Homeownership can help break the cycle of poverty, but for many families, it’s just out of reach. In Perry County, Kentucky, where the poverty rate is near twice the national average, a nonprofit called the Housing Development Alliance has set out to close the gap.
“We know people all the time succeed in life without affordable housing, but it’s a lot easier to get a job, keep a job, [and] raise your family if you have that kind of base,” said Scott McReynolds, executive director of HDA, on the Rural Business Show. On the podcast, McReynolds discussed rural housing challenges and how HDA helps meet the needs of residents in East Kentucky.
McReynolds has been a resident of Hazard, the seat of Perry County, for nearly 30 years. He describes the area as “the heart of the coalfields.” Hazard serves as the economic center for several surrounding counties that stretch through the Appalachian mountains. It’s home to the local regional medical center, as well as much of the area’s retail. But over 1 in 5 Perry County residents lives in poverty, particularly as the coal industry continues to shrink. McReynolds estimates that over 40 percent of folks in the region lack adequate housing.
The Alliance was created to help meet the need for affordable, quality housing in Perry County. Since it was founded in 1993, HDA has helped 2,900 low-income people become new homeowners, make home improvement repairs and break out of the cycle of debt. In addition to housing counseling, HDA builds and repairs homes, manages affordable rentals, helps homeowners save on energy costs and provides construction training to people in recovery.
“We’re a housing organization, but ultimately we want to be part of what ends poverty in our region,” McReynolds said.
The Power of Homeownership
Hazard faces dual challenges in housing development and affordability. “We have a broken housing market,” McReynolds said. “What I mean by that is it costs more to build a house than what that house is worth.” Added to that is the challenge of persistently low wages in the area.
The local economy is starting to bounce back from declines in coal employment, thanks in part to tourism and the uptick in remote work during the pandemic. Pandemic pricing is also driving home values up. While this helps solve the area’s appraisal challenge — the affordability gap persists.
To close this gap, HDA helps residents with annual incomes starting at $17,000 on the road to homeownership. McReynolds says HDA also looks at prospective homeowners’ credit history and debt load to ensure they can make payments and maintain the home. The Alliance can connect those who don’t meet the requirements to another program to help break bad debt cycles and prepare for future homeownership.
“That’s how you end generational poverty,” McReynolds said. “In America, the wealth most of us are able to create is in our home.”
Over the years, HDA has helped mothers get out of public housing and raise families to become happy, productive adults. One man, a worker in the coal industry, was raising his grandchildren in subsidized housing. He slept on the couch for five years — through a cancer diagnosis — so his grandkids could have their own bedrooms. When HDA finally helped him become a homeowner, the first thing he did was shut the door to his room, McReynolds recalled, laughing.
“I feel like I’m a really lucky person to get to do this for a living,” he said.
Building a Brighter Future
The pandemic has turned the housing and construction markets upside down. McReynolds said the pandemic has been one of the most challenging periods since the 2009 recession, and acquiring materials has been a “nightmare.” But he doesn’t have plans to slow down anytime soon. The staff at HDA is working hard to get materials as fast as possible to meet the continued demand for affordable housing in the area. McReynolds estimates East Kentucky needs somewhere around 12,000 houses to fully meet the demand for adequate, affordable housing.
“That’s a huge amount of work,” he said.
The Alliance’s next ambitious goal? To accelerate progress and serve 1,000 families in just 10 years.
“The great thing about housing is when we build a house, we’re creating jobs and economic development, which is another thing we really need,” McReynolds said. “It’s such a win-win for the community.”
To learn more about HDA’s affordable housing services, get in touch or donate to HDA, visit hdahome.org.