Wildfire survivors are still facing a life of uncertainty, and Sevier County's shortage of affordable housing is complicating their recovery.
Cheaper housing is among the greatest needs right now in the wake of the deadly late November wildfires in Sevier County.
At a Pigeon Forge Chamber of Commerce breakfast Thursday morning, Sevier County Emergency Management Director John Mathews spoke frankly about the long-term recovery effort.
He said affordable housing was in short supply before the wildfires, and the problem is even worse now.
He said developers shy away from building low-rent structures.
"The biggest obstacle that they have had, before and now, is our property value's so expensive," Mathews explained.
"It's hard for a developer to come in and build apartments or affordable housing to overcome that, because land value's up," he said. "A piece of property that has utilities - water, sewer, that can hold that infrastructure, all that - raises the cost, which is going to raise the cost-per-unit. Then, in fact, would not make it affordable."
He said the county has been working with the Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless (TVCH) to keep track of families without homes in the wake of the wildfire.
Melanie Cordell is the coalition's CEO.
Currently, she said, 40 families are staying in hotels or motels, 26 are staying with family or friends and two families are literally homeless. Those 68 are among the 426 households identified initially as needing housing. Of those, 186 have since been permanently housed, Cordell said - some in Sevier County, others outside of it.
The remaining households fall into a number a different categories. For example, one told the coalition they don’t want permanent housing, Cordell said. 13 contact phone numbers were disconnected, seven were wrong numbers. The coalition calls each household once every other week, Cordell said.
Looking to the future, she said, housing stock is going to become an increasing concern. As warmer weather and tourism season returns, hotel and motel rates will go up, so families staying there now will have to be located elsewhere. With a shortage of affordable housing, it will be a challenge to find them a place to stay in Sevier County.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has provided a $100,000 grant to the Tennessee Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, Cordell said, along with a $25,000 grant to the Helen Ross McNabb Center's Blount County location and $25,000 to Family Promise of Blount County, all with the purpose of helping house people displaced by the wildfire.
"That grant is available for the first month's rent, deposit and the electricity deposit," Mathews explained.
But there's a caveat.
"To utilize the grant money," Mathews said, "the apartment we put these folks into has to be a 'fair-market rent.' There are some apartments available in Sevier County - they're just above that fair-market rent."
HUD designates what constitutes "fair-market value," and that's where the problem of the affordable housing shortage comes into play. There's not much of it.
A lot of the $150,000, Cordell said, is sitting untouched because there's nowhere to spend it that's HUD-approved. Her coalition and Sevier County have asked HUD to waive the fair-market rent requirement. They've even asked U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and U.S. Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tennessee) to talk to HUD on their behalf.
The coalition and Sevier County submitted their waiver request Jan. 17, Cordell said, and they haven't received confirmation or denial back from HUD yet. Not even a timeline.
Meanwhile, a donor through the East Tennessee Foundation has agreed to pay half of each month's rent for a year, for every displaced household. That offer, too, is sitting in limbo, while the county and coalition await HUD's reply.
Chasslene Bryant, her husband Jonathan and their four kids, two dogs and two cats lost their Wears Valley home in the fire.
For this family, leaving the area isn't an option.
"Our whole life is here. Our kids' lives, and they've already lost everything. I'm not going to take this from them," Bryant said. "I'll stand my ground because I believe it's going to happen, it's just a matter of time."
The Bryants continue to support their family with their cabin-cleaning company. Right now, they're renting a house temporarily until they can find a permanent home of their own.
"When you come home from a long day of work, you want that feeling of relaxation, and it's kind of hard to do when you feel like you're in a stranger's home," Bryant said.
Still, she said, they're grateful for the outpouring of support and how needs have been met at just the right times.
"After something like this happens, after the devastation and everything, it really opens your eyes," Bryant said. "I think you take time to look around and be so much more thankful and see all the good that comes out of it."
But her family has moved twice now. They stayed in a rental cabin immediately after the fire and then moved to the home where they're now renting.
"Still living out of trash bags and totes, and everything's unorganized and just everywhere. Not dirty, just kind of like in piles," Bryant said, acknowledging the stress and fear the whole situation can cause. "I hold it in because, you know, I don't want my kids to see that I might be scared a little bit."
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The family was originally supposed to be out of their current home by the end of February. Just this week, however, they learned that the owner of the home where they're staying will allow them to stay for several more months.
That allowed Bryant to start unpacking some of those bags.
"People shouldn't give up," she said. "There's days that I'm sure I've had it really hard."
Her family may be able to benefit from the new Mountain Tough Recovery Team, a non-profit organization forming to provide support to wildfire survivors.
"These folks that still have needs that have not been met," Mathews said, "either through FEMA, the Red Cross or an organization that has been here to help in the disaster, we want those folks to go to one place for the next three to five years, however long it takes, to be able to get their needs met."
Needs like those of the Bryant family.
"This county has really pulled together, and it's been a blessing," Bryant said. "To know that I live here brings me great pride, so I'm very thankful for that."
The non-profit Mountain Tough Recovery Team will hire six case workers, who, Mathews said, will preferably be wildfire survivors themselves.
"We want to have that relationship with these individuals that are coming to tell their story about what they went through and how they're going to need help to have that connection with them," he said.
Anybody who has received aid from organizations like the Dollywood Foundation, Red Cross, Gatlinburg Relief Fund, FEMA and more, has their contact information entered into a system called CAN: Coordinated Assistance Network, which is used to track survivors and their needs in disaster situations.
"It'll have information on 'John Doe,'" Mathews explained. "When they got the FEMA money, if they were denied FEMA money, if they had insurance on the property, even to whether their property was cleaned up by a volunteer organization like Team Rubicon or the Mennonites or Samaritan's Purse, all these folks that came in to help these people sort through the ashes."
The Bryants have received aid from the Dollywood Foundation and FEMA, so their information should be in the system.
The Mountain Tough Recovery Team plans on opening a physical location by April 15.