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Bowling Green's housing crunch hinges on crisis as residents remain displaced months after tornado

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Lisa Autry
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An apartment complex is being rebuilt on Spring Creek Ave. in Bowling Green following the Dec. 11 tornado.

More than three months after a deadly EF-3 tornado ripped through Bowling Green, many are facing the uncertain reality of a housing shortage that existed long before the storm.

Most of those displaced from their homes were low-income renters who have no guarantee of finding permanency anytime soon. One likely guarantee is having to pay more for comparable housing.

While spring construction is in full swing around Bowling Green, houses aren’t going up fast enough. December’s historic tornado caused major damage to 475 houses and apartments, displacing about 800 individuals. Most were forced into hotels, the local Housing Authority, and some even had to move to neighboring towns.

Bowling Green was experiencing a housing shortage before the disaster, but now that housing crunch is near crisis level. Warren County Emergency Management Director Ronnie Pearson says the rebuilding process could take two years.

“We had a shortage prior to going into the tornado of almost 500 units. Now we’ve taken another 475 that’s been damaged, so now we’re at a thousand units short. Now we need double the contractors, double the supplies, to get caught up.”

According to FEMA, 65% of the homes damaged by the tornado were rentals, yet the city’s occupancy rate among rental properties is around 97%. The apartments that remain are unaffordable for most of the displaced, many of whom at low-income residents and refugees.

Renters make up 31% of all households in Kentucky’s 2nd congressional district, which includes Bowling Green. That’s according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The group says 21% of households in the district are severely burdened, meaning they spend more than 50% of their income on housing costs, including utilities. The average wage of a Bowling Green tenant is just over $13 an hour.

High land prices make building affordable homes difficult on top of record high inflation, as well as supply and labor shortages. Ben Peterson, head of the Bowling Green-Warren County Planning Commission, says it’s impossible to rebuild apartments and charge tenants the same rent they were paying before the storms.

“How are you going to replace that if you still want to live in Bowling Green when the prices are going up really every month? Rent has been increasing about three percent a year," Peterson said. "You cannot build a new apartment and rent it for less than $800 a month, so if someone was paying $750 a month or less for their home or apartment, and that product is gone and no longer available, what’s their option? Therein lies the difficulty.”

Because of the increased rental prices, FEMA is providing 125% of the rental rates in order to get people back into apartments, but not everyone has qualified for federal assistance, and properties are limited.

While some rentals are in the pipeline, some are already spoken for, says Brent Childers, Director of Neighborhood and Community Services for the city of Bowling Green.

“Talking with our apartment developers and housing developers, many new construction houses are sold during construction and many apartments are leased during construction," Childers explained. "The other thing we saw was that mid-tier housing, mid-tier priced housing got absorbed first, so the availability we were seeing was on the higher cost of housing, the $1,200-$1,400 a month rent, so that’s where the affordability really pinched some of those families.”

Childers estimates about new 50 apartment units have become available since the tornado, and close to 300 units are currently under construction.

An affordable housing plan initiated months before the tornado is moving forward under an agreement between Warren Fiscal Court and the Housing Authority of Bowling Green. The county will use $1 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to finance construction of a 40-unit housing complex on land owned by the Housing Authority. However, Emergency Management Director Ronnie Pearson says it won’t meet the immediate needs of those displaced by the tornado.

“That’s building," he emphasized. "They’ve already got property, it’s ready to go, but then you have to find the contractors and supplies to get that built. So another 12-18 months.”

The recovery effort is compounded by labor and supply shortages brought on by the pandemic. Johnston Boyd is president of the Builder’s Association of South Central Kentucky. He says a shortage of raw materials like aluminum is delaying many homeowners from getting things like windows, siding, and gutters.

“So folks who even saw just minor damage are looking at something that could take months to replace or repair. Windows right now, if it’s got aluminum in it, you could be looking at 27 weeks or more," Boyd said. "For us to design this, start construction... that were going to have windows that may take 16 or 18 weeks to get in, some of the stuff we’re seeing with supply chain issues, I think you’re looking at over a year.”

In addition to a less availability of construction materials, there’s also a significant shortage of sub-contractors. That means contractors will likely charge more as they’re forced to lure workers with higher pay.

In the meantime, Warren County is beginning to receive travel trailers as medium-term housing. Also, a long-term recovery group was recently formed made up of philanthropic, religious, and government leaders. One of their goals is to find volunteer builders and donated supplies to keep construction costs down. They’re hoping the generosity and sense of community so prevalent after the tornado will continue for the long haul.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.