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Rural Areas Present Unique Housing Challenges

Scott Farmer

Last month, several folks from our Agency attended the 2019 NC Rural Assembly in Raleigh hosted by the NC Rural Center.  The assembly brought together more than 400 people from around the state and explored innovative solutions for revitalizing rural North Carolina, including economic development and disaster recovery. Housing was one of the breakout session topics, with our own Senior Policy and Research Analyst, Erika Brandt, joining Samuel Gunter from the NC Housing Coalition and Jason Gray from NC Rural Center to discuss housing challenges in rural North Carolina and the resources available to address them.

Just as in urban areas, rural renters and homeowners face a housing cost burden. While costs might be lower in rural communities, incomes are often lower as well, making it difficult for working families and seniors to find housing they can afford.

High energy bills often add to this cost burden: a 2018 report by the Energy Efficiency for All (EEFA) and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found the median rural household energy burden is almost one-third higher than the national rate. The report also revealed that more than a quarter of all rural low-income households devote more than 10% of their income to energy expenses.

Older housing stock also adds to affordability pressures on rural homeowners who are unable to maintain their homes, let alone address more severe housing conditions that threaten their health and safety. More than 42% of homes in rural North Carolina counties were built before 1980.

One of our biggest tools for creating more affordable housing options is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), which drives housing development in rural communities across the state. In some counties, LIHTC developments have been the only new residential construction in years, not only providing much-needed affordable rental housing but also driving the building industry and fueling local property tax revenues. Cypress Court was the first LIHTC development financed in Ahoskie in nearly a decade and has been credited with improving the lives of many local families by eliminating the stress of the unsafe, unaffordable housing they were previously living in.

Proposed changes to LIHTC could extend our work in rural areas. The Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act of 2019 would expand and strengthen LIHTC to not only produce more units of affordable housing but to better serve at-risk and underserved communities, such as those in rural areas.  

Another housing investment making a significant difference in rural areas is the Urgent Repair Program (URP), which has funded home repairs for more than 15,000 low-income seniors, veterans and persons with disabilities. URP addresses aging housing stock by fixing home conditions that threaten health and safety, helping homeowners age in place and avoid institutional care.

URP’s impact is profound. A Wilson County mother could not afford the HVAC system needed to keep her home healthy for her child with severe asthma. Thanks to URP, a new system was installed and a year later, her son’s health was greatly improved. URP repairs do more than fix homes, maintain affordability and improve quality of life—they can lower public Medicaid/Medicare costs by up to $19 for every dollar invested.

Our community home buying programs create housing opportunities in rural areas where families often struggle to become homeowners. The Community Partners Loan Pool offers up to 20% down payment help, while the Self-Help Loan Pool uses our financing to provide a single, interest-free loan for eligible buyers. Both programs preserve affordability by keeping energy costs down through SystemVision™ which offers two-year heating and cooling bill guarantee that costs will be less than $30 per month on average.

None of this work would be possible without our close to 400 partners in rural areas across the state: local governments, nonprofit organizations, developers, and lenders. Along with our urban partners, these entities ensure that our resources are targeted to those most in need and delivered as efficiently as possible. We are well-positioned to continue addressing housing challenges in 2020 to improve communities statewide.