Let me tell you about a house that represents the standard in Ashe County, North Carolina.
Upon entering the front door, you notice the floor is not level in the least; there is mold growing on the walls and ceiling, and there are exposed plumbing pipes running along the top of the wall.
The kitchen sink leans against the wall; the stove top is wrapped in plastic wrap. The flooring throughout the home is sunken away from the wall by six inches. The toilet and bathtub are sinking to the ground below and the bathroom sink has a pieced-together drain system running the water from the sink into the bathtub.
Who lives here? This home is rented to a school teacher and a veteran.
The conditions in this home should be the exception, but they are common in Ashe County and throughout rural North Carolina. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that 8.5 million individuals are in what they consider the Worst Case Housing Needs category.
This encompasses not only those living in rental homes without subsidization and paying more than 50% of their income to rent, but also those living in inadequate or substandard conditions. Sadly, this is the standard in rural Ashe County. The North Carolina Housing Coalition reports that the average rental rate in the county is $771 per month, and if you take into account the rule of thumb that rent should not exceed 30% of income, that means an individual’s annual salary must be $30,840 per year to afford a house in this terrible condition comfortably.
Housing in Ashe County has become completely unaffordable as rents have skyrocketed in recent years. My home has almost doubled in rent since May of 2020. However, can you guess what has not gone up? Wages, that’s what.
The median income for an individual in Ashe County is just $31,165, but I stress that this is the median, not the norm. Much of the economy here is based on the service industry – food, hospitality, and retail. Many businesses have cut their hours since COVID, along with cutting the number of employees they maintain as full-time.
Forty-two percent of renters in Ashe County have difficulty affording their homes, and this is because the vast increases in rent over the last several years have drastically outpaced wage growth for the area. The two lines have simply not run together or even remotely parallel. With a service economy and a seasonal economy, it is difficult to imagine those lines will ever come back together without drastic action.
Ashe Countians are left asking themselves what can we do about housing and wages? Regrettably, our elected leaders have answered them with apathy and indifference even when we have repeatedly brought these issues to them.
The issues of housing and wages are byproducts of ineffective and dispassionate leadership, and they require swift and bold confrontations to resolve. We need leaders who are innovative, adaptable, and enterprising in their approach to such an extensive set of problems.
The economy is broken here, and lack of affordable, safe housing is the byproduct of that crippled economy. We need leaders to step up and grab the bull by the horns, not ignore the state of affairs.
Our current elected officials claim to strive to improve the quality of life of all citizens in Ashe, but that simply hasn’t been the case for far too long.
The passive approach leadership has taken to both the economy and housing crises has created an exponential gap between the lines for wages and the rental cost in the county leading many people to leave or suffer in poverty. Good leadership will choose one issue to work on, but great leadership will effectively work on both simultaneously. So, let’s seek out leaders that will be great and produce results.