Meeting addresses substandard housing issues

Published 7:16 pm Wednesday, October 1, 2008

GATESVILLE – The number of Gates County citizens facing substandard housing issues is growing at an alarming rate.

However, there is one group attempting to address that issue before the problem reaches epidemic proportions.

Last week, the Gates County Housing Committee hosted a “Town Hall” style meeting at the county Courthouse. There, the committee solicited input from county citizens on what they thought were the most pressing issues dealing with a growing lack of standard housing. Those issues were shared with District 4 North Carolina Senator Ed Jones who attended the meeting.

“Something has to give,” said Colleen Turner, Gates County’s DSS Director who also serves on the Housing Committee. “We have people in our county with no where to turn and those numbers are growing.”

Turner said those numbers include senior citizens and disabled adults.

“We needed a direction to go in order to help these individuals,” Turner noted. “That led to the formation of the Gates County Faith Based Housing Project, a group of talented volunteers from 12 churches here in the county.”

To date, those volunteers have received 13 referrals for housing assistance. Turner said two of those homes will be totally replaced while the others have smaller, but very serious, structural issues.

She also noted there were 60 churches in Gates County and invited others to join their effort.

“If you have a carpenter in your church, ask if they will volunteer one Saturday a month,” Turner said. “Any help they can give us is more than welcomed.”

Gates County Planning and Development Director Randy Cahoon noted that 42 percent of housing in the county is pre-manufactured. He said he wasn’t belittling that fact, but pointed out the national average was a mere 16-17 percent.

While addressing the affordable housing issue, Gates County Extension Director Reba Green-Holley pointed out that, on average, 24 percent of an individual’s take-home pay should be spent on what is termed “affordable housing.”

“But we all know that figure is much higher in Gates County,” Green-Holley said.

Input from the citizens in attendance revealed they felt rental prices in the county were too high; there was no advertising of available rental property; a lack of rental standards; and a lack of understanding rental rights.

Accessibility barriers to having a “standardized” home included low-paying jobs, length of time it takes to build or set-up a home, lack of multi-family housing units, shortage of a construction workforce, zoning regulations, planning board policies and procedures and flood zones.

Other concerns listed by the audience included a county infrastructure that will support additional housing, people not wanting to have a “stick-built” home constructed, credit worth, education on available resources and heir property issues.

Green-Holley made one thought-provoking comment when she mentioned the word “homelessness.”

“Our situation is not like we see in the movies or on TV where homeless people are seen living in cardboard boxes or under a bridge,” she said. “We can’t see our county’s homeless people because they are living with relatives and friends, moving from house to house. They don’t have a home they call their own.”

Green-Holley also noted there are no homeless shelters in Gates County, adding that the nearest shelters were in Roanoke Rapids and Virginia Beach.

Turner added there was an immediate need to identify funds to assist aging adults who “fall through the (financial assistance) cracks.”

“We need crisis funds for these individuals because they do not qualify for other funding sources,” she said.

Meanwhile, the issue of Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) was addressed. Cahoon noted that the county did receive those grants on a two-year cycle, but the reason only four-to-six projects were accomplished during those funding periods was because state and federal funds are limited due to Gates County’s low population.

Cahoon also addressed a misconception that Gates County lacks a highly-skilled workforce.

“We have skilled laborers living in the county,” Cahoon noted. “Because we do not have industry here to keep them at home, 65 percent of them get up at 4:30 every morning to commute to Virginia to work.”

In his remarks, Senator Jones urged those in attendance to let their local leaders hear those pleas for help. They, in turn, he said would make those requests to his office.

“We need to think about the future, our children…where are they going, where will they live,” Senator Jones asked. “We can’t fix this problem with a bandaid and you can’t wait on the government to solve all problems. What you are doing by addressing this issue and making plans for how to solve it is the best thing you can do at this point. Small communities can join together and make a difference.”

The faith-based housing initiative brings county partners and churches together to find ways to maximize existing funds and identify new funds to support repairs and rehab projects for the county’s most vulnerable citizens. To date, those citizens have been found living in homes that lack sufficient plumbing, electrical or heating sources and have mold or other conditions that place them at significant risk of illness, injury or worse. Often these homes (which are typically heir property) have gone so long without attention that the needs are extensive and difficult to meet. Limits on project funds and not enough volunteers hinder the Committee from moving forward on many of these referrals.

Brochures, assistance applications and general information about housing resources are available by contacting Green-Holley at 357-1400, Cahoon at 357-0122 or Turner at 357-0075.