At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.

Odds are stacked against working families

The Barnette family (left to right) Joshua, DJ, Darrell and Zander, stand outside their Hazelwood home. Cory Vaillancourt photo The Barnette family (left to right) Joshua, DJ, Darrell and Zander, stand outside their Hazelwood home. Cory Vaillancourt photo

It’s the kind of street – lined with modest, well-kept houses flying U.S. flags – where neighborhood children haphazardly cast their bicycles in piles on a playmate’s lawn to tear off and play in the woods or on a backyard Slip ‘N Slide.

Front doors flung open, family and friends and kids and dogs on the porch mingle in and out. Tiny driveways boast huge pickup trucks. It smells like someone’s grilling somewhere. Neighbors pass in cars but stop to chat. 

There are few strangers on streets like these, home to millions of working-class Americans. This one’s in Waynesville’s blue-collar district of Hazelwood. It’s home to the Barnette family. It may not be for much longer. 

Systemic inadequacies are making it harder and harder for working families like the Barnettes to survive, much less build the generational wealth that is central to the concept of the American Dream. 

Now, thanks to a broken healthcare system, wages that haven’t kept pace with job growth and the affordable housing crisis, Della “DJ” Barnette, 44, and her husband Darrell, 49, along with their eight-year-old boy Zander and Darrell’s disabled adult son, Joshua, are about to lose the home Darrell made mortgage payments on for 17 years and end up out on that street.

“The system is … it sucks,” said DJ. “I mean, that’s being nice. It’s just not wired right. People out here working, busting their butt, trying to make a living and make a life for their selves and for their kids can’t get anywhere.”

Built in 2002, the Barnettes’ home was the first house built by Haywood County’s Habitat for Humanity chapter that was ADA-compliant, complete with a wheelchair ramp and extra-wide doorways.

Joshua, who is 27, was born with cerebral palsy and mobilizes using an electric wheelchair. His father Darrell and some buddies put in all the volunteer construction hours required of Habitat homeowners. 

The 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bath home came with a 20-year, no-interest mortgage. Mortgage payments have slowly crept from around $250 a month to around $450, due to increases in taxes and insurance, and the home is currently assessed at around $120,000. 

A few years ago, Darrell began to suffer from health problems. 

“He’s had seven documented heart attacks,” said DJ. 

He’s also had five bypass surgeries, four of which failed – one on the way out of the operating room that put him in a coma for eight days and virtually assured he would never return to his job at Lowe’s. 

DJ’s job as an in-home health care aide wasn’t enough to support the family, so they started having trouble paying bills and making the mortgage payments.

After falling behind, they were served with papers earlier this year and entered a forbearance agreement that would keep them in the home but also add $2,500 in legal fees to their ever-growing list of bills. Those fees mean they’re now paying almost $1,100 a month, and if they miss one payment — just one — they’re out on the street. 

Before the health scares, Darrell and DJ were only about three years away from paying off the house entirely — no more house payments, and the chance to sell it and move on, or pass it on to the next generation. 

Today, they’re five years away from paying it off and if they fall short at any time, 17 years of mortgage payments go right down the drain. 

Part of their affordability problem is that neither Darrell nor DJ has ever been paid anything close to a living wage, leaving them with no savings or investments upon which to fall back.

 

fr cover2

 

“I was sitting earlier this week and wrote down all of our bills and then I’m looking at my paycheck like, okay, how am I supposed to do this?” DJ said. “I’m trying to figure out how much per week I’d take out to go toward the bills so that everybody gets their part and my lights don’t get turned off, you know? People say, ‘How do you pay your bills?’ when they see my wages. I’m just borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.”

DJ normally earns $12.50 an hour, 40 hours a week. After taxes, she’s left with less than $400. She says they’re on food stamps, but currently they only qualify due to a COVID-related expansion of the program, which will soon go away. 

Darrell isn’t eligible for any sort of disability-related payments, so his income is zero. Joshua receives disability checks, but they’re all used for his ongoing medical care. Household take-home is around $20,000 a year, well below the $26,200 poverty level for a family of four. 

Making matters worse is the ongoing health care coverage crisis; of her $400 weekly take-home, DJ pays an astonishing $200 a week for medical insurance that covers her and her alone. 

“I mean, I’ve got a brother right now that’s homeless. I’ve got a niece that’s homeless, suffering from substance abuse and all that good stuff. My father was an alcoholic,” she said. “I know what hardship is, but it’s like the harder you try, the further behind you get.”

The final component – affordable housing, or rather, the lack thereof – means that if they’re evicted, there’s little hope the Barnettes could ever afford to buy another home of their own. 

Even without a foreclosure on their credit report and a special needs child who requires housing accommodations like the ramp and the extra-wide doorframes built just for him, recent data from Canopy MLS shows the average home price in Haywood County is more than $285,000. 

Based on affordable housing guidelines, as well as U.S. Census Bureau data, two adults earning the county’s median monthly income of $2,454 cannot safely afford an average-priced home in Haywood County. The Barnettes don’t make anywhere near that. 

The area’s lone family shelter, at Pathways, doesn’t allow men, so if the Barnettes were forced out on to the streets, it would break up the family unit at best and exacerbate the homeless problem at worst. 

“I don’t know what we’ll do, to be honest with you. I mean, we have a 27-year-old that’s total care, even with feeding and everything. He has to have assistance. I honestly don’t know. I honestly don’t know how we’d live,” DJ said. “We don’t really have family that we could stay with because we’re a big family and bringing in four people and a wheelchair into somebody else’s home – two families in one home is way too much to ask.”

The scarcity of realistic housing options for working families, coupled with low wages and outlandish health care coverage costs — 50 percent of the Barnettes’ take-home — leave the family with few avenues out of generational poverty, with just $14,000 left on the mortgage.

Their community, however, has taken note of the situation. 

“We have had more blessings lately than we deserve, that’s for sure,” DJ said. 

A substantial donation by Asheville-based Disability Partners helped them catch up on some of their arrearage, and another donation by regional grassroots advocacy group Down Home North Carolina, in conjunction with Helping Hands of Haywood, will keep them in their home through October. 

“Helping Hands is there to support existing organizations with proven track records, linking people with services in the area,” said Kasey Steffen, who works with Helping Hands and is a member of Down Home. “As Down Home, members go into the political arena, interview different candidates based on community needs. So many times, people get sucked in to that national platform but lose sight of the needs of their neighbors.”

Beyond October, no one really knows what might happen to that family in that modest home on that flag-lined street with all the pickup trucks and bicycles and kids and neighbors and friends. 

And with the holidays and cold weather rapidly approaching, Darrell can’t imagine how he’d break the news to Joshua. 

“I don’t know what I’d do if I had to tell Joshua we had to move. It would kill that child,” he said. “And Zander, too. It’s the only home he’s ever known.”

 

You can help

There’s currently a mid-October bar fundraiser in the works for the Barnette family at Waynesville’s Water’n Hole, however the date hasn’t yet been set. In the meantime, if you’d like to make a donation to help the Barnettes, visit www.haywoodhelpinghands.org and click on the “donate” button. Funds raised in excess of the Barnettes’ $14,000 mortgage will go towards establishing a low-barrier shelter. 

Receive our FREE SMN Xtra newsletter

Go to top