Conservation + Affordable Housing
Nonprofits find a common goal at Little White Oak Mountain
What’s the opposite of saving land? For some people, what comes to mind is a housing development: the felled forests, bulldozers scraping over raw dirt, roads and buildings replacing trees.
That seemed likely to happen at Little White Oak Mountain, in Polk County, near Columbus, NC. Not long ago, the mountain was slated for an upscale development of over 700 houses. Then, the recession hit, the housing market collapsed, and conservationists got another chance to protect the land.
Two land trusts that later merged to form Conserving Carolina bought 1,068 acres at Little White Oak Mountain in 2016. This spring, 900 acres of that property became public land—with 600 acres added to the Green River Game Lands and 300 acres added to a Polk County park.
These conservation lands protect mountain streams that flow into the Green River. They protect rural scenery. They expand areas for hunting, fishing, and hiking. Multi-use trails will be open for mountain biking. All of this could make Polk County more of a destination for outdoor recreation, boosting the local economy. And, the new park is right behind Polk County Middle School, providing places for outdoor learning, sports events and practice, and club activities.
Kieran Roe, the executive director of Conserving Carolina, saw potential for the land to provide another community benefit, as well: affordable housing.
Affordable Housing Crisis
In Polk County, more than one in four households are paying more than they can afford for housing—meaning that their rent or mortgage plus their utility bills consume more than 30% of their budget. Even for people around the median income—like school teachers, police officers, and some small business owners—it can be hard to find a home in their price range. “Employers are saying they can’t hire people, because workers can’t find any place to live,” Kieran says.
The affordable housing shortage is hardly unique to Polk County. An article in Curbed, “The Affordable Housing Crisis, Explained,” reports that, nationwide, home prices are rising at twice the rate of wage growth. Nearly two thirds of renters say they can’t afford to buy a home. Numerous factors contribute to the crisis, including federal housing policies, restrictive local zoning, rising construction costs, stagnating wages, and higher profit margins for luxury homes.
Kieran, who volunteers as a board member of the Asheville-Buncombe Community Land Trust—an affordable housing nonprofit—started thinking seriously about affordable housing during a land conservation conference in Snowmass, Colorado in 2001.
A local resident was showing him around the gorgeous mountain landscape with its high-end ski resorts. “He said, ‘We all have to commute an hour and 15 minutes to our jobs at the resort because we can’t afford anything around here,’” Kieran recounts. “It was striking because there’s a lot of conserved land in that part of Colorado. It was a stark lesson for me that a possible unintended side effect of doing a lot of conservation is an upward pressure on land values, which can negatively impact home affordability.”
Land conservation limits the supply of buildable land, which can play a role in driving up real estate prices. Conservation can also increase property values because people want to live near parks and protected areas. So, while conservation is a relatively minor factor in the affordable housing shortage, it doesn’t help.
But could it?
Low Interest Loans and Sweat Equity
The 1,068-acre purchase at Little White Oak Mountain included some land that wasn’t especially valuable for conservation. It’s at the foot of the mountain, along Rt. 108. An overly-dense white pine plantation is growing back in an area that was clear-cut a couple of decades ago. There are more invasive plants than native wildflowers. A power line cuts through, among some collapsing old buildings. For Conserving Carolina, it made sense to sell this tract and use those funds to help protect the rest of Little White Oak Mountain.
Instead of listing it for sale, Kieran reached out to another nonprofit—the Housing Assistance Corporation, based in Hendersonville—to ask if they would be interested in building affordable housing there. And they were.
Plans are moving forward for Housing Assistance to purchase approximately 30 acres this December, at a below-market price. They plan to build a workforce housing development with 32 single-family homes, which will be affordable to people around the median income level in Polk County. The homes will be financed with low-interest loans and some will be constructed through a program called Self-Help, in which homeowners provide 65% of the labor.
Housing Assistance’s website explains, “Self-Help brings together a group of four to six qualifying families to work cooperatively to build their homes under the guidance of a construction supervisor. Using this ‘sweat equity’ method, homeowners reduce construction costs and build immediate equity in their homes.”
The partnership expanded when the Green Infrastructure Center put out the word that they were looking for projects as case studies in conservation development. Housing Assistance had never built a conservation development. And the Green Infrastructure Center had never done site design for an affordable housing project. Both were eager to try it.
With a grant from the N.C. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry program, the site design was free to Housing Assistance. And it substantially changed plans for the development. The planners analyzed forest connectivity, water resources, steep slopes, and flood and fire risks. Then, they developed a plan for 32 lots that take up less than 50% of the property. With trees remaining on part of the lots, around two-thirds of the existing forest can be preserved.
The undeveloped portion can provide shared green space and trails for the neighborhood, including access to a pond and stream. Neighborhood trails could also connect to the expanded Polk County park, if an additional 130 acres that Conserving Carolina owns were to transition to public ownership.
Karen Firehock, director of the Green Infrastructure Center, says, “It seems very fitting to provide affordable housing next to this large conservation tract. We also think it’s a wonderful idea that folks buying into this affordable housing project will get to enjoy a lot of the same amenities that you might find in a wealthier conservation subdivision. They will have beautiful views from their houses. They will have access to nature trails and the pond. They will be able to walk on the trails and go up to the area that will be a future park.”
This year, Housing Assistance acquired a second property from Conserving Carolina, in Flat Rock. It was a similar situation: part of the land was a rare habitat with high conservation value while part of it was more suitable for housing.
Ashlynn McCoy, a staff member at Housing Assistance, says, “The partnership between us is innovative because when you think of conservation land you don’t think of housing projects, but I think both of our organizations have the common goal of serving the community.”
This article is written by Rose Jenkins Lane as part of our our monthly Stories of the Land series which runs in the Hendersonville Times-News. These stories explore people’s connection to the land and the ways they give back to the places they love.