Rising to Meet the Housing Crisis in Appalachia: an interview with Lindy Turner, Clinch-Powell RC&D

Housing | July 9, 2024

Part 2 of a Continuing Series

Lindy Turner is the Executive Director of Clinch-Powell RC&D. Lindy played a central role in the formation of Clinch-Powell in 1989 and also served in a partnership role as a USDA representative until 2011. She is currently responsible for leading the organization in pursuit of their mission and overseeing the effectiveness and operations and relations with the Board of Directors.

Q: Where do you work and what services do you offer?

A: Our focus is the Appalachian counties of Tennessee, including some high poverty areas. We are a HUD approved counseling agency and offer free counseling for people on the home buying process, foreclosure mitigation, rental counseling and credit repair. We have about three dozen rental homes. As a Community Housing Development Organization, we develop housing that takes the form of new construction, but we also do acquisition and rehab for resale. We are a builder and do home repair. We also do lending, as a mortgage broker and a certified 502 direct loan packager with USDA Rural Development, which is the single most important tool out there for low-income families.

Q: You offer a broad array of services and must have a good sense of the roots of the housing problem in your area. What is contributing to the crisis?

A: There’s always been a very high percentage of home ownership in rural areas. But when you dig down in available housing stock for first-time home buyers in the affordable realm, there are two choices: old housing stock that needs lots of repairs, or mobile homes. We can put people in stick-built houses basically for the same cost as a mobile home because there are so many hidden fees.

The pandemic and its unintended consequences are still being drastically felt. For example, the moratorium on evictions for renters, while laudable and important, was part of the crisis. Many landlords, who are usually small businesses, had no income for two years or so. And the sad part is that there was no government program to make small landlords whole. Migration to the area created a huge demand for properties and prices went up. The landlords can sell the houses for so much more money than they can ever make in rent. Many, many landlords opted to sell and went out of the rental business. That pushes rents up drastically, and I mean drastically. I have clients whose rent went from $600 to $1,250. We have more and more applicants for home loans because a mortgage payment is cheaper than rent.

Also, the government put a lot more money into federal home loans during the pandemic, and this year there’s a 40% decrease in available funds. While we don’t depend just on government funding, for affordable housing organizations those funding sources are critical. Market interest rates are so high and the cost of housing is so high.

Q: Can you give an example of how the compounding pressures are affecting your clients?

A: A family making around $54,000 can qualify for a low-income USDA loan. If there are funds available, we can put them into a home costing $300,000. You can still find homes in that price range. But if they make even $1 more than that limit, we have to put them in a market loan. They would qualify for a loan of about $150,000, and there are no homes suitable out there available for that. A family with a household income of up to $100,000 still struggles in our market to qualify for a big enough loan to buy a suitable house. There is an underreported, growing crisis with middle income families.

Q: How is Clinch-Powell rising to meet this challenge?

A: Advocacy is something that we did not do four years ago. I don’t mean lobbying kind of advocacy, but a real concerted effort to try to educate decision makers, of not only the need, but to push back when they say they don’t have funding, or the funding cannot be used for such a thing. We’re working hard with our partners like Fahe to develop creative ways around things.

Working with a coalition of other Fahe Members, housing authorities and NeighborWorks groups in Tennessee, we were able to access $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act moneys from the Tennessee General Assembly. It is a drop in the bucket, but it’s something, and it’s a start. While this window is open, we are trying to make as much hay as possible to shine light on the housing needs in Tennessee, and that it’s not a temporary thing, and it’s not really a new thing.

Housing is a critical tool for community development. I don’t care what meeting you go to, if it’s economic development or education, housing comes up as the top issue of concern. We’re working on trying to convince other agencies and groups that they can put money into housing, like the Department of Economic Community Development. And the Department of Health: our folks are aging, and it’s more economical if they can age in place. They want to stay at home, but a healthy home requires home repair and modifications. We are trying to retool the education and the language and the understanding that these expenses related to housing are just as important as industrial parks and home health care.

Q: What successes have you seen?

A: The basis of our philosophy is building family wealth. Housing as shelter is extremely important, but our focus is really about stable families, stable communities, and wealth building. It’s extremely encouraging to us to see that our philosophy is bearing fruit. The last subdivision that we did has 30 houses in it, and the same house plan gets built a few times. About three years ago we built and sold a house for $135,000. An identical house just appraised for $255,000. The first homeowner, a single mom, has increased equity of $120,000 over just three years and her house payment is still $600.

It takes partnerships to tackle big problems like housing and we are celebrating some wins! With other Fahe Members we convinced Ballad Health to invest in a referral system that recognizes that housing and health go hand in hand. The Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati increased funding available through the Carol M. Peterson Home Repair fund to $10 million this year thanks in part to advocacy education. We have received USDA Rural Development funding for a Self Help program to make it possible for low income families to purchase homes that are in need of repair and complete that work with the help of our construction crew. And as mentioned earlier, the TN General Assembly award of $10 million in housing funds to a housing coalition is a landmark accomplishment and what we hope will be the beginning of significant investment in the future. None of these steps forward would have been possible for Clinch-Powell working alone.