Habitat partners on new campaign

Houses are under construction in Loudon County Habitat for Humanity’s Hope Haven subdivision in Loudon.

Loudon County Habitat for Humanity is gearing up to work alongside national, state and local policymakers to improve opportunities for affordable housing with the new Cost of Home campaign.

“We’ve always been about advocacy,” Sandi Byrd, Loudon County director of resource development, said. “We’ve always used that as a way to explain what we do and have people understand the fact that there’s not affordable housing because not everybody realizes that. You’ve got a nice, warm home to go to every night, and you don’t think about the fact that your county has thousands of families that don’t have affordable housing.”

Habitat’s “2018 State of Affordable Housing in the United States” shows one in six households spend more than half of their income on housing.

The organization connects the growing statistic with increased housing costs and growing income inequality. On a national level, a $22.10 per hour wage, or a $45,960 salary, is needed to afford “fair market rent” for a two-bedroom apartment in the United States rather than the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour or $15,080 annually. Habitat says there is a shortage of more than 7 million affordable and available homes for “extremely low-income renters in the U.S.”

In Tennessee, the statistics are lower, but still draw concern.

Based on information from Habitat’s “2019 State of Affordable Housing in Tennessee,” one in nine households spend more than half their income on housing. Like the national level, a higher hourly wage is needed to afford a “fair market rent” two-bedroom apartment, at $15.74 per hour or $32,740 per year. There is a shortage of 133,582 affordable and available homes for “extremely low-income renters” in the state.

Loudon County’s hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent is higher than the state average at $16.44 per hour or $34,200 per year, according to a study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s “Out of Reach 2019.”

A five-year national advocacy campaign will promote policy change for production of affordable homes, inclusive access to credit, equitable access to land and communities of opportunity.

Though the campaign is geared toward national improvements in affordable housing, Tony Gibbons, Loudon County executive director, believes more direct focus will better the county’s shortfall.

“In Loudon County we have good support from the local leaders when to comes to affordable housing,” Gibbons said in an email correspondence. “More can be done locally, so I see this national campaign helping with efforts in Loudon (County). Unfortunately, there is little happening with new housing developments that specifically help lower-income households. We need more ‘rooftops’ for local families paying high rent and living in deplorable conditions.”

Byrd believes several factors impact locally, such as a lack of housing, land and credit opportunities.

“We have a similar situation that they do around the country in that families have to spend so much of their incomes on housing that it makes them difficult to provide food, transportation, all the other things if they’re spending more than half their income on housing, when you and I know it should be more like 25 or 30 (percent),” Byrd said. “There’s a housing shortage. The average rent in our county is maybe over $1,000, and you think about a family of four who’s trying to live on a very, very low income — they can’t afford that. They’re constantly looking — either living with family or parents or just trying to find something. Living in a trailer that’s not very well kept and it’s in deplorable condition but they can get into it and live there. It’s a really big problem in our county.”

Although Habitat builds houses for those in need, the organization has also focused on maintenance and repairs of distressed homes.

“(The Cost of Home campaign is) very important for us, especially now, because land is at a premium in Loudon County,” Byrd said. “We watch all the time for land that’s being sold or auctioned off, and, quite frankly, the economy is starting to build so builders get out there and beat us to it because they can out-bid us. We’re always looking for land or for people to donate land so that we can build more houses. Right now, we’re doing as much of the critical repairs as we are the building the new houses.”

The maintenance and repair process could come in handy for future housing, especially for new workers. Gibbons believes creating new affordable spaces for new workers to live could be a benefit.

“Affordable workforce and entry level housing is also needed for expanding and recruiting businesses,” he said. “We have existing housing stock that can be preserved through home renovation and modification as well. Despite being in an area of the country where the cost of living is lower, we still have issues with affordable home ownership and rent.”

The campaign’s utmost goal is to work with officials to ensure affordable housing exists.

“It’s mainly wanting to change policies and procedures and make our government officials understand more about it so things change and credit is more available so that the supplies are more available and the preservation,” Byrd said. “We do a lot of critical repair projects, so ripping and tearing something down, we can make it accessible to families and they can stay in their homes. Land use, making more land available for housing rather than something else. Those kinds of things are the kinds of things we’re going to be working with the city and county on, and even on the state level and the national level, because we do advocacy there as well to try to make those things more accessible to us so we can provide more affordable housing.”