The new home, built with support from Community Ventures, in the city of Fulton, Kentucky. (Courtesy of Community Ventures)
Along the Tennessee border in West Kentucky, Fulton County Judge-Executive Jim Martin traced his rural community’s economic challenges, and its coinciding lack of housing, back decades.
As the federal government built interstates throughout the country and in Kentucky in the mid-20th century, less traffic subsequently came through the county as new routes were planned. Garment factories employing hundreds moved away from the region, which Martin blames the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, for spurring. Local business from automotive suppliers and railroad lines also retracted.
The result, Martin said, is his Mississippi River-bound county struggling with a need for well-paying jobs, a lack of available, affordable housing, and elevated levels of poverty.
About 23% of Fulton County residents live in poverty, more than double the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Fulton County’s population has also declined by thousands over the decades, reflecting population loss in other West Kentucky counties. The county now sits at little more than 6,000 people.
As those jobs left, Martin said, so did the skilled tradespeople who worked on homes.
“There was no demand for new housing,” he said. “All we’re trying to do is reverse this population decline and economic decline, and in order to do that, we have to build a community that offers housing, educational opportunities and jobs.”
With the help of a Lexington-based nonprofit housing developer Community Ventures, a connection made in the aftermath of the 2021 tornado outbreak in the region, Martin hopes a newly constructed home in the city of Fulton can be a step forward to an eventual economic rebound.
Local leaders are celebrating a ribbon-cutting Wednesday afternoon for the first home built by a group other than Habitat for Humanity in the city of Fulton, a small community of about 2,300 in Fulton County, since 2008.
“I mean, it’s huge,” said Mark Welch, a Fulton native and the president of the Fulton-Hickman Counties Economic Development Partnership. “When the economy tanked in ’08, ’09, everything just stopped here.”
Welch said the lack of people with skilled trades in the community has hampered new home construction, mentioning there’s only one person in Fulton who works on home remodeling projects. The county school district’s technology center, Four Rivers Career Academy, stopped teaching carpentry a few years ago because of little demand for it. The new home built in Fulton relied on labor from the county’s jail because of a lack of a ready and available workforce.
The shortage of housing is reflected across West Kentucky, he said, with some realtors in nearby Paducah listing available homes in Fulton because of a scarcity of housing stock across the region.
According to a University of Kentucky analysis, Fulton County had the 13th highest housing demand, tied with Fayette County, out of all 120 counties in the state. Welch said the demand for housing comes from both people interested in moving from elsewhere and locals seeking the few homes available, which makes it harder to attract new staff to the county’s two school districts.
“If a teacher is looking at Fulton, but they can’t find a house and they’re going to have to commute from Murray — well, that may kill that,” Welch said.
With the newly constructed home built, Welch hopes it can spur interest from other private groups that build and remodel homes, though he notes that available housing is only one piece to boosting the economy there.
Brenda Weaver, the president of Lending and Western Kentucky Disaster Recovery for Community Ventures, said the effort to build the home in Fulton came through connections made after the 2021 tornado outbreak in Western Kentucky.
Community Ventures was one of nine nonprofit housing agencies that were awarded funds Monday from Kentucky’s Rural Housing Trust Fund, created by the legislature earlier this year following calls from housing advocates for support to rebuild homes in disaster-stricken areas of the state.
Housing advocates praised the creation of the trust fund, even though the initial $20 million allocated to the fund was a far cry from $300 million housing advocates had asked for to help communities recover from floods and tornadoes. Almost $124 million in federal funding is going to rebuilding housing in Western Kentucky, yet the state’s own analysis as a part of that funding stated it would still fall far short of the housing needs in the region.
Even before the tornadoes had struck Western Kentucky in 2021 and floods devastated Eastern Kentucky in 2022, the state had lacked more than 79,000 affordable housing units, according to an analysis of data from the American Community Survey for 2016-2020. Weaver said natural disasters only make housing availability worse.
“There’s a huge housing affordability crisis across Kentucky and nationwide, even before you have something like a natural disaster or some other economic disaster,” Weaver said. “What happens when a disaster occurs — costs of everything increase significantly. And so it’s just a perfect storm.”
Community Ventures will use an about $2.6 million grant from the trust fund to continue home rebuilding efforts in Fulton and Graves counties, both struck by an EF-4 tornado in Dec. 2021. Weaver said Community Ventures is also planning to build more homes in the city of Fulton, which wasn’t impacted by tornadoes but has economic struggles seen in other rural communities.
Weaver said the new home being unveiled Wednesday was made possible through funds the nonprofit makes available for first-time homeowners, with the new home going to a Fulton resident who had been a renter.
“You can’t bring housing alone back unless you have jobs, unless you have economic development,” Weaver said. “Just the housing can’t stand on its own. Just the business can’t stand on its own, because you have to have people living there to support the business. So, it really is a comprehensive approach.”
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