Counties combine to access affordable housing funds

Smoky Mountain Housing Projects - Housing Project

By Luke Weir, The Mountaineer May 24, 2020

North Carolina’s seven westernmost counties are forming a consortium to access federal funds for affordable housing projects.Haywood, Jackson, Swain, Macon, Graham, Clay and Cherokee counties are signing on as a group to become eligible for $670,000 per year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through its HOME Investment Partnerships Program.

Once the federal money is available and the consortium is fully established, which should be sometime in September, the funds will be dispersed through a grant program administered by the Southwestern Commission, which is the region’s council of local governments, Don McGowan of Smoky Mountain Housing Partnership told the Haywood County Board of Commissioners.

“The beauty of this program, beside the funding that we will receive, is the flexibility, which is really unique for a federal program,” McGowan said.

HOME funds can be used for a plethora of causes related to affordable housing, from rehabilitation projects to construction of new housing, for loans, to aid homebuyers and to help write grants that can net the region further funding, among other uses, McGowan said.

A one-time $80,000 required match is being funded by the Asheville nonprofit Dogwood Health Trust, McGowan said. Organizations receiving HOME money for future projects will be required to provide a 25 percent match, and administrative fees will be taken from the federal funding, meaning participating county governments won’t pay a dime out of pocket.

“The bottom line is that the participating jurisdictions in the consortium will not be exposed to any expense whatsoever related to this program,” McGowan said.

Russ Harris, director of community and economic development for the Southwestern Commission, said funds will be dispersed among communities to address the mounting issue of affordable housing.

“We’re pretty excited to be at this point,” Harris said. “There’s no way we can access these funds county by county — we need all the counties and all the towns.”

The federal money will be distributed like a grant program, with finer details still undetermined for how the $670,000 in annual funding will be distributed, McGowan said. The likely method will be through a scoring system to weigh the overall impact of potential projects.

“Housing is a big issue,” Harris said. “If we start divvying that out evenly, we won’t make a lot of progress.”

The program should be viewed as a long-term approach to finding solutions to the issue of unaffordable housing, McGowan said.

“If you look at the perspective of a 10-year horizon, you’re talking about $6.7 million,” McGowan said. “When you add the 25 percent match that’s required, you’re talking about $8.4 million coming into this region to support affordable housing.”

The Haywood County commissioners unanimously passed a resolution approving the county’s participation in the forming consortium.

“The benefit of this is we don’t pay anything,” said commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick. “You just found money through grants. It’s a no-brainer to approve this.”

Commissioner Chairman Kevin Ensley described the program as a potentially big piece of the affordable housing puzzle.

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