Then and now: people looking for decent homes
This week’s article about Pisgah Legal Services (www.pisgahlegal.org, 828-253-0406), and last week’s, about Mountain Housing Opportunities (www.mtnhousing.org, 828-254-4030), relate to the holiday spirit of caring for the less fortunate.
De’Shae, a Pisgah Legal Services client, is seeking healthy, affordable housing for her family. Photo courtesy De’Shae and Pisgah Legal Services.
“Let’s say it’s a hundred years from now,” I said to Jim Barrett, executive director of the non-profit legal aid corporation, Pisgah Legal Services, headquartered in Asheville, “and we look back at the history of our people in the 2010s. What are we seeing?”
He answered by asking challenging questions.
“With tourism flourishing once again, but on a huge scale, where are all the people in the tourism jobs going to live? Is it going to be like Aspen, where they’re bussed in? Are they going to be housed by hoteliers because otherwise they can’t get enough labor?”
He also noted that the largest growing demographic groups are twenty-somethings and retirees, “and a lot of those folks can’t find places to live.”
Nearly half (44.2%) of renter households in a four-county region (Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, and Transylvania) are cost-burdened, the Bowen Report determined. Cost-burdened means that over 30% of household income goes toward rent. And 20.7% are severely cost burdened, with over 50% of income going toward rent. It’s bad for many homeowners, too, with one quarter cost-burdened and one tenth severely cost-burdened.
That’s over 50,000 households in danger of not having a home or of being in trouble with food, health care, child care, and transportation.
It’s a national trend, and evictions are a part of it.
“Evictions used to be rare,” Matthew Desmond writes in his new book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.” “Eviction riots erupted during the Depression, even though the number of poor families who faced eviction each year was a fraction of what it is today.
“These days, there are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. There are moving companies specializing in evictions...There are hundreds of data-mining companies that sell landlords tenant screening reports.”
Landlords, including scrupulous, caring ones, Desmond reveals through stories, are also pressed up against the bottom line.
100 years ago here
In the 1920s and during the Great Depression, people had extended families, industries and country farms on which to depend.
At the top of Haw Creek in the 1930s, Beatrice Creasman and her mother, Annie Ethel Bartlette Creasman, worked hard, from 7 a.m. on, without leisure, tending to crops, chickens, and a milk cow, Beatrice told me in 2001.
Beatrice’s father, John Baxter Creasman, had acquired the family’s 31 acres by working off the $900 price on John Berghouser’s poultry farm. Beatrice’s intellectually challenged brother, Theodore, supported himself doing odd jobs in fields and at the Antioch Christian Church.
Church was the recreational and religious outlet, and Theodore went every Sunday, always requesting “Jesus, Lover of my Soul,” which he sang a half-beat off, the pianist, Nola Mae Allen Rhew, reminisced.
In Beaverdam Valley, Alma Mae Walker Palmer, living on Spooks Branch Road, walked to Merrimon Avenue to catch the bus to work at the old St. Joseph’s Hospital. She heard that Windy Calloway, an alcoholic World War II veteran, lived in the woods in an abandoned school bus, every window broken out; and she brought him blankets.
People living in West Asheville in the 1920s and 30s had moved there to have farms near city jobs, and could graze their livestock in pastures now covered by Patton Avenue development.
Post-1970 development changed that way of life, and agencies began to respond to the fall-out.
In 1974, Richard Nixon passed the Legal Services Corporation Act, leading to the birth of Pisgah Legal Services in 1978. Barrett joined the agency in 1983, as did Scott Dedman, who went on to help found Mountain Housing Opportunities. Last year, PLS helped more than 4,000 people in our region with housing problems.
The year 1974 also marked the start of Section 8 subsidies—a voucher program that shifted emphasis from public housing, which was seen to concentrate poverty, to the integration of low-income residents into neighborhoods with single-family homes.
Twenty years later, there was a counter-trend.
When Asheville sought public input for its Uniform Development Ordinance, completed in 1997, there was widespread sentiment for downzoning neighborhoods to exclude multi-family homes.
The need for affordable housing, which often meant “Smart Growth” as opposed to the American Dream of suburbia, ran up against historical trends: neighborhood resistance to tourism- and density-related encroachment; lower-wage jobs, also related to tourism; and opposition to increased property taxes and thus government social programs.
“If you don’t have a living wage to support what it costs for child care, housing, and health insurance premiums,” Barrett says, “you have to have income supports such as housing subsidies...You have to have one or the other or we have people living on the streets; and our children don’t have upward mobility because they don’t live in stable housing.”
“I’ll never forget,” Barrett recalled, “my daughter sat beside a girl in middle school who was very talented...and they started talking, and my daughter brought this story home to me. It turned out (the girl’s) mother had been Pisgah Legal’s client for domestic violence. The mother died suddenly, and we had to help relatives adopt the little kids so they could stay in their home. It just came home to me that this is right next to us, all this anguish and difficulty.”
Another Pisgah Legal Services client, who gives her first name, De’Shae, had a problem with her health due to her living conditions. Her asthma “had worsened to the point of becoming bronchitis,” she told her lawyer, and her four-year-old son was coughing and struggling to breathe.
“Black mold is infesting (our) home,” De’Shae related, sickening her family. Her landlord wasn’t fixing the problem, and she didn’t have money to move.
“After working with our staff attorney,” Katie Russell Miller, Pisgah Legal’s Director of Community Engagement reported, De’Shae “moved into a decent place, which she rented...Unfortunately, the place was sold and she and her kids had to move in with relatives, which is where they’re currently living.” It’s “difficult...to find housing that’s decent and that she can afford.”
Bob Elias, a Vietnam War veteran with the disability of depression, found a place to live in Asheville when he moved here to be near his son. Bob had just lost his wife and three of his dogs.
He’d enjoyed an illustrious photography career, working for Esquire magazine, and had helped shoot the cover in which Lt. Calley, surrounded by Vietnamese, held a Vietnamese baby in her lap.
First, Elias rented a place off Lynn Cove Rd. from a Chicago landlord, and had to move because the bottom floor flooded. He moved to another place, where the local landlord okayed Elias’ dog, Henry, for which Elias had a reasonable accommodation letter.
When Henry died, Elias related, his landlord forbade him from bringing in another dog, and Elias’ bureaucratic nightmare began.
Elias told how weeks went by without his landlord responding to his appeals. Elias upped his medication. Months passed as Elias futilely sought help from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development and from the N.C. Human Rights Commission, whose investigator suggested that Elias sue his landlord.
“They just don’t care,” Elias said, and suggested it was partly a workload problem.
Elias contacted Asheville’s Building & Safety Department and reported violations that his landlord hadn’t fixed—a sewer backup in his own place; roof damage from a fallen tree on a nearby residence. Three more months went by as Elias’ lease expired and he faced eviction. He still had no dog.
Finally, Elias contacted Pisgah Legal Services and negotiated a resolution with the landlord, who was also enjoined by the city to make repairs to his rental properties. Elias found another place, and has a new dog, Gracie, whom I met making friends at Earth Fare, where Bob and I met to talk.
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature, and manages the WNC book and heritage website, “The Read on WNC.” Follow him on Twitter @WNC_chronicler; email him at RNeufeld@charter.net.