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New director homes in on affordable housing

Sarah Grymes stands at the site of Oklawaha Village, a Housing Assistance Corp. development that will provide 95 units of affordable homes and apartments. Sarah Grymes stands at the site of Oklawaha Village, a Housing Assistance Corp. development that will provide 95 units of affordable homes and apartments.

Sarah Grymes felt blessed to grow up in Hendersonville with “a wonderful life with two wonderful parents.”

“I didn’t think about housing being an issue,” she says. But as she grew older she noticed her parents “having more and more conversations” about the homes of some playmates, “worrying about the conditions the children were living in.”
As a banker she saw first-hand how much income it took to buy a home in Henderson County’s high-priced real estate market. When a supervisor at Mountain 1st bank encouraged her to join the board of the Housing Assistance Corp., she took on a volunteer role that would make her a part of the solution.
She moved up to secretary and then became board chair, earning a front-row seat when the Board of Commissioners turned down an HAC rezoning request for an affordable apartment complex on Pisgah Drive. HAC has rebounded in a big way. Houses are rising from the ground at its new Oklawaha Village, a development on North Main Street at Duncan Hill Road that will ultimately contain 17 single-family homes and 78 apartments.

Sweat equity required

Incorporated in 1988 by members of Trinity Presbyterian Church, HAC started as a team of volunteers making repairs on the homes of needy families. The nonprofit agency finished its first new construction, a 43-unit apartment complex on Sugarloaf Road for farmworkers, in 1994. Since it began, HAC has completed 447 units of affordable homes or apartments for working families, the elderly and disabled while repairing countless existing homes.
With the departure last summer of its director, Noelle McKay, the Housing Assistance board began a search for a new leader. It turned to Grymes, who had left banking for a job at the United Way of Henderson County.
“Housing Assistance doesn’t toot their horn enough about all the things that they do in the community,” she says. “By design you don’t know that our housing is affordable. It just looks like any other neighborhood.”
Standing in high heels and a business suit on the dusty earth of the Oklawaha Village construction site, Grymes describes the four dwellings now under construction. Twelve of the 17 homes are being built for working families through the Self-Help Housing program, which requires the owner to take courses on household budgeting and home maintenance and complete 65 percent of the labor on their new house.
“They all work on each other’s homes,” Grymes says. “They all work their day jobs but then they also put in 11 hours of sweat equity per person per week. They work hard to get here.”
While graders sculpt the ground for construction, HAC is finishing the final phase on financing for the apartments. Twenty percent of the units will be set aside for families with an income at 50 percent or less than the median income in this area.
“Some will be higher but all of them will be below market rent,” Grymes says.

Road to the American dream

First as a board member and now as the fulltime advocate for affordable housing, Grymes understands the workforce housing shortage and counties the victories, one person at time. She recalls a single mom who worked for years “to clean up her credit, getting a second job so she’d have enough income to qualify.”
“It’s amazing what these people go through,” she says. “They put time and energy into these homes. They want to be homeowners and take care of their homes. Watching them finally get in their home is the most amazing thing.”
While Oklawaha Village, and two more affordable apartment complexes going up on Frances Road will increase the supply of affordable housing, a gap will remain.
“If you figure about a thousand units (are needed) and we’re building about 100, we’re a tenth of the way there,” she says.
The old convention that a police officer and schoolteacher can make enough to buy a nice home is less true all the time in Henderson County.
“You look at city salaries, county salaries, teacher salaries — a lot of those people are qualifying to be in our homes,” Grymes says. “It’s just our wages and the cost of living here. For what most people make in our community it would be very tough to buy homes that are currently on the market.”
Single-family homes under $250,000 in good neighborhoods are snapped up in days.
“From what I’ve heard from Realtors on our board they’re going very quickly and no one’s building in our price range,” Grymes says. “I’m excited to give people in our community this opportunity to own a home. We’re trying to create as much inventory in this area as is needed.”
The deep rumble of the motor grader and the nail-pounding percussion of framers will soon be replaced by the sound of children’s laughter and homeowners pushing lawnmowers. The final stop on the journey to homeownership is a part of the job Grymes cherishes.
“My favorite part about being the board chair is I would be at the closing table signing the documents when this was becoming theirs,” she says. “There’s no greater joy in the world than watching somebody that has worked so hard get something for their family — their grandchildren, their children.”