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Sevier County housing crunch continues five years after wildfires

The 2016 wildfires destroyed some 2,000 structures. Some chose not to rebuild, others converted their properties into lucrative rental developments.

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Joel Poole was one of the unlucky many. Along with around 2,000 others, his home burned in the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfires. 

"Everything around us was gone. Across the street, neighbors' houses, everything was gone," he recalled. 

Poole saved what he could from the fire — including his wife's wedding ring — and left the rest behind. 

He said rebuilding would have cost double the insurance payout. After initially living in a trailer and then another cabin, he and his family finally moved into a condo near Downtown Gatlinburg this spring. 

"We couldn't find a place to live," he said. 

His story is not unique.

In 2018, a University of Tennessee study polled people who lost their homes in the fires. It said most returned to living in similar environments compared to their homes before the fires, but at a cost. 

"At least half of survivors are paying an unsustainable portion of their income for housing," the study said. 

"I mean you need two or three incomes," Poole laughed. "I mean you really do."

It appears the housing situation has only gotten worse. This October, the Sevier County Economic Development Council found 98.6 percent of affordable housing in Sevier County is full — and rent is going up.

It's so expensive, the report found nearly half of the people who work in Sevier County commute from a different area. 

Joel Poole's family can afford the condo, but he said the area needs more affordable housing if it's going to continue to grow. 

"It's astronomically expensive," he said. "And I don't see it changing either."

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