Housing USA: The Rural PHA

6 min read

When people hear “housing agency,” they likely envision a big city bureaucracy in New York or Philadelphia. But for each of those, there are numerous smaller agencies that serve tiny cities nationwide. According to Opening Doors, a housing publication for the disabled, there are over 3,000 Public Housing Agencies (PHA) in state and local government. Eighty percent manage under 250 units. Many are located in rural areas, helping address housing situations that are often worse than that of big cities. And because rural America is not defined by any one economic condition, these agencies have different challenges by location.

Rural America is indeed transitioning right now. Over a third of rural counties are experiencing population loss, and the share of Americans living in them has shrunk from 16 to 14 percent since 2000. But the rural situation is also nuanced. Analyst Richard Florida wrote that there are three rural Americas – “amenity-rich” ones have natural or cultural assets to attract the affluent; “transitioning” ones rely on a combo of blue-collar and white-collar jobs, and have strong population growth; and “chronically poor” ones were hit hard by deindustrialization, and haven’t revived.

Each of them have housing challenges. In the amenity-rich and transitioning areas, fast growth creates demand, and the private sector does not always keep pace by adding necessary supply. In the chronically poor areas, there may actually be a housing glut, but it’s old and substandard. And because incomes and economic activity are minimal, the private sector isn’t impelled to build new housing. This has created a rural housing crisis.

“The problem of housing affordability, long a concern in popular big cities, has moved to rural America,” reports the Pew Charitable Trust. “Nearly one-fourth of the nation’s most rural counties have seen a sizeable increase this decade in the number of households spending at least half their income on housing.”

This is where the aforementioned rural PHAs can and do step in. During recent travels and interviews, I saw firsthand how that looks in different cases.

Struggles Across West Virginia
On July 4th weekend, I traveled through much of rural West Virginia.

The area fits Richard Florida’s “chronically poor” description.

The state has been hit hard by the decline of coal, and hasn’t sufficiently readapted to embrace natural gas extraction, much less new economy industries like health and education. The average annual income in rural counties is generally below $20,000, and the poverty is worsened by the state’s drug epidemic. This makes rural West Virginia’s housing situation bleak: 16 percent of units are mobile homes, fourth-highest of any state, and many are in worse physical shape than the generic trailer park communities I’ve seen nationwide.

West Virginia’s housing bureaucracies are trying to solve this problem. It starts at the top with the West Virginia Housing Development Fund (WVHDF), a state affordable housing finance agency. WVHDF both allocates Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) equity and Section 8 assistance for multifamily projects, and provides mortgage financing for single-family homes. Some of that mortgage financing goes, in classic West Virginia fashion, towards the purchase of double-wide trailers that are new, and better quality, than the trailers people lived in before.

WVHDF is “constantly in contact” with local PHAs, says George Gannon, the agency’s communication manager. It organizes quarterly meetings so PHAs can describe their needs, and WVHDF can allocate funds accordingly. PHAs they work with are usually administered at county level, and generally have 20 staffers or fewer. Like elsewhere in America, West Virginia’s PHAs have a variety of tasks; some are involved in the construction and management of facilities, while others acquire, improve, sell and win financing for sites.

One example of this latter type is the Fairmont Community Development Partnership (FCDP), a nonprofit that works with WVHDF to spur economic development.

Fairmont is an 18,000-person city 14 miles south of Morgantown. The partnership operates two restaurants, and has been involved in the financing or development of several dozen housing units. Brian Chetworth, the finance manager, said Fairmont has common regional problems: a declining population, high poverty rate and economic turmoil following the decline of coal and steel. The nature of FCDP’s job is thus to remove blight, and convince outside investors that the blight can be replaced with vitality.

Gannon, the communication manager for WVHDF, says Fairmont’s problems are mirrored across West Virginia.

“There is a critical need for affordable housing in every county in the state,” Gannon says by phone. “Many areas are not economically prosperous, many areas have been hit hard by downturns in the energy industry. And we’re working with not just the county folks, but developers across the country to suppress that need.

Rapid Growth in West Texas
The parts of rural America that have embraced the new energy economy—i.e. oil and gas—have the opposite scenario: rapid growth. So their housing problems are different. One example is Monahans, a 7,000-person city in west Texas where the population has increased by ten percent since 2010.

“Right now it’s a boom town, because we’ve got a lot of oil activity,” says Ginger Carrell, executive director for Monahans Housing Authority (MHA). “The sand here can be mined and used for frack sand. So we’ve got sand plants everywhere, and oil field companies, and well service companies, and fracking companies – all kinds of stuff.”

Carrell says the industry brings temp workers, who either rent or own RVs. Monthly rents, she says, are between $900-$1,500, and even if a worker owns their RV, the cost of renting space on a campground is not much less. These demand pressures have inflated housing prices around town, making MHA one of the last respites for affordability. The agency manages 68 income-based public housing units, ranging in size from one- to four-bedrooms. It manages another 52 one-bedroom market-rate units on two separate sites, some of which it rents to Section 8 voucher tenants. The one bedroom apartments rent for $600/month, the cheapest in the area. Carrell says there are waiting lists for all MHA units, and that the agency may pursue further housing growth through HUD’s RAD program.

The examples of West Virginia and west Texas—both of which are remote—show the different problems faced by America’s 3,000 plus housing agencies. Some PHAs serve urban areas, some rural ones, and in either case, they are serving cities that are booming or declining, depending on economic conditions. But the common denominator is that affordable housing will be out-of-reach for some of the people living there, highlighting the important role of these PHAs.

Story Contacts:
Brian Chenoweth, Finance Manager
Fairmont Community Development Partnership

Ginger Carrell, Executive Director
Monahans Housing Authority

George Gannon, Communications Manager
West Virginia Housing Development Fund