More than three months after deadly wildfires ravaged Sevier County, officials say at least 130 families are still in need of permanent housing.
At a check presentation at the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency offices in Sevierville Monday morning, the East Tennessee Foundation presented a check for $238,000, comprised of many donations from people and businesses over the past three months.
That money will pay up to half a month's rent for a year for families moving out of temporary housing, like motels, and into more permanent housing, like apartments. It will be combined with grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is intended to pay a family's first month of rent, utilities setup costs and security deposit.
The non-profit organization heading this project is the Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless.
CEO Michelle Cordell said finding housing for 50 displaced families is a start.
"We have chosen the most priority: families with children and the elderly population, and so we benchmarked 50 households over the next month-and-a-half," she said.
While the money is now available, the housing is not.
Since the night of the wildfires until about two weeks ago, Mountain Breeze Motel on the Parkway in Pigeon Forge has seen a total of 30 displaced households and families cycle through their rooms.
"Their stories would break your heart," owner and manager Suzy Campbell said. "They were really traumatized."
From her perch at the front desk, Campbell watched emergency responders flying down the Parkway on the night of the wildfires and said she praises the firefighters for their hard work.
Soon after that, displaced families started to arrive.
"We had people come that had been to the hospital with smoke inhalation, and they came directly from the hospital," Campbell said. "They still had the hospital bands on when they got here."
She and local leaders say Sevier County had a shortage of affordable housing before the fires. Now, it's even worse.
"There's not a day goes by that people don't call and ask, 'Do you do weeklies or monthlies?' because there's just not enough housing in this area, even before the fires," Campbell said.
There are no more wildfire victims living at her motel, but county-wide, at least 130 families are still in temporary housing.
Cordell knows this all too well.
"The first two-and-a-half months, we've just really been moving individuals from motel to motel. There just has not been affordable housing available," she said.
Part of that is due to the shortage of affordable housing. Another reason for the delay is HUD's requirement that its grant money be used only on rental units at or below something called fair market rent, which it sets. Due to a shortage of housing, rents in Sevier County are above that fair market level, so county leaders had to request a waiver from that rule. A month from the date of the request, HUD granted the waiver and freed up those funds.
That was just over two weeks ago.
"Now that the waiver has taken place, we have moved in six families into affordable housing in the last week-and-a-half," Cordell said.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters calls this the latest step in the ongoing wildfire recovery efforts.
"We want to keep folks in the area and we want to help them stay here, and this is part of that," he said. "We did a jobs grant that was announced Friday, and then now this, and we’re trying to put all this together so that we can move forward and help all of the families that have been severely impacted by the fire.”
Officials hope to get those 50 families into permanent housing by the end of the month.
However, only 26 rental units have been identified at this point.
Cordell asks any landlord with available units to contact her organization at 877-488-8234. Families in need of permanent housing can also call that number for help.
After 50 families are housed, Cordell said, the coalition plans on returning to the East Tennessee Foundation for more money to help house the remaining displaced households.