Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Seth Long is the executive director of Housing Oriented Ministries Established for Service (HOMES Inc.), a private non-profit 501(c)(3)​ located in Whitesburg, Kentucky. What was supposed to be one summer of service in 1991 turned into an over 20 year career of creating affordable innovative housing throughout Eastern Kentucky. 

Enjoy our conversation about the mission of HOMES Inc., their current work after the devastating flood in Whitesburg last July, and their strategies for helping rural Kentucky adjust to the green transition, below.

Seth Long, executive director at HOMES, Inc. (Photo provided)

Sierra Stubbs, The Daily Yonder: Since its creation in 1984, in what ways has HOMES changed?

Seth Long: Oh, I think it’s changed a whole lot. At the beginning in the 90s, it was what I would describe as a Habitat for Humanity model: warmer, safer, drier housing, very small, very basic energy efficient, decent housing. Then there was a 10-year chunk of time when the funders focused on making housing affordable and how we could use housing to build wealth with people so that when somebody does sell their home in the future they’ll have more equity in that home to be able to do something else. 

And then there was another phase that began probably less than 10 years ago, that we’re kind of in today, about thinking about housing in the context of a healthy community. In the context of this community [Whitesburg], the economy is a huge issue. If people don’t have jobs, they’re not working. If they’re not working, then there’s all kinds of other social problems that come along too. So the economic side is important. 

Tourism can be a subset of that, but bringing new dollars into this community — from out there where there is wealth to here — is really important. Food’s important. I saw that personally, that connection with the healthy community. I also have a farm that we operate and we were selling our produce at the farmer’s market. I saw the people that we worked with during the week and we were selling produce to the same families. 

That helped us branch out to do some things: to put people to work. We started an apprenticeship program with Addiction Recovery Care, which is a drug addiction recovery program. They brought a treatment center to Letcher County and we had four spots for graduates of their program to work with us for 18 months. The graduates can work for HOMES for 18 months and establish over a year’s worth of work history that they can take with them, plus being exposed to the building trades. So that kind of idea came out of the healthy community mindset.

DY: Building on your point about the economy, could you describe the challenges that Letcher County has faced and how the mission of creating a health community has adapted to said challenges over the years?

SL: I think it had a lot of connection with the economy that was here. In the 90s, coal was the industry that was driving the economy, for better or for worse. In those days, somebody could graduate from high school, get a job in the mines, work overtime and pull in $90,000 a year without much trouble. But in 2008, the whole energy industry went off the cliff here, and the coal industry essentially left with that.

Before that collapse, if you had a new or innovative idea about how to do something, I feel like it was quickly shut down because the mentality was “hey, we don’t need that idea. We have coal.” Yet, after coal collapses, people are like, “Hey, what are we going to do to keep our kids here or what are we going to do to stay here?” That created some openness to innovation, but that’s a big shift that I see and housing plays a part in that, but so does the whole scheme of a healthy community and opportunities with tourism.

I think there’s been a whole shift in the mindset of people and the way we think about possibilities for this area.

DY: I guess with that new innovation, how is that reflected in HOMES’ designs for houses to come and the ones in progress?

SL: Yeah, so one of the things that we’re really playing around with is our solar line of business. I’m really interested in social enterprise, with social enterprise being defined as rather than HOMES just applying to the government for grant money and waiting for them to drop that grant money in here, we’re going to do something with it ourselves. I like the model of putting people to work and creating a product, generating revenues for HOMES that would make a profit that we put into our mission. So, solar has become a social enterprise for us. Can I tell my solar story?

DY: Yeah, go ahead. I’m sure this will be insanely cool.

SL: The way that we got into solar was this building that we’re in. Our corporate office has six apartments here given to victims of domestic violence and there’s one electric bill for the building that was north of $1,600 a month. That’s a lot of money and we had no money to pay that electric bill other than the work that we were doing, and I worried about it being sustainable. We had three major electric bill increases within a five year period. And when I figured out the reason why the electrical costs were increasing so rapidly, everybody wanted to blame the utility company.

There were demonstrations in Whitesburg, people marching down the street with signs wanting the county judge to do something to lower our electric rates. But the real problem, the systemic problem of that structure, is that the power company is investor-owned. The arrangement worked really well for many years because the big customers were here: the deep mines. They used a lot of electricity. The power company made money, the investors made money. What happened when the big customer left? Those investors were still there and it wasn’t the type of investment, it was a guaranteed return on their investment. In that, regardless of how the power company performed, investors were gonna go get a set rate of money back.

So how do they keep making money? They raise prices on the people that are, in a sense, stuck here. Or maybe not stuck, but just trying to make a living here, with a small business or a residence. I realized that to change this, the power company was either gonna have to go bankrupt or they’re gonna have to change their model. Well, both of those things aren’t gonna happen real quickly. We had to do something because we’ll go broke if we just keep paying for these big electric bills because it’s not gonna stop there. So I was a solar skeptic. I didn’t think it would work. Maybe in California, but not here. We’re in the mountains.

Then, I started researching it. When it was presented on a spreadsheet to do a solar system on our office building, it made a lot of sense. So we borrowed $70,000, and put a system in. We did it ourselves, and from day one, the system outperformed the projections. Then, I have a farm, and I thought our electric bills were really high on the farm. I saw how solar did here, so I did the same thing on my farm. I borrowed some money, and I was able to get some agricultural grants to do it. On my own, I put a solar system on our farm and our electric bills dropped from $350 a month to $22 a month. My loan was not near that much. So I was like, well, here’s two cases where we’re cash ahead and this community needs this. So I sent one of our young guys aspiring to be an electrician to school to become a certified solar technician. So that’s how that all started.

So, how are things changing? I think that was kind of your question: social enterprise and innovation.

DY: How is solar pitched to people who might be hesitant about the transition?

SL: The way that I view it is that solar isn’t against coal and coal shouldn’t be against solar. I kind of take the idea of “if it makes common sense for one or the other, we should do either or both, but we shouldn’t pit one against the other and say exclusively this or exclusively that.” I would like common sense to rule the day and to help forge the path forward. I think renewables can be tremendous, but they can also be scary in rural communities.

When you think about the push for EV cars to come forward, and if that push becomes a demand that we have to do, our infrastructure can’t currently support it. I know going up and down these hollers, the transformers won’t support it. The lines aren’t big enough, the breaker boxes and the houses aren’t big enough. How are rural people going to get around if we’re forced into an EV market that we aren’t prepared for? 

However, every one of the solar systems that we’re putting in, we are making sure that there’s EV charging capabilities because we see it coming and I think if it makes common sense, it’ll win the day. It’s the way that we’re headed. It’s the way that we will go, but I’m worried for rural America. If we’re pushed into it before it’s ready to go, I think it’ll cause more problems than it’ll help. The same with the housing. If we take a common sense approach, if we can do this in a sustainable way that makes sense, then I think people buy into it and see the value of it and support it. 

The other thing is there are very few people who aren’t interested when they hear the story from my farm, even if they are pro-coal or pro-renewable. When you hear your electric bill went from $350 down to $22 a month, who’s going to argue against it?

DY: Are there any adaptable models that you guys are currently working to include in housing design since the July 2022 flood? How has that shaped your direction in developing housing?

SL: I am super – almost militant – in thinking that we have to give people opportunity to do things other than what’s always been done. We’ve built nearly 300 homes since I’ve been here, in an area with a broken housing market; in an area where there’s no other housing developer, there’s not a single one here except for us. 

The flood gives us an opportunity to think about planned communities, maybe taking advantage of some of the strip mine properties in the region, putting together plans for divisions on higher ground, not forcing people to move in that direction, but giving them opportunities to move in that direction. There’s a $298 million federal investment that’s coming to the region because of the flood, that kind of investment we’ve never seen here in the region. I think that there’ll be opportunities to do things well beyond what we ever thought or imagined that could be done with housing. And I just hope we have a big enough vision locally to help persuade people. A lot of people don’t think they can do anything different than what we’ve been doing for the last 150 years, but with this investment, I think with responsible leadership, we can cast the vision and telling people who are right next to river, you know, if you want to mitigate your flood risk, here’s a buyout program, here’s a building lot that’ll never flood with water and sewer, and would you like to buy a house that’s built on up here?

Not everybody will want to do that, and I’m fine with that, but at least people should have the opportunity. And I think one of the problems is people don’t think they can have that opportunity because it’s never been here before.

So that’s one of the things that we’re doing. The other thing is when we’re repairing houses, we’re going through a permitting process, which a lot of people aren’t doing, to assure that the houses are flood risk mitigated. We just don’t want to patch people up and put them back in harm’s way so that when the next flood comes they have no help. Nobody will help them and there’s a lot of that happening right now. I hope when the federal investment comes, that the action plan that tells us how the money can be spent and doesn’t treat those people like they’ve already been helped. I want to be able to provide opportunities for people that want to move, if that would help them get out of harm’s way.

DY: That’s a story that this region has heard before: waiting on an external investment that may or may not create a long-lasting impact. How do you remain hopeful that it’ll actualize?

SL: The $298 million is not the only investment that’ll come. Those dollars will leverage other dollars. You’re probably looking at more like a $600-$700 million investment. A lot can be done with that kind of money. I tell people that if we miss this pitch coming at us and we strike out, we won’t have an opportunity like this again. We need to think big. We don’t need to think, “what we did is what we can do.” Now, we have to think about what we haven’t done and what we can do in regards to housing.

DY: Are there caucuses or committees that are considering this or including the public in discussions about this in an effective way?

SL: Well, that’s where my concern lies. I know that the people in my world, community housing development organizations like HOMES, we get it. We see it. With this big plan, we’ve been doing this work in a broken system for so long that we can see it and this is what we’re aspiring to do. We’re trying to speak into it as much as we can, but we can’t do it all. It’s the whole system. It’s local leadership, it’s state leadership and federal leadership too.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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