prices.  

Small groups convened for an hour-long facilitated discussion that focused on themes, shared data points, and patterns that emerged among accessibility issues. The notes taken from these discussions will be analyzed by a group of students at Appalachian State and combined with feedback from the previous session to inform policy and advocacy suggestions that will come later in the forum series.

Dinner was provided free of charge to attendees thanks to F.A.R.M. Café and Stick Boy Kitchen and the contributions of over a dozen community supporters and event sponsors.

The next forum in this series takes place Monday, April 11th, from 5:30-8:00pm at the Watauga Recreation Center, and will focus on affordability. The events are free to the public, though registration is required to ensure space and food is available. More details and registration links are available here.

While the conversations have been impactful and educational, they do not hide the complexity of the issues that encompass our community’s housing challenges. “It feels like the world is against me,” was a theme echoed by local residents who shared stories of needing to vacate a living situation due to mold, poorly maintained structures, or personal safety concerns, only to find the lack of available housing in the community as a harsh roadblock toward improved circumstances.

Data points from the recent High Country Housing Needs Assessment were referenced frequently throughout the session, helping attendees to better understand the scarcity of available housing across all sectors. Statistics regarding rental occupancy among student and non-student populations suggest our market features some of the least available capacity of anywhere in the State of North Carolina. The sense of a “lack of everything,” in terms of inventory was brought out in the stories and discussions to match the data collected. These truths also highlight opportunity to make meaningful change in key areas if the proper resources are aligned and directed in a strategic manner.

The value of the shared experiences during these forums has been helpful in educating the broader community about the depths of housing disparity in our area. Limited inventory compounds issues brought upon by safety concerns or lack of affordability. When you have nowhere to go, it’s hard to improve your situation, even if you have the monetary means to make changes.

As the focus of this conversation shifts toward affordability, organizers of the forums continue to seek additional involvement from the community. The more diverse the pool of participants becomes, the more opportunity there is to hear from all voices across all areas of this community discussion.

While the numbers may point toward a bleak picture as of now, they also set proper context of where we are coming from as a region, and what may be the most logical starting points in terms of solutions. It’s important to remember these issues are not unique to Watauga County or the High Country. Studying like communities, engaging in conversations fueled by real experiences, and remaining thoughtful and open minded can provide the needed focus to solve the challenges at hand.

David Jackson

President/CEO

Boone Area Chamber of Commerce