Kathy McMurray, executive director of Mountain CAP WV addresses the Buckhannon City Planning Commission at a meeting in early February. (All photos by Monica Zalaznik)

Planning Commission tackles affordable housing — or lack thereof — in Upshur County in first of series of meetings

BUCKHANNON – The Buckhannon Planning Commission has begun a series of meetings to gather information to improve housing in the area.

The Planning Commission commenced its first of a series of meetings Feb. 5 to evaluate the current state of housing in the City of Buckhannon.

“The main responsibility of the Planning Commission is to develop a comprehensive plan for the City of Buckhannon, as well with the state of West Virginia, and the last time that we did that, we were getting input from the community asking us why there wasn’t a housing section,” Planning Commission President Dr. Susan Aloi said. “We did have a housing section of our [2025] comprehensive plan, but people wanted to know why we weren’t talking about housing enough.”

Aloi said the commission decided to start a series of meetings to gather enough information about the housing situation in Buckhannon to make a recommendation to city council. She explained how the process evolved.

“What we’ve been doing is looking through these different sections of the plan to see where we are,” she said. “We started with recreation, which led to a subcommittee that did an audit of all the city parks. We made a recommendation to form a Parks and Recreation Board, and now there is, and they’ve taken over all that work, so now we’re looking at housing.”

Availability of affordable housing from the perspective of a social worker

The first meeting entailed inviting community members to give different perspectives on housing and homelessness in the immediate area, region and U.S. For instance, Brandy Miller, a social with Mountain CAP of WV, told the commission how that entity helps connect people with services to help pay rent and find affordable housing

“From Jan. 1, 2023, to Dec. 31, 2023, Mountain CAP served approximately 92 families who were at risk of homelessness, and that would include paying for utilities or rental assistance,” Miller said. “We also helped 30 families who were literally homeless find housing in the county. I would say approximately half of the families who are literally homeless were fleeing domestic violence.”

Previously, Mountain CAP utilized the Mountaineer Rental Assistance Program, which provided utilities and rental assistance, along with security deposits and the first month’s rent, but that service expired Dec. 31, 2023.

“At this time, we do have minimal financial assistance to be able to help keep people housed or find housing,” Miller said. “We have been providing case management and transporting clients to the Randolph County Housing Authority to apply for HUD vouchers, but the concern with this is finding landlords who are willing to work with HUD (U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development) to agree to lower rent to HUD’s fair market regulations to be able to rehouse.”

Mountain CAP also struggles to find housing suitable for those with disabilities who need first-floor units.

“Especially when it comes to low-income housing, it seems like the first-floor units are really hard to come by; it’s definitely a barrier to that,” Miller said. “As far as homeless shelters, the closest one is in Randolph County or Marion County – they are typically full – and we’re also seeing an increase in shelters that will only accept individuals who are living in that county.”

The Upshur Cooperative Parish House’s perspective

Upshur County Parish House Director Isaac Casto said the organization’s primary focus is food and housing insecurity.

“For the most part, our day-to-day operations center around our food pantry, but we also do a lot of assistance for utilities, but we are involved in rental and mortgage assistance as well,” Casto said. “Crosslines is a separate program; it is an ecumenical arm of what we do, with its own advisory board with its own guidelines and requirements for neighbors coming in who may need assistance, and then what we can provide to them.”

Upshur Parish House Director Isaac Casto

Casto said the Parish House supplied over $10,000 in assistance for rental assistance and security deposits in 2023.

“Because of how we’re set up and just the nature of being volunteer-driven, it’s difficult for us to help people find housing, so our focus is trying to keep people in the housing they do have,” Casto said. “That $10,000 we spent last year was actually a reduction from the year before by about $4,000, but that was offset by utility assistance.”

The Parish House spent just over $55,000 on utility bill assistance last year — a $10,000 increase from the year before.

Casto said it seemed like they were paying less to get people into housing but spending more to keep people in the housing they already had.

“The issue of homelessness gets poured into this discussion as well, and we are trying to figure out where we stand with that because I think if we think of the mission of the Parish House that’s been set out before us, that’s a taller order than what we’re really capable of handling,” Casto said. “We are volunteer-driven, we don’t have the expertise, we don’t have the capacity for that right now.”

“I’m not saying that’s something we’re disinterested in, we try to meet people where they are and help them as we can, but we need to make some decisions about what we can and can’t do in the future.”

Lack of affordable housing from the view of a large employer

Dr. Lynn Linder, vice president of academic affairs at West Virginia Wesleyan College, was invited to participate to get the perspective of a large employer in the area. The board asked her if the lack of housing in the immediate area has affected Wesleyan’s ability to hire new employees.

“For the past 10 years, I think it’s been difficult for the college to find housing for the faculty, in particular, who often move from across the country,” Linder said. “I’m from Missouri, and when I came here, I discovered the lack of availability of rental properties. When faculty or new employees come from outside of the state, you don’t always want to buy a home right away and it was difficult finding available rental properties – they’re not advertised very well.”

She said the cost of rentals is also a deterrent.

“You have to know someone who knows someone who knows someone who’s going to rent a month from now because they already have a list of people who are interested in the property, so that’s been very difficult, particularly, I would say, in the last three to five years,” Linder said.

“The cost of rentals has been a barrier for attracting and retaining faculty because of the things we often will tout is the low cost of living, which is true, but when it comes to the rental prices, it’s a little bit of a sticker shock,” she added. “I would say in terms of property prices, I think Upshur County is a little high for the state.”

Linder said for the last 10 to 30 years, many Wesleyan faculty and employees have chosen to live in Elkins and Bridgeport and commute to campus.

Dr. Lynn Linder, vice president of academic affairs at West Virginia Wesleyan College

Mountain CAP director: More families than ever are cost-burdened, especially if they’re renters

Kathy McMurray, executive director of Mountain CAP WV, presented findings from a study called “America’s Rental Housing 2024” provided by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

“More renter households than ever are cost-burdened as of 2022, and this is national; 22.4 million households spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities – an increase of two million households over three years,” McMurray said.

McMurray said the situation is even bleaker in the Mountain State.

“In West Virginia, it’s determined that between 45 and 49.9 percent of households [spent over 30 percent of their income in the same way], so nearly half of West Virginia’s population that is a renter household is cost-burdened.”

She said 12.1 million households nationally have housing costs that consume over half of their income.

“Renters earning less than $30,000 annually have an all-time low residual income of just $310 a month,” McMurray said. “Imagine buying food, maybe childcare, gas to get the work; that doesn’t go very far, and for the subset who are cost-burdened over 50 percent, that leaves only $170 residual income per month.”

McMurray said the supply of low-rent units is worsening, citing two units in Upshur County that burned down recently and haven’t been replaced.

“Rents are outpacing incomes, and adjusted for inflation, they are 21 percent higher than in 2001 while renter incomes have risen just 2 percent for the same time period,” McMurray said. “The number of very low-income renter households grew 4.4 million between 2001 and 2021, and the number of assisted households in this income range increased by just 910,000, so there are subsidized housing available for many people, but many people who are income eligible actually never receive that subsidy.”

About 60 percent nationally who were income eligible did not receive assistance.

“If you take Low Income Housing Tax Credit projects, which helped develop a lot of affordable housing, there’s actually a 30-year period of affordability the developer must keep the units affordable,” McMurray said. “Many of those are aging out of those requirements, so that’s going to create a loss of many units.”

A record number of people are experiencing homelessness with 653,100 people in January of 2023, when the total number of unsheltered locations reached over 256,000.

Tackling the issue would also require significant investment due to structural inadequacies and accessibility.

“The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia estimated in 2023 that it would cost $51.5 billion to address delinquencies and deficiencies in occupied rental stock, and that’s just in rental housing,” McMurray said. “Nearly half of renters with disabilities are in homes that are minimally or not at all accessible, most often needing bathroom mobility aids, home security systems and accessible electrical outlets.”

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