Calling Watauga Home

Organizing during the housing crisis in Watauga County, NC

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton
Reclaiming Rural


It didn’t take long for Sarah Davis to realize something was wrong.

Sarah is a realtor in Watauga County, North Carolina where the banks of the Watauga and New Rivers are lined with river birch and black willows and where fraiser firs grow on Calloway Peak.

It’s gorgeous here.

The view from Watauga County, North Carolina, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Photo by author.

She made her living helping local families find good homes to raise their children in. But in late 2020 and 2021, as the pandemic changed the country’s economic landscape, she said her entire team sold “maybe 20 houses to actual human beings who were going to live in them.” The rest were being sold to LLCs and big companies to become Airbnb and vacation homes.

As a realtor, it shouldn’t have mattered to Sarah. After all, properties were selling and often selling for astronomical prices. It wasn’t a bad time to be a realtor by any stretch of the imagination- monetarily speaking. But for Sarah, a local mom with life-long connections to these mountains and the people here, she was “disgusted at what was happening in Watauga.”

Sarah lives with her grandmother in the small, unincorporated township known as Meat Camp, where most of her family remains. The family has been here since the late 1800s and she lives on family land. She has a cousin across the street and up the road. A military child, she came home to Meat Camp every summer, playing in the hills, forests, rivers, and streams that make Watauga County so special.

It’s those features– the snowy slopes in the winter, the cool rhododendron-lined trails in the summer– that have made Watauga County a vacation destination. Most local jobs are in the tourist and service industry, at the ski resorts or river rafting outfits, and at the restaurants and bars that line King Street in Boone.

These jobs pay low wages that have been far outpaced by the cost of housing. “The people that work here can’t find a place to rent or buy,” explains Sarah, thinking of the many families she has tried to help over the last few years. “They will search for months and months, putting in a dozen offers or more. But when an LLC is going to offer 60 grand over the listing price, no regular family can compete.”

The same goes for rentals. With the existing housing stock being used so heavily for vacation rentals and second homes, local renters find themselves in competition with each other for a place to stay. Landlords, especially in the county area, take advantage of the absence of minimum housing codes and rent out substandard and even dangerous housing for prices no one should have to pay.

Sarah Davis on a hillside in Watauga County, North Carolina. Photo by author.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Sarah says about what she was witnessing. “I have bills to pay and this is how I pay them… and I know this is a system problem, not mine alone. But, the human problem still exists. And it was impacting people I know.”

She felt stuck and uncertain of what to do, what could be done. That’s when she got a text on her phone.

“Holy shit, phones do read your mind!” she remembers thinking.

The text was from Down Home North Carolina and was simple enough– asking if she wanted to get involved with a group of working-class people to make local change. That text offered Sarah the possibility to connect with other people who loved Watauga County and knew they could make it better. So she responded.

Sarah and other Down Home members started to knock on doors throughout the county asking a simple question: What’s on your mind? She learned quickly that she was not alone– in fact, far from it.

“Overwhelmingly, the people we talked to said that the housing crisis in Watauga County was their biggest concern. The community was so clear in that collectivity, that we knew our first campaign as a chapter was going to be about housing.”

The group researched the situation and brainstormed ways they could make an impact. “The big issue is affordability, and we knew we needed a campaign to start to chip away at that,” explains Sarah. They honed in on the lack of a minimum housing standard out in the county (the town of Boone has one) as a way to start holding both the local government and landlords accountable for safe, decent housing and as a mechanism to start to address larger housing issues. Housing standard would help preserve the existing dwellings– important in a place where a lack of water and sewer infrastructure makes new construction complicated.

It was also an issue that local members had direct knowledge and experience of. While knocking on doors, they had visited mobile home parks with unsanitary, overflowing dumpsters because the property owner wasn’t paying for trash removal and they knocked on doors of rental “apartments” that were little more than sheds. Local members describe living in rentals where the latches on the front door wouldn’t close and in homes where plywood-covered long-broken windows and broken pipes were the norm.

A mobile home park in Watauga County. Photo by author.

The chapter took their research and a proposal for adopting a minimum housing code to the Watauga County Commission. “Quickly, we realized this campaign was going to be about laying down stepping stones,” explained Sarah. They knew to make their case, the poor and working-class people who were impacted by the lack of housing codes were going to need to be at the forefront of this campaign, but the public comment period on the County Commission’s agenda was always scheduled for after the meeting. Not only did that often push it late in the evening– a time when most of us need to be making dinner for our children and getting them into bed– but it also made no sense. Why get comments from the community after the commission voted on matters?

Down Home’s first win in Watauga County was to successfully pressure the County Commission to change the public comment period timing so community members could participate. It seemed small, but it was that first stepping stone. “It also taught us the mechanisms to winning– write letters to the editor, make public comment, and, well, basically just show up,” explains Sarah.

Sarah took the “showing up” part seriously. Local governments often operate with little intervention– people are busy, people have lives. Sarah began showing up at meetings, especially the boring ones. At one point, she sat through hours of a county budget retreat as the only local resident there. “I think giving them an audience changes things,” she said. Perhaps even the presence of a very petite woman sitting quietly could shake things up.

Commissions and boards meet regularly to get the work of the community done, but frequently the community is not present. “We all benefit– I know I have– from meeting different people, getting different views,” says Sarah, remembering a time when she lived in Guam as a child with her military family and how important it was for her to be, even if briefly, a minority. She knows that it’s easy for any of us to fall into our own particular echo chambers and make decisions off that limited information. Democracy works best with everyone in the room.

“I don’t want them, or any of us, to lose the ability to hear working-class people,” she explains.

Expanding democracy to include working people matters in places like Watauga County. The chapter worked to mobilize other working people from around the county to make public comments in support of the minimum housing code in May 2023. Speaker after speaker talked about the local housing conditions and requested the Commission address the problem. The County didn’t adopt a minimum housing code but offered to create a special committee to learn more.

“We realized that we had to be adaptable,” explains Sarah about the moment, acknowledging that some members felt it was a blow to their campaign. “We had been working hard for months, but I’ve lived a long time and a few months are nothing to me.”

“These problems didn’t happen overnight, these conditions didn’t just emerge. I remember a time when things weren’t like this– when regular working people could afford a home when wages didn’t make you rich but made you okay,” she says. Sarah recalls that she bought a house when she was twenty for only $68,000 and barely any credit– but doubts she will ever be able to buy a home again.

Sarah and other members of the Watauga chapter of Down Home North Carolina after a litter clean up.

“I guess what I’m saying is it might take some time to move the needle here. If we have to keep working on it, then we have to keep working on it.”

So the chapter did. Sarah says Down Home members went “right back at it” emailing the commissioners, sending them data and reports. “Crickets,” says Sarah. “We got crickets.”

Finally, the chapter submitted an agenda request to do a presentation of their findings on housing during a County Commission meeting. The request prompted the special committee meeting to be scheduled.

“So, we showed up, again.” Persistence was the new plan.

“How we measure success matters,” says Sarah reflecting on the trajectory of the campaign so far. The political power in the county — like many rural counties– has long ignored the needs of poor and working people and favored big corporations and the wealthy few. No one thought this would be easy.

There is strong evidence that the conversation is shifting and that the pressure being created by Sarah and the chapter is working. Last fall, the County Commission changed course and allotted W.A.M.Y Community Action $80,000 to address housing needs in the county– a huge jump from the previously allotted $5,000. Sarah and other working-class people in the county are being seen as the experts they are– people with direct knowledge of and lived experience in the housing crisis in Watauga County– and being invited into the room for special meetings and discussions.

Sarah with members of the Down Home chapter in Watauga County at a recent event the chapter hosted helping enroll local residents in the recently expanded NC Medicaid program. Photo by Down Home.

If you can’t get what you need with the people in the room, sometimes you have to change who is there. Down Home members in Watagua County have started this work by, as Sarah says, “just showing up.” Over the last year, they have changed who gets to talk about issues in Watagua County, bringing out working-class people who know their communities and what they need firsthand. Their persistence has pressured the local county commission to take housing seriously and begin to put their money where their mouth is. Now the chapter even has a member, Jon Council, working to get on the ballot to run for County Commission himself– with the housing crisis one of his main priorities.

For Sarah, she remains resolved to keep fighting for her neighbors in Watauga County. She continues to work as a realtor, witnessing daily how difficult it is for families to afford to stay here. “I see multiple offers on properties all the time, and the little people almost never win.” She knows that without the land her family secured over a hundred years ago, she and her family would also be getting crowded out. That’s not fair.

All she wants is for people to keep being able to call Watauga home.



Gwen Frisbie-Fulton
Reclaiming Rural

Mother. Southerner. Storytelling Bread and Roses. Bottom up stories about race, class, gender, and the American South. *views my own*