Don McGowan: Workaround and Partnership Leads to More Workforce Housing

In 2018, when Don McGowan read in a newspaper article that Haywood County wasn’t eligible for affordable housing funds because of its relatively small population, it flipped a switch for him.

McGowan knew the significance.

“The county was missing out on funds and investments in affordable housing, and it really struck me,” he says. “The biggest need in our community is workforce housing. Without affordable housing you won’t have a workforce.”

The issue is huge in Haywood County and across the mountains. Approximately one-third of all households are cost burdened, which means that more than 30 percent of household income is spent on housing.

McGowan is retired President and CEO of Florida’s BankFIRST, an influential community bank – since purchased – with an outsized impact on the small business community and a reputation for socially-responsible banking. And, with retirement goals that included volunteer work and consulting, he was motivated and positioned to help.

Hardly two years passed before he’d helped form the Smoky Mountain Housing Partnership, and had assisted North Carolina’s six southwestern counties create the Southwestern NC HOME Consortium to access funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. As a group they were off and running to address the problem. 

“We’re a tourist based, low wage economy, and average salaries are shockingly low, yet the issue doesn’t get a lot of attention. The fact is there is very little nonprofit support in the realm of affordable workforce housing.”

Don McGowan

“We’re a tourist based, low wage economy, and average salaries are shockingly low, yet the issue doesn’t get a lot of attention,” says McGowan. “The fact is there is very little nonprofit support in the realm of affordable workforce housing.”

Before the formation of the consortium, Federal HUD regulations limited the southwestern counties’ and towns’ access to funding. The team effort, devised by McGowan with the support of Haywood County officials and the Southwestern Commission, was a workaround.

“Individually we were too small to qualify,” McGowan says. “But as long as [political entities] are contiguous you can form a consortium, and if the size of the consortium achieves a funding threshold of over $500,000, you can become eligible [for Federal HOME funds] – and we did.”

Six counties and 13 towns are now on board, and the consortium will receive more than $540,000 per year from HUD, to be dispersed in participating counties through a consortium grant process administered by the Southwestern Commission. In the first year of operation, the consortium will receive $750,000 in funding, thanks to a one time match by the Dogwood Foundation.

In general, these funds can be used for rehabilitation of owner occupied housing and rental properties, down payment assistance to home buyers (usually in the form of a soft second mortgage), acquisition and construction of owner occupied housing, tenant-based rental assistance, the acquisition and construction of rental housing and more.

“Having Don as a partner has increased our ability as a region to pursue different sources of funding to mitigate our housing shortage,” says the Southwestern Commission’s Russ Harris. “Forming the Southwestern NC HOME Consortium has been a difficult task at times, but it has been invaluable to have his help and support every step of the way.”

For McGowan, the process has been satisfying: “This issue impacts all of us, and without our attention a lot of people will be suffering,” he says. “Socially responsible banking and affordable housing are my passion, I’ve been doing it all my life. Along with assisting communities with their economic development needs, it’s how I best can apply my skill set.”

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