Watauga County Housing Forum Shifts to Affordability

Posted By: David Jackson Chamber News ,

Conversation turned toward affordability during the latest session of the Watauga Housing Forums. The community-led work session was held Monday night at the Watauga County Community Recreation Center in front of 140 in-person participants and over 70-virtual attendees.

Lead organizer Kellie Reed-Ashcraft moderated a panel discussion that featured (L to R) Sara Crouch, Director of Community Programs / Outreach Coordinator, OASIS, Inc., Amy Crabbe, Chief Operating Officer, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, and Dr. Chris Blanton, Principal, Watauga High School. Each discussed challenges associated with affordable housing and the impacts on the communities they serve.

Crabbe shared 40% of the ARHS total workforce of 1,500 employees lives outside the system’s service area. “Cost of living scares off potential applicants,” she said, and further discussed efforts the system uses to provide temporary housing, often in the form of hotel rooms, to house transitioning staff that are seeking a place to live. During periods of COVID-19 surge, the system even provided vacant hospital rooms for both temporary and permanent staff who worked extended shifts and needed rest before driving to homes outside of the area.

Crabbe said affordability impacts all levels of the ARHS workforce, which stands as the second-largest employer in Watauga County. From maintenance staff to nurses and doctors, the inability to fill vacant jobs has a direct impact on services provided.

Blanton discussed similar recruitment challenges faced by Watauga County Schools, the county’s third-largest employer. Salaries for beginning teachers are set by the North Carolina Legislature, meaning they can leverage the standard salary they receive against the cost of living in districts across the State. “People want to come here and teach our kids, but can’t afford to do it, and seek a professional setting in terms of living conditions, not necessarily the same setting they had in college.”

Blanton added that salary support from the Watauga County Board of Commissioners allows the system to provide a more diverse array of courses at all grade levels, and access and availability to those offerings is often cited as a positive attribute parents reference when choosing to enroll children in the district. “We look at this from the ability to hire employees, but we also must consider the affordability for families that seek us out that want to send their kids here,” Blanton said. “If we are not careful, the lack of affordable housing could do real damage to the school system.”

Crouch addressed the continuing need for emergency housing stock, and how both affordability and accessibility limit the response time and options service agencies seek when addressing the needs of clients. Of the 400 clients OASIS serves each year, over 120 need emergency housing assistance as they leave abusive relationships. “The issues we have heard tonight are not uncommon,” Crouch said. “Housing costs have been allowed to increase without any accountability. Community leaders need to take ownership of this situation and can’t look toward just the non-profit sector to make the type of changes that are needed.”

The audience viewed a video produced by the Community Voices sub-committee, featuring Watauga County residents with impactful stories about their experiences with the affordability of housing. Among other topics, the video highlighted the financial burden families face when seeking to rent a full apartment or house, as many of these units are rented by the room at costs that far exceed normal amounts based on square footage. The video also included stories from those that were forced from their current housing due to emergency circumstances and struggled to find affordable relocation options.

Small groups convened for an hour-long facilitated discussion that focused on themes, shared data points, and patterns that emerged among affordability 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 in the final.

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

The final forum in this series takes place Monday, April 25th, from 5:30-8:30pm at the Watauga County Recreation Center, and will focus on solutions to the challenges discussed, and the creation of a Community Action Plan. The session is free to the public, though registration is required to ensure space and food is available. More details and registration links are available here.

The affordability conversation was the most energized and powerful yet in terms of creating community definitions and awareness around key elements of the housing crisis. The impacts discussed touch a variety of constituents, including low-income families, students, low-wage workers, relocating professionals, dual-spouse working families, employees that businesses seek to retain, elderly residents, multi-generational county residents, and everything in between.

When talking about the process of making change in all aspects of the housing conversation, Crouch shared, “We in this room are a great start, but we are not the end.” That statement helps set up the expectation for the closing session of the housing forum series, which focuses on solutions and planning. Data collected from the three previous sessions will be shared and will serve as some of the initial seeds of a community action plan that will be aimed at addressing issues and highlighting opportunities over the coming years.

Conversations moving forward must include representatives from as many of the diverse housing sectors we have in our community. The housing crisis is not about any one group or type of use. Lack of forward-thinking on these issues will put increasing strain on the housing availability in the area, and also the services the area that must be supported by a locally-rooted workforce.

The Boone Area Chamber of Commerce looks forward to seeing the seeds of the Community Action Plan behind this work planted and will remain engaged in all aspects of this vital conversation for the years to come.

David Jackson

President/CEO

Boone Area Chamber of Commerce