Op-Ed: Lessons for the rural housing crisis from Western N.C.

Photo: Jeff Yount/Getty Images

By Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

March 28, 2024

Sarah Davis, a realtor in Watauga County, realized something was missing from most of her transactions: people. 

Nameless companies from somewhere else — usually under some otherwise bland word followed by “LLC” — were buying up most of the properties in her western North Carolina county. Houses were selling for astronomical prices. It wasn’t a bad time to be a realtor by any stretch of the imagination, as far as the money was concerned.

But Sarah is not just a realtor — she’s also a local mom with life-long connections to the land and people here. People she knew, her neighbors, were finding it hard to find a place to live. She was “disgusted at what was happening in Watauga.”

So, Sarah and her neighbors started organizing to make sure Watauga County remains a place people can call home.

The small wins they have secured offer insight into how rural communities across North Carolina can organize and win on critical working-class issues like housing. 

I’ve written about housing before, and I’m sure I will again. Rent has spiked in many areas in North Carolina, including rural ones, in some cases by as much as 69%. One in four North Carolinians cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment. In Watauga, 66% of households have difficulty affording their rent, according to the North Carolina Housing Coalition.

For me, for Sarah, and other working people, this is a full-fledged crisis. 

The Watauga and New Rivers are lined with river birch and black willows and Fraiser firs grow on Calloway Peak. The natural beauty, combined with local skiing, rafting, and some darn good breweries, has made Watauga County a vacation destination, pulling in outsiders and driving up demand for Airbnbs and rentals. Most local jobs are in the tourism industry, at the ski resorts or river rafting outfits, and at the restaurants and bars that line King Street in Boone.

These jobs pay low wages that have been far outpaced by the cost of housing. 

“The people that work here can’t find a place to rent or buy,” explains Sarah, thinking of the many families she has tried to help over the last few years. “They will search for months and months, putting in a dozen offers or more. But when an LLC is going to offer 60 grand over the listing price, no regular family can compete.”

The same goes for rentals. With the existing housing stock being eaten up by vacation rentals and second homes, local renters end up in competition with each other for a place to stay. Landlords, especially out in the county, take advantage of the absence of minimum housing codes and rent out substandard and even dangerous housing for prices no one should have to pay.

By knocking on doors and talking to families around the county, Sarah and other Down Home members found out they weren’t alone in their worries about the housing market.

“Overwhelmingly, the people we talked to said that the housing crisis in Watauga County was their biggest concern,” she said. So they started to organize. 

Just showing up has helped. Sarah and the others invited the people they talked to come to the County Commission with them and voice their concerns. They researched and drafted proposals to enact a minimum housing code for the county. 

Working-class people in Watauga County are now beginning to be seen as the experts they are – people with direct knowledge of and lived experience in the housing crisis – and are being invited into the room for special meetings and discussions. With new attention being put on the local housing crisis, the County Commission has even increased funding to a local nonprofit to address affordable housing. 

The team continues to research solutions and present ideas. They show up regularly, so that housing policy isn’t just under the purview of developers and LLCs, but something that working folks can have a say about, too. The group has adopted the mantra of ‘If you can’t get what you need with the people in the room, sometimes you have to change who is there.’ 

As for Sarah, she says she’ll keep showing up, listening, and looking for solutions at the local level. She doesn’t stand to make money off this or get fame; all she wants is for people to be able to call Watauga home.


  • Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

    Gwen Frisbie-Fulton is the communications director at Down Home North Carolina, which organizes with working-class people in rural communities across the state. This column is syndicated by Beacon Media, please contact [email protected] with feedback or questions.



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