McDowell house development is tough, but not impossible
October 2, 2012 ·
Two newly constructed homes are on the market in McDowell County. While new houses for sale isn’t news in most areas of the country, for McDowell County it’s an accomplishment.
Two brand new modular houses sit side-by-side along Route 5 2about two miles outside of Welch in the unincorporated town of Superior. The houses have three bedrooms, two baths and are 1,200 square feet.
As Housing Director of the Council of the Southern Mountains, Penni Padgett coordinated the resources for this construction, a first, but important step in addressing the county’s significant lack of adequate housing.
“It’s a small start but it is a start," Padgett said. "These are the first new houses built on this side of the county in seven years. So that’s very important for McDowell Countians to know and maybe support and get behind the idea so we can move forward and get more standard housing for the people here.”
According to the US Census, the number of housing units in McDowell is close to 14,000 with about 77 percent of residents claiming ownership. The median value of these homes is little more than $32,000.
To compare, in neighboring Mercer County the homes average more than $73,000. West Virginia’s median value of owner-occupied housing unites between 2006 and 2010 was about $94,000, which is well below the national average of about $188,000 during those years.
The Council’s Executive Director, Randal Johnson points out that in McDowell, 60 percent of the homes still straight pipe their sewage, meaning waste is dumped directly into a nearby creek. In addition, several buildings throughout the county have been vacant for years.
The Council partnered with the University of Pittsburgh to conduct a housing study in 2006. Johnson, says the study showed 70 percent of the houses in the county are substandard.
“To me that’s just not acceptable,” he said. “We’re a community action agency so that was one of our goals was to improve economic conditions and living standards in the county.”
When the council set out to construct a home, Padgett and Johnson quickly found out why it’s been so long since a new house was built.
“The term regulation nation is really true,” he said. “We have run into every bureaucratic obstacle you could think of.”
To start, it’s against federal law to build on a flood plain. Padgett points out that the county is dotted with flood prone areas.
“When I started looking at property here in the county the problem is so much of the county floods," she said, "and you cannot build new houses in a flood area."
"So you drive around and you see a great spot and you find out hey it floods. And we were also told that we couldn’t build within so many feet of a train track. Well this is coal county and so that was almost another travesty that we had to overcome building out of the distance of a train.”
The council looked into connecting to the city sewer system but found it would cost about $70,000 to connect at this location. So the group went with more affordable septic systems at $14,000 per home.
Most of the funding for the actual construction came from the West Virginia Housing Development Fund. The money comes with guidelines like keeping a certain distance from train tracks and staying out of the abundant hollows in the county.
The Reconnecting McDowell Project also helped to make these new homes a reality. This is a public/private partnership working to improve the county’s education system. One of its goals is providing adequate housing for teacher recruits.
Padget says the AFL-CIO, as a Reconnecting McDowell partner, provided some of the final funding needed to complete the homes.
A teacher with a family would meet the income guidelines for a potential home-buyer.
“Everyone kind of shied away from the word low income,” she said, “but for the most part most people in our county fit low income."
"The income guidelines start at $24,000 for a single family and it goes up to $38,000 depending on how many people are in your family. When I did the numbers in the county most people that worked at the Board of Education or worked at the courthouse or worked at our DHHR fit in the income guidelines if you had a family. And these houses are really what we’d like to gear them towards are people with families."
Padgett says the cost to build each home was $139,000 but she expects the homes to appraise somewhere between $70,000-$80,000 because of the location.
“We got $417,000 from the West Virginia Housing Development Fund to build three houses and we’d like to do some more," he said. "This particular property that we’re on today didn’t have water and we had to run water from across the street and we had to get private foundation money to do that.”
The Schott Foundation of Bluefield and Dominion Resources donated money to pipe city water across the road.
But perhaps the largest hurdle was finding property available to buy. Padgett points out that 85 percent of the land in McDowell County is owned by out of state interests such as land companies, businesses, and former residents – and they’re not willing to sell.
“When you look around the county and the prime property is owned by people that don’t even live in this state," she said, "and that was another problem that McDowell Countians face."
"So there are so many different problems and if I lived in another city I probably could have built a community what has taken to build two houses honestly.”
Just beyond route 52, where coal trucks intermittently whiz by, Johnson points out a new mining site that included the removal of the edge of the mountain.
“They did a strip job across the road it’s just that’s just part of this county," he said. "I mean it’s the economic base it’s the only thing left really.”
And there’s no longer an abundance of coal jobs in the region. Over the last several decades most mines have shutdown causing a mass exodus of people. In 1960 the population was more than 100,000, today it’s down to about 22,000.
“What’s left is basically coal," he said, "And it’s what keeps what few people here left going other than social security and so forth for our elderly.”
Padgett is here, after being gone for more than 30 years. She says she’s back to try and make a difference.
“I am from McDowell County and I’m proud to be from here,” she said, “I refuse to give up on my community and there’s something about loving the county.”
The Reconnecting McDowell Project may have played a small role in this project, but Padgett says the group brings additional resources that could make the next build easier. In the meantime, the Council is reviewing applications from four qualified home buyers … all of whom are from McDowell County.
Plans for a third home, to be located in Welch, continue.