COVID-19 Didn’t Cause Appalachia’s Housing Crisis, But Advocates Say It Exacerbated It

Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo
Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

Candice Kraus’s 10-year-old, Timothy, lives with sensory processing disorder. Camping was a terrifying experience. 

Kraus and her family – Timothy, 9-year-old Gracie and Kraus’s husband, who’s no longer living with them – weren’t camping for pleasure. In late May, they were evicted from the trailer in which they’d lived for eight years when the landlord informed tenants she was selling the property.

It certainly hadn’t been an ideal living situation. The trailer was cold and drafty in the winter; the hot-water heater was unreliable. Maintenance was spotty. But affordable-housing options are scarce in the Tri-Cities region of eastern Tennessee – as they are most everywhere. 

Throughout Appalachia, as across the nation, we’re experiencing a housing crisis.

“I think the real crisis that we’re facing in West Virginia, and Appalachia as a whole, is the lack of housing stock in general,” said Paige Looney, a housing-policy specialist with the West Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness.

Emergency funding was made available in the pandemic through the congressionally approved American Rescue Plan, but while that funding was “unprecedented and huge and very, very necessary,” Looney said, it’s essentially functioned as a “band aid.” 

“We’ve got all this subsidy money,” Looney said, “but we still don’t have places to house people.” 

Rents are rising as wages remain relatively stagnant. Chattanooga, one of the largest cities in Appalachia, has seen a precipitous climb in rental rates. According to a study conducted in February 2020, it ranked seventh among the nation’s 100 largest cities in percentage increase over the previous year in rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

Asheville, North Carolina, 200 miles to the northeast, is similarly challenged. The mountainous region in which it’s the largest city has little industry; well-paying jobs with benefits are hard to come by, and as a prime tourist destination, properties are coveted for second homes and Airbnbs. 

Few communities are immune to this crisis for their most vulnerable. The pandemic has cast even more families and individuals living under tenuous financial conditions into peril. 

“It doesn’t take much to create a situation where you’re behind, and it’s really impossible to catch up,” said David Bartholomew, homelessness prevention program director for Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville.

When Candice Kraus’s kids’ school shut down in the thick of the pandemic, she had neither means nor money to enlist childcare. She stayed home, no option, losing her job as a restaurant server. After eviction from their trailer, the family stayed in a motel, then a month in a tent, a “miserable” experience, Kraus said, especially for Timothy.

“It was a very, very terrifying thing for him,” she said. It’s been traumatic for them all. “I never want to go through an experience like that again.”

Advocates are grappling with how to avoid it.

Severely Cost Burdened

According to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, landlords typically file 3.7 million eviction cases a year. 

With the outbreak of COVID-19, the federal government issued a series of eviction moratoriums. Some state and local governments enacted their own moratoriums on top of that, but last August the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the last of them, which had been issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Eviction Lab estimates that in the 11 months it was in effect, there were at least 1.5 million fewer eviction filings across the country than in a typical year. 

It unquestionably saved lives. A Duke University study indicates that policies that limit evictions reduced COVID-19 deaths by 11 percent

Eviction moratoriums were certainly effective in the short term. But they’re not a long-term solution. 

For those living on the margins, rent is rising disproportionate to income nationwide. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a housing cost-burdened family as one that pays more than 30 percent of income for housing and may have difficulty affording other necessities. Those who are severely cost burdened are paying more than 50 percent of their income for rent.

Between 2000 and 2019, the number of renters who are cost burdened rose nationally from 39 percent to 49 percent. It’s worse yet for families of color. Just prior to the outbreak of COVID, more than half of Black and Hispanic renter households were cost burdened. Since, those numbers have climbed and the disparities have widened. 

‘Devastating’

Tourism is a primary driver of Western North Carolina’s economy. It’s an industry with a substantial percentage of low-wage, uninsured workers, and one that’s been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. 

Bartholomew said that the average rent in Buncombe County, of which Asheville is the seat, has risen 12 percent since 2019. Rents have climbed in the surrounding counties as well. 

With relatively low wages and rising rental and ownership prices, “What you have is no place for people who work in Western North Carolina to live,” he said. 

Likewise in Chattanooga. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported in May 2021 that while rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city is about 20 percent lower than the national average of $1,487, rents there are among the fastest rising in the country, accelerating in the previous year at more than six times the increase in average income.

“We’ve got a situation where the average working adult can’t afford the average apartment,” said Ben Danford, a lawyer with Legal Aid of East Tennessee in Chattanooga, “and it’s just untenable.” 

“The tenants that we represent were overwhelmingly cost burdened before the pandemic,” Emily O’Donnell, a longtime housing advocate and now Chattanooga’s city attorney, said. The pandemic “has just cracked open the issue that we knew existed, which is that poor people are always one illness away from total destruction.” 

Throughout the pandemic, Danford and O’Donnell have been representing renters through the Eviction Prevention Initiative, funded by the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.

“It looks like it’s an issue caused by the pandemic,” O’Donnell said, “and it’s not. It’s an issue that was exposed by the pandemic.”

“Most of our clients have children in the home, and they’ve already been choosing between food and rent. They’ve been making hard decisions for a long time. And then the tipping point, I think, for many of them was either a short-term loss of work or a loss of childcare.” 

If evicted from your home, the long-term consequences, O’Donnell said, can be devastating.

“It’s expensive; it’s stressful. You have to pay application fees to get a new place. You have to register your kids for a new school,” she said. “If you get physically evicted, your stuff gets stolen or damaged or rained on.”

“I’ve said often that eviction isn’t caused by poverty; it’s the cause of poverty,” O’Donnell said. 

There’s a ripple effect. Research by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard found that, compared with households with affordable housing, severely burdened households spend 37 percent less on food, 77 percent less on health care and 60 percent less on transportation.

‘Thank God for Their Home’

Candice Kraus did find help. Family Promise of Bristol offers support to those in the region who’ve lost their homes. Most of those caseworker Sam Ferguson assists are employed but not earning enough to pay their rent. 

He’s witnessed rental rates in his community rise steadily. Just since last May, “you could find a one-bedroom for $450 a month. Now that same one-bedroom apartment’s going for, like, $700.”

Kraus found a house managed by an agency that listened to what she’d experienced and compromised on the rent. Family Promise is providing financial assistance for a few months. Ferguson also connects his clients with other resources in the community.

Kraus has impressed him. “She’s overcome a lot,” he said. While her family was staying in a local motel, she got a job there on the housekeeping staff. She was diligent in her search for a home and, once securing it, in getting in the door.

“This house was not cleaned yet,” Kraus said. “The landlord was like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna come in and get it clean, and then you all will be moved in in a week.’ I was like, ‘No, no, no. I’ll clean this house tonight, and we’ll be moved in tomorrow.’”

“That’s how it went,” she said. “We moved in the next day.”

Her kids, she said, are thrilled. 

“One of the pleasures I have is that I’m usually there when [clients] move into their new home,” Ferguson said. “The two children, on the day they got to move into their home, they were so excited. They were claiming their bedroom and deciding how they were gonna decorate.”

“If somebody comes over, they’re all about, ‘Hey, you got to pick up your mess before you go,’” Kraus said. 

“Christmas was a little slim,” she allowed, “and it was kind of hard to explain to them about that.” But “they wake up in the morning and clean up their room and thank God for their home.” 

‘Strike While the Iron Is Hot’

With the moratoriums lifted, evictions in Western North Carolina have returned to 2019 levels, and are rising, Bartholomew said, though they haven’t spiked to the extent he and his colleagues feared.

Without systemic solutions, advocates say, the issue will incrementally worsen.

It’s natural to long for your community to remain unchanged, Bartholomew said. “But the way it used to be was that if you taught in the schools or you worked as a police officer you could live in the same town that you worked in – and that’s not where we live anymore.”

More affordable housing – more housing stock in general – is urgently needed.

The American Rescue Plan, approved in March 2021, provided more than $21.5 billion in emergency rental assistance, but it’s been slow in reaching those in need. 

The Build Back Better Act calls for more than $150 billion to address affordable housing, the largest such investment in history, the Biden administration says. That money would be used to expand rental assistance, upgrade public housing and finance the construction of rental homes. But the bill, which passed the House in November, is yet to be approved in the U.S. Senate.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition advocates for measures to address this chronic shortage of affordable housing. Among those measures is further investment in the national Housing Trust Fund, an annual block grant to states for the creation, preservation and rehabilitation of rental housing for low-income renters. 

The coalition also calls on Congress to create a permanent National Housing Stabilization Fund to provide emergency assistance to low-income households facing housing instability, eviction or homelessness after an economic shock. 

Solutions initiated at the state and local level are likewise essential. One such is the Asheville-Buncombe Community Land Trust, launched to “address the injustices of urban renewal” and the rising costs of living in the region.

“I think it has a lot of support from the community,” Bartholomew, who’s been involved in the initiative, said. “They’re moving thoughtfully and intentionally, and I’m excited. I think the Community Land Trust is a tool that can make a big difference.” 

The pandemic has raised the volume on discussion of the nation’s housing crisis, “and I think it’s incumbent upon people who are doing this type of work to strike while the iron is hot,” said Ben Danford with Legal Aid of East Tennessee. “I think that the challenge is going to be for advocates to turn that interest into some sort of progress, or hopefully movement, to address some of these issues.”

“It’s been a hard year,” Candice Kraus said, “but we’re getting there.” 

“I’m not saying I’m perfect, because there were days where I sat and cried and was ready to give up.” She’s scheduled time with a therapist, “to see if I can talk to someone about anxiety.” 

She sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night from a dream in which she and her kids are still unhoused. “It’s really scary to wake up like that.”

The last week of December, Kraus was diagnosed with COVID-19 and has been sick with it, away from work again for several weeks. The electric bill’s due.

She’s often held down two or more jobs to make ends meet. Once better, she intends to find more work.

Gabriella Brown provided reporting for this story.

Taylor Sisk is 100 Days in Appalachia’s health correspondent. Support his work and our continued coverage of health care and access in the region by donating here.

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