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Spotlight On: Mountain Housing Opportunities

(From left) Eagle Market Place. Photo by Marc Lampkin; Glen Rock Apartments, Depot Street. Photo courtesy of MHO; Cherry Blossom Cove, Swannanoa. Photo by Lisa Keeter

By Emma Castleberry

Safe, stable, affordable housing is a right, not a privilege. This is the foundational belief of the regional nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities (MHO), which builds and improves homes and neighborhoods in Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Haywood counties.

The organization, which was founded in 1988 by a group of volunteers, now serves more than 2,500 households through various initiatives such as affordable rental developments, essential home repair, and construction and downpayment assistance for affordable homeownership.

“Our community needs every new affordable home that we can build or preserve and we pride ourselves in meeting the vast need at a scale that is more comparable to affordable housing non-profit organizations in larger metro areas,” says Geoffrey Barton, president and CEO of MHO.

Photo courtesy of Mountain Housing Opportunities

While the housing crisis is a nationwide American problem, there are several factors that make our region uniquely susceptible to it. “Over the last several decades,” says Barton, “wage growth has not kept pace with the explosive rise in housing costs. Our zoning regulations have suppressed adequate production of new housing and the legacies of Urban Renewal and redlining have disproportionately harmed Black families’ ability to gain generational wealth through homeownership. The impacts of zoning and racial inequity have become particularly magnified locally by our mountain topography which places natural constraints on where growth can occur, which has fueled a spike in the value of buildable land.” These natural and human-made constraints are experienced not only by low-income families but middle-income families as well.

While MHO’s work is crucial to the realization of a fair and equitable solution to the housing crisis, Barton says the country also needs policy and funding reformation at all levels of government. This includes changing land-use policies to allow a greater supply of new homes, providing more funding for making these homes attainable to low-income individuals, and engaging the public in this issue. “We must build broad coalitions of renters, essential workforce, retirees, educators and public sector workers to continue to advocate jointly for the importance of affordable housing to our local economy,” he says.

MHO works with big numbers and big projects, but the human impact is easy to identify. Athena Dygert was working as a teaching assistant in 2009 and solo parenting her three children when she learned about MHO’s Self Help Home Ownership Program, in which homeowners work alongside four to six other households and construct their homes together under the guidance of an MHO construction supervisor. All homes built are financed with low-interest USDA mortgages, which, along with the homeowners’ sweat equity construction hours, reduces the cost of the homes.

Initially, Dygert didn’t think it was a good fit. She and her now-husband had been dating for several years at that time, and they both had children. They needed several bedrooms, and Dygert assumed the program was constructing small houses. “It seemed insurmountable,” she says. “I hadn’t even thought about the potential for being able to have a house with enough bedrooms to fit everybody.”

But then she learned the Self Help Home Ownership Program was building four-bedroom houses on a full basement, so she applied and obtained the last slot in that cohort. For ten months, she and her husband pieced together childcare every weekend and worked side by side with other families building the home where they now live, creating a powerful community bond. “As we built our section, we also got to know our neighbors who were already living in the neighborhood,” she says. “It creates automatic community. We already have each other’s back and have a history of helping one another.”

After building and moving into her new home, Dygert pursued a lifelong dream and became a realtor in 2017. “This home paved the way for me to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” she says. “Once you have basic needs taken care of, it enables you to do other things with your life than just be in survival mode.”

MHO will soon begin construction on 344 new affordable homes on four separate sites in Arden, Waynesville, east Asheville and Leicester.

“This takes a lot of funding,” says Barton, “so making sure we have all budget gaps filled is our most urgent priority to embark on this significant expansion of affordable rental and homeownership opportunities.”

Direct donation on the website is the best way to support the work of MHO in ensuring all of our mountain neighbors have a safe and stable place to sleep at night.

In addition to its work supporting home ownership, MHO provides over 150 health and safety-related home repairs every year free of charge for very low-income households through the Essential Home Repair Program, and also operates a number of affordable rental apartment developments. Learn more and donate at

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