USA - For $700 a month you can get an efficiency in downtown Gatlinburg.
It’s enough room for you and a loved one, and walking distance from a job washing dishes or cooking on a line for tourists.
But that’s about it. At least until plans for various affordable housing programs ramp up.
“Gatlinburg dont take care of the people that help them make their money,” Pamela Roach, 49, said Thursday as she sat in a chair outside the efficiency she shares with Allen Boles.
Officials in Gatlinburg and those who are working to attract affordable housing to Sevier County say the November wildfire further highlighted a long-standing issue for the area: In a place where vacation and resort prices drive up property values, finding a decent place to live on service-industry wages is difficult.
“We’re trying to figure out how to address that,” said Cindy Ogle, Gatlinburg’s city manager. “Affordable housing has been an issue throughout the county and in the cities for many, many years.
Roach and Boles, 52, live at the Red Carpet Inn on East Parkway. She’s on disability, and the location is convenient for him because it’s walking distance from the restaurants tourists visit. Boles isn’t working right now, but work comes as the tourism season warms up in spring.
Boles and Roach were tourists themselves before they moved up from North Georgia.
“We used to come up here three to four times a year,” Boles said.
They’ve been living in Gatlinburg for eight years.
Soon after moving, both said, they realized decent affordable housing is hard to find. An efficiency in a former motor lodge is about as good as they can afford, they said.
Ideally, they’d like to live, “somewhere with one bedroom for a couple, and a full kitchen where you can cook in,” Boles said. “Here, if you don’t eat a TV dinner or (have) a Crockpot, you don’t do it.”
This month, the Tennessee Housing Development Agency released a memo outlining problems and potential solutions for Sevier County after the Nov. 28 wildfire.
“In these fires, 2,121 homes were completely destroyed with an additional 266 homes affected with some level of damage,” the memo read. “This amounts to a loss of four percent of the countys housing units in a matter of days. Looking at just Gatlinburg, the fire destroyed 981 homes, or 15.9 percent of the citys housing stock.”
Some of those places lost were converted hotels and extended-stay locations with inexpensive rent. Others were places including resort homes and rentals where people lived in the off-season.
At least two neighbors of Boles and Roach moved to the Red Carpet Inn since the fires – people who lost their homes and everything they owned.
“I do think that out of this horrific event, the silver lining is indeed that once and for all we will be able to accomplish and bring to fruition the actual construction of affordable housing,” Ogle said.
Ogle said a study looking at affordable housing in Sevier County is expected as soon as March.
“There is a very serious conversation occurring, and we are very hopeful that this is going to lead to (affordable housing) actually happening,” Ogle said.
A solution appears to be multi-pronged.
Shortly after the fires, a decision by HUD allowed 18 families to jump to the top of a list for federal housing assistance, waiving a 45-day waiting period for the program change.
Another HUD project is going to bring $1.5 million in tax credits for new development addressing low-income housing.
And this past week Gatlinburg City Commission announced they would apply for a program to help low-income residents repair or rebuild homes.
Katie Moore, industry and governmental affairs liaison for THDA, sees a chance for local government, federal funding and private developers to join in a solution..
“All of us will come together,” Moore said, ” … to put together a handful of projects to contribute a few hundred units that will help sustain the area and help future growth.”
Moore said the HUD tax credits could bring two or three affordable housing options. The people who help keep the area’s tourism industry going, she and others agreed, would stand to benefit.
People who have jobs cleaning hotels or flipping flapjacks in a restaurant make too much money to qualify for housing vouchers, but not enough to afford resort-area prices.
Wes Bunch, spokesman for the East Tennessee office of THDA, summed up the issue.
“They live in these rent-by-the-week hotels … and it’s bad, but they do have a place to live,” he said. “We need to replace those with affordable housing.”
Until long-term programs get going fully, people like Boles and Roach will continue to stay at the Red Carpet Inn and other similar places.
In their efficiency they have a bed, bathroom, television, a full-size fridge and a double sink.
“The only place to get privacy is in the bathroom,” Roach said.
Short of installing stoves, Red Carpet Inn owner Alex Abrahams said he provides appliances where possible.
“If you can’t come home and cook in a decent kitchen, it will reflect on the job,” Abrahams said.
He’s tried fixing up other hotel properties, converting rooms into condos, he said. But more investment means Abrahams has to protect his margins with higher rent. And eventually tenants fall delinquent.
“I could charge them $1,000 a month,” Abrahams said, “but they’re not going to do it because the wage won’t support it. I could take them (in), but then I’ll be taking them to court.”
The site offers a washing machine and dryer on a covered walkway near a utility room. Abrahams will take a bed out to make room for a crib if there’s family staying in a room.
Boles added more sleeping space in his unit, a cot on the floor near a double bed.
“I bought that at Walmart for my mother,” Boles said. She visits sometimes, but Boles and Roach use the cot when she’s not around too.
“That bed isn’t big enough for the two of us,” Boles said, “so most of the time one of us is actually over there.”
In the kitchen there’s a dish drying rack and a slow cooker on a hotel bathroom counter.
“I do a lot of beans. A lot of beans and ‘taters,” Boles said. “I grew up on beans and ‘taters anyways. I’m in my 50s, so I’m used to it.”