Appalachia Today: Part 7 – Where to Live in Appalachia – The Housing Crisis

Homeownership in Appalachia is higher than in the country as a whole with 73% of central Appalachian housing owner-occupied. The majority of these homes have been passed down from generation to generation within families. However, the general economic decline of the region has contributed to a major housing crisis in the form of a lack of livable, affordable housing and a lack of resources to repair existing old, run-down homes. Central Appalachia is mostly rural with about 55% of its population living in rural areas or small towns. As a result, tens of thousands of houses are isolated and far from major interstate highways and metropolitan areas.

Coal Town Houses

Photo: Houses perched on a hillside at Logan, West Virginia. Many homes are built this way because level land is at a premium in the valleys of this coal mining area. (Source: Jack Corn)

Many homes in the area are old and in disrepair since the inhabitants often do not have the means to maintain them. Many have inadequate plumbing and sewage treatment systems. In 1994, a West Virginia study found over 70,000 owner-occupied houses were substandard, and of those, only 21,000 could be rehabbed. While the condition of these basic amenities has improved over the past decades, there are still over 15,000 homes in central Appalachia that lack complete plumbing facilities. As a result of their condition and location, most houses in the region are not as valuable assets as is typically the case in other areas of the country. Over 55% of homes in the region are worth less than $100,000, and about 18% are worth less than $50,000.[1]

Given this, it is not surprising that one type of housing that is more popular in central Appalachia than the rest of the U.S. is manufactured housing, otherwise known as mobile homes. As of 2010, manufactured homes made up 20.7% of the available housing in the central Appalachian region, compared to 6.8% in the country as a whole. Manufactured houses are often more affordable than traditional houses making them attractive to low income earners. However, mobile homes are typically financed with personal property loans as opposed to mortgages, with higher interest rates and stricter terms. Since many central Appalachian residents already have bad credit ratings, these high-cost loans represent a significant financial burden.[2]

Mobile Homes

Photo: Row of mobile homes near Madison, West Virginia, with trash thrown along the edge of the creek is a typical scene in the mining valleys that dot the area. The trailers are appealing to the young miners because they can be brought for less than conventional housing and take less space. (Source: Jack Corn)

Manufactured homes also often suffer from more structural and efficiency problems than traditional homes. A 2016 study on mobile and manufactured homes in central Appalachia found that a large portion of these homes were built before 1980, with West Virginia having the highest percentage of manufactured homes (32%)  built before 1980. These older mobile homes have lower values and higher energy usage than newer ones and as a result, the utility bills can be very high, taking up more than 30% of the owners’ monthly income.

Despite these many problems, older manufactured homes may be the only option for low-income households, even though owners may not have the means to do the necessary repairs.[3]

The older mobile homes in the region present a myriad of house problems HUD uses the term “cost burdened” to define households where families pay more than 30% of their income for housing and as a result they have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, and medical care.

The older mobile homes have very high energy costs due largely to a lack of insulation and poor construction. In the these 70,000 households in the region have utility costs which alone account for over 30% of their income (putting usual mortgage costs, rent, etc.), forcing these households to choose between making loan in rent payment or purchase food, health care or transportation.

Childhood in a trailer Park

Photo: A trailer park in Poca (Charleston, WV), directly across the Kanawha river from the John Amos power plant. Water cooling towers of the plant seem to be in the park. (Source: Harry Schaefer)

Many residents of central Appalachia simply cannot afford to buy a traditional house. Their poor credit histories either disqualify them from getting loans or force them to get high-cost mortgages. High-cost loans are more common in central Appalachia than in the rest of the country, at rates of 10% and 5% respectively as of 2010.[4]

There is a paucity of available rental property in the region. Fewer than 1,000,000 rental units are available in the region, and of these, 47% are unaffordable, means that rent and utilities consume more than 30% of the potential residents’ income. Also, many of the rental units that are affordable are substandard rental unites make up almost 37% of all houses with incomplete plumbing. Over 40% of West Virginia and Kentucky rental houses were cost burdened (rent and utilities cost over 30% of income of renter).[5]

The coal industry’s decline is a significant contributing factor to the housing problems in central Appalachia and the loss of coal mining jobs has increased the percentage of vacant homes. In 2000, McDowell County, which relied heavily on coal mining and experienced population loss as the coal industry declined, had the highest percentage of vacant homes in Appalachia (17%).[6]

With the Death of Coal

Photo: A tattered blanket hung on a line in Fireco, West Virginia near Beckley, symbolizes the decline in the area after the coal mines gave out. The towns originally were built around the railroad tracks. The availability of such transportation made the mines possible. (Source: Jack Corn)

Also, the decline in the central Appalachian economy has made it difficult for residents to afford even modest homes. Elkins, WV provides a good example of the issues that coal-dependent areas now face. In recent years, Elkins has experienced a declining population rate and low economic growth. There is little incentive for developers to come to the city, and there are few banks to lend mortgages, for those who are able to purchase a home. Many are in the position of Debbie Green, a 56-year-old from Elkins who was unable to work due to disability and could not afford a home of her own. She rents a friend’s mobile home at a discounted rate but only receives $900 a month in disability payments, leaving her with only a few dollars in her bank account at the end of the month. Often, she had to consider whether to cut off the electricity or water in order to save money.[7]

Now that local coal mining jobs have largely disappeared, another problem that central Appalachians face is the distance between the locations of available entry-level and low-skill jobs and the rural residences of the poor. In fact, Appalachians have long commutes compared to other areas of the country, especially workers in ARC-designated “distressed” counties in Kentucky and West Virginia. These workers commuted 28 minutes on average in 2000, which rivaled commute times in Washington, D.C., one of the most traffic-congested areas in the country. Of course, commuting to work in central Appalachia also requires a reliable method of transportation, as public transportation is virtually nonexistent in rural areas. In 2000, only 1% of workers in the region took public transportation to work.[8]

The lack of available jobs is considered to be a factor in the high rates of homeownership in the region, especially in “distressed” counties. Those with low incomes are often unable to move closer to jobs because they lack the means to do so. To compound the problem, there are few affordable rental units in central Appalachia.[9] Rental units are also more likely to be crowded and have incomplete plumbing compared to owner-occupied housing.[10]

[1] “Housing in Central Appalachia: Rural Research Report,” Housing Assistance Council, September 2013: 6-7. http://www.ruralhome.org/storage/documents/rpts_pubs/ts10_central_appalachia.pdf.

[2] “Housing in Central Appalachia: Rural Research Report,” Housing Assistance Council, September 2013: 7. http://www.ruralhome.org/storage/documents/rpts_pubs/ts10_central_appalachia.pdf.

[3] “Mobile and Manufactured Homes in Central Appalachia and Alabama: Age, Condition and Need for Replacement,” Virginia Center for Housing Research, September 2016: 4-5. http://cfed.org/assets/pdfs/VCHR_Study_Final.pdf.

[4] “Housing in Central Appalachia: Rural Research Report,” Housing Assistance Council, September 2013: 7. http://www.ruralhome.org/storage/documents/rpts_pubs/ts10_central_appalachia.pdf.

[5] Mark Mather, “Housing and Commuting Patterns in Appalachia,” Population Reference Bureau and Appalachian Regional Commission, January 2004: 2. https://www.arc.gov/assets/research_reports/HousingandCommutingPatternsinAppalachia.pdf.

[6] Mark Mather, “Housing and Commuting Patterns in Appalachia,” Population Reference Bureau and Appalachian Regional Commission, January 2004: 12. https://www.arc.gov/assets/research_reports/HousingandCommutingPatternsinAppalachia.pdf.

[7] Melissa Hellman, “The Other Housing Crisis: Finding a Home in Rural America,” Moyers & Company, September 30, 2016. http://billmoyers.com/story/housing-crisis-finding-home-rural-america/#.

[8] Mark Mather, “Housing and Commuting Patterns in Appalachia,” Population Reference Bureau and Appalachian Regional Commission, January 2004: 14-15. https://www.arc.gov/assets/research_reports/HousingandCommutingPatternsinAppalachia.pdf.

[9] Mark Mather, “Housing and Commuting Patterns in Appalachia,” Population Reference Bureau and Appalachian Regional Commission, January 2004: 2. https://www.arc.gov/assets/research_reports/HousingandCommutingPatternsinAppalachia.pdf.

[10] “Housing in Central Appalachia: Rural Research Report,” Housing Assistance Council, September 2013: 7. http://www.ruralhome.org/storage/documents/rpts_pubs/ts10_central_appalachia.pdf.