The Workers Integral to Gatlinburg’s Tourism Industry Are On the Verge of Homelessness

In Cover Stories by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

As November’s deadly wildfire raced down the mountain behind the Gatlinburg motel where they lived, Shannon Lemmon and Titus Glover tossed clothes in backpacks, shouldered their daughter’s Christmas presents in a laundry bag, and started trying to outwalk the flames.

Behind them, Lemmon says, their landlord knocked on doors trying to collect the weekly rent from Rainbow Motel tenants, who are mostly service workers in the town’s tourism industry.

Owning no car, Lemmon and Glover set off on foot down Highway 321 and were fortunate to be picked up by a policeman, who drove them to a shelter.

That night, the fire licked right up to the back of the hotel—but stopped. Their room was spared. Lemmon’s workplace, Dunkin’ Donuts, was unharmed. The fire that began in Great Smoky Mountains National Park—the engine of Gatlinburg’s tourist economy—went on to kill 14 people and destroy the homes of around 900 families.

Those made officially homeless had help. They were eligible for $1,000 a month from the Dollywood Foundation for six months. FEMA approved $3.3 million for individual disaster assistance related to the Gatlinburg fires, including $1.6 million to repair or replace burned housing, says Bettina Hutchings, FEMA external affairs officer.

But Lemmon and countless other hotel and restaurant workers didn’t fit the criteria. Their workplaces closed, or laid off employees, or cut work hours to a handful a week. People who make a living cleaning vacation cabins suddenly had half as many to clean, with half as many guests staying there.

Like Lemmon and Glover, many of these service workers lived in the aging weekly-rental motel rooms that pass for “affordable housing” in Gatlinburg. The rent is still due, even as their income wafted away like smoke.

Fire never touched them. The place where they worked wasn’t scorched.

But they have been burned, all the same.

A worsening housing shortage, combined with an exceptional drop in tourism and sparse help for those whose homes remained intact, has left many low-wage workers in Gatlinburg on the cusp of homelessness. The fire also revealed as never before the number of people who were already homeless, and who aren’t eligible for resources geared toward fire victims. Even the temporary shelters have all closed.

“So many people, who mostly work in the tourism industry, are maybe one paycheck or illness away from homelessness,” says Dick Wellons, executive director of Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministries. “One catastrophe in their life, and all of a sudden their budget is gone, and they find themselves without a place to stay.”

Michael McCollum

From Left: Titinae Lemmon, 5, Shannon Lemmon, and Titus Glover in their shared room at the Rainbow Motel in Gatlinburg.

The Other Gatlinburg

The hotel room Lemmon and Glover were sharing in February was lined with bags of clothes and baskets of toys stacked shoulder-high. A corner was curtained off as a sleeping area for their daughter, a kindergartener at smoke-damaged Phi Beta Phi Elementary. They had no kitchen, but a microwave and toaster perched on a tall shelf.

“We fell through the cracks because of how specific things are to get help,” said Lemmon a few weeks ago.

Dunkin’ Donuts put the family up in a hotel for a few days after the fire, but then laid off most of its workers the week of Christmas, according to Lemmon and others who worked there. Glover had lost his job shortly before the fire. Although he was recently hired by Dick’s Sporting Goods, he was getting only 24 hours a week and had to wait three weeks for his first paycheck. For three months, he gave up taking his blood pressure and diabetes medicine.

Cara Parker, team leader for the Tennessee Recovery Project, says restaurant and hotel workers have struggled to maintain their housing as they encounter unbudgeted expenses like the replacement of smoke-damaged clothes and spoiled food, or medical bills from breathing smoke.

The Recovery Project, a FEMA-funded program run through the Helen Ross McNabb Center, is following a steady stream of tips about people living in tents, storage units, sheds, cars, or condemned rooms in the burned remains of motels. “We meet one person living in a storage unit, and they tell us about four other families,” Parker says, adding that her group helped 20 families, including some children, out of this situation in January.

Lemmon’s landlord took her to court for back rent. She pulls out a notebook recording her failed efforts to get help with expenses: from Red Cross, FEMA, the Dollywood Foundation, and more.

(Hutchings says FEMA has paid more than $1.7 million for uninsured property losses like furniture, vehicles, or medical supplies. But many applicants living in motels say they were denied. And many would have little chance of being able to pay back the loans FEMA has offered individuals through the Small Business Administration.)

Lemmon had been buying a friend’s car, but it burned in the fire. Without transportation, she couldn’t find any jobs within walking distance. She would have been eligible for supplemental food stamps to replace the food that spoiled when the power was off. But because she had to bum multiple rides to get to the food-stamp office, she missed the application deadline, Lemmon says.

In February, Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministries donated her a car, expanding her work options, but weeks later she still hasn’t been able to find a job.

Many had little to do this winter but wait: Wait for the tourists and the jobs to come back. Wait for the tax refund. Wait for some source of money to help them get out of this place.

This is not the Gatlinburg most people see from scenic rental cabins, or from streets lined with fudge shops.

This is the other Gatlinburg. The fire has exposed the struggles of the people who smile behind the counter, deliver the dinner trays, and clean the sheets the next morning.

“A huge issue is people who didn’t lose their homes or jobs but were way cut back on their hours,” says Morgan Henschen, who started the Gatlinburg Citizen Fire Relief Facebook group and has volunteered ever since to connect residents with resources. “They’re not sure where to go because they’re not technically fire victims. We’re helping a lot of those people, but we’re almost the only ones.”

Melanie Cordell, executive director of the Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless, says her organization has come in contact with about 100 households like this. “They feel pushed aside, so we are trying to figure out with the county what we can do for this population, because they are either faced with homelessness or are living in motels,” she says.

Glover and Lemmon had actually broken up three weeks before the fire. Glover was paying friends to sleep at their place, but it burned.

With Glover homeless and both jobless for more than a month, the couple was forced together again. They remained supportive of each other, but the tension was palpable.

In their darkened motel room, Glover smoked, punched buttons on his phone, and lobbed something at a roach.

“We try to make this place nice, but it’s hard when you have to fit everything in such a small space,” Lemmon said.

There are hardly other options. “In Gatlinburg, hotels are taking up apartment space. There is not enough land for both,” says Stanley Taylor, chief operating officer of the Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless. “For good or ill, what Gatlinburg has done is choose to use that space for tourists.”

Yet without the service workers, there would be no tourists, notes Rachel Dodgen, a builder and artist whose ancestors were among the original settlers of Gatlinburg.

“It’s a shame there are 11 million people that come to the park, and we don’t have affordable housing for the people who run this beautiful town,” she says. “I feel like the city runs on people that are invisible, and they want to keep them invisible.”

Michael McCollum

What’s left of Country Town N’ Suites in Gatlinburg.

A Long, Hard Winter

The wooded foothills where fire flowed like lava are now lushly green, but undulating scorch patterns flit over mountain slopes like the shadows of clouds. Charred foundations flicker by along the roadside—often just feet from untouched buildings and Gatlinburg’s ubiquitous winter holiday decorations, twinkling incongruously among the rubble.

The economic damage lingers, too. December tourism revenue is down more than a third compared to the same month of the previous year, the Knoxville News Sentinel has reported. With less money coming in, businesses are hiring fewer workers or reducing staff hours.

A $5.8 million grant through the U.S. Department of Labor is set to provide disaster relief employment to about 200 people, although many of those will be manual labor clean-up jobs. The first $2 million in this funding was announced Friday at a job fair at Rocky Top Sports World.

Work is always harder to find during Gatlinburg’s off-season. The Sevier County unemployment rate fluctuates heavily by month, often ranging from around 4 percent in June to 7.5 percent in January. (The Tennessee Department of Labor plans to release this January’s figures Thursday.)

The Sevierville metro area had an unemployment rate of 5.7 percent for December, almost the same as the previous year.

“Certainly the fire has an effect, but there are still plenty of jobs,” said Allen Newton, executive director of Sevier County Economic Development Council, in early February. “I don’t think it’s any different from any other January or February. Just about everybody I know is hiring.”

That’s not what business owners and service workers have seen.

“A typical winter is nothing like it is right now,” says Billy Brotherton of Sevierville. He says his wife worked 30 to 35 hours a week last winter at The Island in Pigeon Forge, but is now down to about 15.

Brotherton lost his job at Buffalo Wild Wings when his car broke down. Smokey Mountain Area Rescue Ministries donated the money to get it fixed, but he can’t find another job. “I’ve been out putting out applications all day, and everyone is telling me they won’t hire until March or April,” he said in February.

Brotherton lives in a duplex with his girlfriend, but they are afraid they’ll have to sleep in their car if they can’t catch up on the rent.

“I have to get a cyst removed from my arm today, and don’t know how I can pay for the antibiotic prescription after,” Brotherton says. “The money we’ve got, we have to use for gas” for his girlfriend to get to work.

That dilemma is becoming more common. “We’re seeing people having to prioritize money for food rather than purchasing medicine, having to prioritize the limited gas money they have to get few work hours they have rather than coming to medical or mental health appointments,” says Parker with the Tennessee Recovery Project, which began Jan. 1 to provide people affected by the fires with counseling and referrals for help. The program’s 27 caseworkers have been going door to door, helping 200 individuals and families by mid-February, Parker says.

Sevier County assistance groups all say this year has been worse than usual. Tourism is down because many people think the fire destroyed more than it did or that attractions remain closed.

The effect has been compounded by the winter slump starting a month early, during what is usually a very profitable holiday season, says Parker.

Bill Black, director of Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries, says on average he sees people bringing home about 40 percent less pay than during a normal winter. Many service workers pick up extra jobs to tide them over, he says, “But this year there are no second or third jobs.”

The resort ministry, a 36-year-old nonprofit closely associated with the Sevier County Association of Baptists, is one of the few in the county that provides direct support—like cars, gas cards, furniture, mattresses, and help paying bills—to what he calls (to quote the Bible) “people living outside the camp.”

The reduced spending by cash-strapped locals perpetuates the cycle of losses for struggling local businesses. Jan Brady, owner of Whole Earth Grocery on Highway 321, says her business is down 40 percent from a normal winter.

This year, the lunch counter attached to her organic retail shop is bringing in half her income, instead of just extra money on the side. “People still have to eat,” she says with a shrug, ringing up sandwiches and extra drinks for a group of wood-removal contractors—the only ones who seem flush.

Brady says many of her customers are locals. “At the beginning, people came out to support local businesses,” she says. “But the residents are not back on their feet like they thought they would be, and reality has set in.”

Michael McCollum

Jan Brady, owner of Gatlinburg’s Whole Earth Grocery and Cafe, says her business is down 40 percent from a normal winter.

The Housing Crisis

Holly Drybaugh missed the fire because she was in the hospital with pneumonia. Her husband and 12-year-old son, however, felt it up close. They didn’t leave because they had no car. Her son cowered in fear in the bathtub while smoke poured under their door at the Rainbow Motel. For days, Drybaugh didn’t know whether they were alive. When released from the hospital, she joined them at the Rocky Top Sports World shelter.

There, a Red Cross caseworker helped the family develop a plan. It did not involve returning to the Rainbow, where Drybaugh says she has waged a constant battle with roaches and bedbugs. But, she says, by the time she and her husband found an apartment they could afford, her Red Cross case worker had gone home to Florida and the agency said it had no more money to help with a security deposit.

The family had to discard their smoke-damaged furniture. They are still sleeping on cots they received from FEMA, Drybaugh says. Her husband was laid off from Dunkin’ Donuts and, like most people, still had not heard back by mid-February from his application for disaster-related unemployment benefits.

They are not in as dire straits as some of their neighbors, thanks to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which hired at the shelter after the fire. Drybaugh and her husband now clean the aquarium at night, for a combined 50 hours a week of work. She says Ripley’s provided gift cards so she and her husband could buy Christmas presents for their son. The company’s human resources officials have said they’ll pay the rental deposit if Drybaugh can ever find an affordable apartment.


In the tiny dining room at Whole Earth Foods, Miranda Paulk is working with Rachel Dodgen on floor plans for rebuilding Paulk’s house, currently in ashes. As a real estate agent, Paulk is watching rental costs climb while houses sell quickly—“not for low prices.”

“We’re a low-wage economy, for the most part,” says the soft-spoken Paulk, who serves on the board of Smoky Mountain Family Matters, a nonprofit that helps connect needy families with resources so family members can stay together. “We had people living in overpriced, overcrowded weekly hotels…. Everyone, including employers, benefits from more livable housing.”

On Feb. 9, the Coalition for the Homeless surveyed 28 rentals—including houses and trailers in rural parts of Sevier County—finding only two that were both renting at fair market price, and ready for someone to move in, Cordell says.

“When the fires destroyed homes of people at all income levels, it drove up the prices of less-expensive apartments and drove up demand for them, meaning low-income people suffered the most,” Cordell says.

Weekly rental hotels are not real “affordable housing,” she adds, as many are plagued by crime and provide no way to cook healthy meals.

Wellons says the quality of housing available to low-income workers in Sevier County is generally poor, although rent is among the highest in East Tennessee.

“A lot of these landlords are not good folks,” he says. “Yet they’re charging a ridiculous amount: $800 to $1,000 for a motel room you probably wouldn’t even walk into, as far as needing to be cleaned, as far as insects.”

According to the Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless, the mean wage of a renter in Sevier County is $8.48 an hour. To afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, which is $563, a person making that salary would need to work 51 hours a week year-round, Cordell says. “This means that housing is unaffordable, even for people working full-time jobs over minimum wage.”

For minimum wage, it’s almost hopeless: You can afford to pay $377 in rent a month, less than the rent for even a cheap weekly motel room.

Traditional, higher-quality apartment or home rental agreements require leases and usually first (and sometimes last) month’s rent, plus a security deposit and utility transfer fee. That often translates to $1,000 to $1,500 up front, which most service workers don’t have, says Kathi Parkins, executive director of Family Promise of Blount County. The organization provides shelter services and transitional housing to the homeless.

The deposit isn’t the only roadblock: Living in a motel doesn’t provide a documented rental history, making it more difficult to be approved for a lease, Parker says.

The whole dilemma is likely to worsen, because hotels in Sevier County typically increase their rates in March as tourists start to compete for those rooms, Fortner says.

“We have been faced with having to move the survivor population from motel to motel because they are getting full and don’t want to use that reduced rate they’re offering us,” says Cordell. “That’s traumatizing to these households.”

To top it off, Cordell anticipates that many people will lose their current housing when the Dollywood Foundation assistance ends in May. She says the coalition is trying to prepare by saving some of its grant money and seeking more.

Michael McCollum

An unused section of the Rainbow Motel in Gatlinburg.

A Home Away

The Coalition for the Homeless, Helen Ross McNabb, and Family Promise all received federal funds to rapidly aid house fire victims. The Coalition—which serves 13 counties, including Knox, with just three caseworkers—has been designated the lead agency to help solve homelessness caused by the fire.

It is still paying for 31 households living in motels, using $5,000 of state funding and $13,200 from the Pigeon Forge Rotary Club, Cordell says.

The federal department of Housing and Urban Development granted the Coalition a waiver in late February to place fire victims in housing that exceeds fair market rent, a practice normally a forbidden by HUD. (The rent still has to be consistent with similar units nearby, Taylor says.) The coalition will pay the first month’s rent, and the East Tennessee Foundation will pay half the monthly rent for 11 months.

Cordell says the agency has identified at least 131 households still in need of housing assistance, and its goal is to house 50 of them by the end of March—although only 26 available units have been found in Sevier County, even with the waiver.

And the program also creates what Taylor calls an ethical dilemma: Short of a big income boost, there’s no reason to believe these families will be able to pay the full rent on their own, so they could end up homeless again in a year.

Up to now, the affordable housing available has been mostly around Dandridge or in Knox County. Cordell says 186 households have been rehoused after the fire, including 14 assisted by the Coalition for the Homeless, but Taylor says the coalition could find homes in Sevier for less than a handful.

Family Promise of Blount County had federal funding to help people relocate and re-establish child and medical care, but only a handful of families would use it, Parkins says. “I know there are still people out there that we could assist and house, but they have to come here.”

Others refuse assistance rather than be relocated in Knoxville because they consider the city’s lower-rent neighborhoods unsafe, Taylor says.

Many can’t afford to commute even if they want to, because their cars are unreliable, Parkins says.

In Gatlinburg, many service workers walk to work. But a lot of walkable housing burned.

Wellons says that even when trolleys are running during the tourist season, it would take several hours to travel between the towns, and nothing regularly connects Gatlinburg to Sevierville. “Trolley service was never intended to help the workers, just to keep extra tourist vehicles off the road,” he says.

“Transportation is what’s killing us,” Drybaugh says. When she had to go to court in Sevierville, she payed $50 for a taxi. She walked the 19 miles back.

Cordell says Sevier County officials have been willing to discuss busing as many as 100 families from Knoxville to Gatlinburg for work, or providing a more county-wide bus system. “It’s just we don’t know if the population would actually use it,” she says.

When Gatlinburg and Sevierville mayors were asked about whether they’d consider more commuter-friendly bus or trolley service, county spokesman Perrin Anderson replied only, “Transportation issues are a part of what is being looked at by the (Sevier County Economic Development Council) and local governments in regards to housing.”

Amanda West is the rare Gatlinburg service worker who commutes. She lives in Knoxville but has worked for five years at Cupid’s Outlet in Gatlinburg. When it closed after the fire until February, West says she was able to collect just $197 a week in unemployment—less than half of her previous income.

Her partner, who had been taking college courses, had to stop. For months they applied unsuccessfully for jobs in Sevier and Knox Counties. When Cupid’s Outlet reopened, they were two months behind on rent. The Coalition for the Homeless helped them catch up, and they recently received help with an electric bill and gas from Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Mission.

“People who had $800,000 homes and insurance, they got thousands of dollars,” says West. “There could have been just a little bit for those of us who work every day to pay our bills, then when our jobs were taken away, there was nothing.”

Michael McCollum

Melissa King lives at the Rainbow Motel in Gatlinburg, and often watches her friend James McGill’s daughter, Brianna. Both King and McGill lost their jobs when their places of employment burned down; both are still waiting for unemployment benefits.

Precariously Housed

In the weeks before the fire, Glover says, he was paying $125 a week for a house in Baskins Creek where he couldn’t live. Before moving in, he had to repair the floor, empty rotted food from the refrigerator, and try to eliminate the roaches and bedbugs. Meanwhile, he was paying friends nearby to crash at their place.

Today, Baskins Creek is a burned-out valley where cinder blocks and metal skeletons teeter above steep slopes. In mid-February, utility workers in bucket trucks were still rehanging power lines among burned vehicles spray-painted with red x’s.

Glover says the friend he was staying with received money from the Dollywood Foundation, but Glover initially didn’t. He couldn’t prove he lived there and had no original copy of his lease on the fixer-upper.

“It’s been so hard to get help without proving where I lived,” he says. “My lease burned up in the fire, and they won’t take a replacement one. I had a receipt for rent but they wouldn’t accept it.”

In the end, after several months, he was approved for Dollywood Foundation money, Lemmon says.

David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation, says it is still accepting and approving new applications. The foundation requires evidence tying someone to a burned property. Utility bills, mail to the address, or a car registration will do. “Our goal is to get to yes,” he says, and the foundation approved applications 85 to 90 percent of the time.

But Dotson says some people have tried to fabricate proof, including landlords “vouching for more people than could possibly live there.”

Glover’s undocumented sublet, unknown to the landlord, isn’t unusual, Parker says.

The Tennessee Valley Coalition on Homelessness calls this group “precariously housed.” Ironically, because they have the wherewithal to get a roof over their heads, they can’t get help. Neither can Sevier County residents who were homeless before the fires—a population that is apparently larger than previously realized. They aren’t eligible for the new rental assistance from the East Tennessee Foundation, for example.

“People have some pretty complicated living situations,” Dotson acknowledges. The Dollywood Foundation handles these individually, but generally it won’t pay more than one related family from a single address, he says. For example, if two adult brothers and their wives and children were living in a two-bedroom apartment, they would probably receive $1,000 a month altogether—but if two unrelated families were living there, they might each get that much.

Both these scenarios are common among Hispanic workers in the Gatlinburg area, says resident Jose Fernandez. (Because he is in the country without a proper visa, his name has been changed to protect his identity.) When the family that paid the security deposit received Dollywood Foundation money, he says, some split it with their secret sub-letters. Others did not.

The family of Fernandez’s girlfriend moved in with them for several months after losing everything in the fire, Fernandez says. There were 16 people, including children, in his two-bedroom apartment. Fernandez was attempting to feed them, but his wife’s hours had been cut from as many as seven days a week to two, and his restaurant pay had plummeted from around $325 to $45. (He has a second job doing manual labor that pays $300 a week.) His 18-year-old son, who came to the U.S. two years ago to escape a criminal syndicate that had killed Fernandez’s brother and nephew, lost his job cleaning at Westgate resort. Fernandez is also paying child support for a 6-year-old son, who lost his home in the fire, and sending money home to support two children and his parents in Honduras.

“When my son was working, I paid everything here and he was sending money home for my parents and brother and their house. Now I have to cover everything,” Fernandez says. When Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries offered to pay the $650 rent for January, “I almost cried,” he says.

Hispanic residents, who make up 18 percent of the county population and mostly work in hospitality, were hit especially hard by the fires. Many couldn’t document where they were living or were afraid to ask for help because of their immigration status, Fernandez says.

“A lot of people have no Social Security numbers, so they don’t bank, and all their money burned up in their house,” he adds.

Michael McCollum

The remains of a destroyed home along Campbell Lead Road in Gatlinburg.

A Long Road Home

For those whose homes burned in the fire, there is some good news this week: The Housing Committee established after the fire is identifying scattered sites by Friday to locate new modular homes for about 80 families, Cordell says. Details are still being worked out.

Local leaders recognized Sevier County’s housing problem before the fire, and the Economic Development Council had already started a housing study. In partnership with the City of Gatlinburg, the council is looking at incentives for developers to build “workforce apartments,” and Newton says he expects to make specific recommendations in another month or so.

Cordell says local governments are discussing low-income tax credit vouchers to encourage mixed-income housing.

“(Newton) and his team are definitely looking at, and have identified, developers to look at a multi-income apartment complex development,” Cordell says. “They’ve explored best practices from outside the county to implement internally,” and have a deadline of a year to establish something before the East Tennessee Foundation assistance runs out for families renting units above market rates.

She called it “a great starting point” but added, “It will not solve the problem at large…. The housing situation is very serious.”

Dodgen and Paulk suggest that the FEMA funding and recovery donations flowing into Sevier County should be used to buy chunks of burned acreage or empty lots in different neighborhoods, then designate the land for affordable housing.

Mountain Tough, a nonprofit created a few weeks ago to pick up when short-term relief ends, might play a role. However, the organization was envisioned to focus on people who lack enough insurance to cover the loss of their homes. That’s something Black, with Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries, and Parker, with the Tennessee Recovery Project, have been campaigning to change as Mountain Tough defines itself. Black is hopeful, heartened by how the community has pulled together since the fire.

Mountain Tough aims to have case workers (some bilingual) on the job by April 13, says Ellen Wilhoit, chairman of the group’s board. The nonprofit may become the umbrella for many community committees that formed to handle different angles of the disaster, like housing and “unmet needs,” she says.

Wilhoit says Mountain Tough’s board is still defining who the organization will help. She says she hopes the nonprofit can partner with national groups that have shown interest in building houses locally.

“Mountain Tough has been extremely receptive to take information from us and suggestions on how we can help the families and individuals we are finding,” Parker says. An emergency shelter is the most immediate need, she says, since many service workers could find stable housing once the tourist season picks up.

Cordell says the fire has caused the homeless population that existed before the fire to find its voice. “We have really tried to advocate for them with the county that they are in need as well,” she says.

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters and Gatlinburg County Mayor Mike Werner referred all housing questions to county spokesman Perrin Anderson, who provided very general answers.

“Housing was an issue before the fires and we still have concerns about that,” Anderson wrote in an email. “All options are being explored for affordable housing.”

One small affordable housing complex is breaking ground on a burned parcel in Gatlinburg. Jeff Schoenfield, who owns All Pro Realtors, has submitted to the city his final plans for “Gatlinburg Parkview Apartments.” They will replace a strip mall that housed his company’s office at the base of Ski Mountain Road. The insurance settlement provided funds to build 22 mostly one-bedroom apartments that will rent for $650 a month, hopefully by late summer, Schoenfield says.

If that project makes a return, Schoenfield says he’ll pursue building a larger affordable-housing complex in Sevier County.

“I feel Gatlinburg, and Sevier County as a whole, is terribly limited with respect to future growth because we can’t house the workers we need,” Schoenfield says. “I would love the county and the cities to cooperate with plans to make properties available” for more affordable housing, because high land values make it hard to entice developers to build lower-rent units, he says. Another option would be for cities to extend water and sewer utilities to open more areas to apartments, he says.

Small efforts to address the lack of housing are being made by charities. Paul Danis, president of Live-It Ministries, says the Seymour-based nonprofit has plans to partner with the Appalachia Service Project to build five homes for some of the 70 uninsured or under-insured families who lost homes to the fire. Live-It, which usually focuses on home repairs for the elderly and widows, also owns a house that was donated in Gatlinburg that it plans to rebuild in March for a homeless family.

Lyssa Perry, senior director of advancement at the Appalachia Service Project, says her group is actually working with the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church to build 25 replacement homes over the next year.

Live-It has been in discussions with Smoky Mountain Family Matters about building tiny homes on a 10-acre parcel in Kodak. The Family Matters website describes the project as ten 700-square-foot homes in a development to be called “Sanctuary Hills.”

For folks living day to day this winter, many of these plans seem very distant. This month, Lemmon says, her landlord kicked them out of the Rainbow, even though they were ready to pay the rent.

She and her daughter took the car and are staying with a friend in Kodak. Glover has Dollywood money now but can’t find a weekly rental in Gatlinburg, and is staying at overnight hotel rooms—at higher prices—to keep his job.

They are now literally homeless.


Where to Get Help

The Tennessee Recovery Project provides counseling services and service referrals to people affected by the fire, regardless of whether they lost their homes, through March 13. It has applied for grant funding to extend its timeline further. Crisis counseling hotline: (865) 255-6716, disaster distress helpline: (800) 985-5990, Mobile Crisis Unit (865) 539-2409.

Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries: Helping residents struggling after the fire, whether or not their homes burned, on a case-by-case basis with items like furniture, gas cards, utility bills, car repairs, etc.: (865) 607-4076.

Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministries: Offering once-a-year assistance with rent and sometimes other living expenses, occasionally with donated cars, “A Step More” ministry helps stable working families achieve more secure housing and learn to better manage finances: (865) 908-3772.


By the Numbers: Renting in Sevier County

• Someone working minimum wage in Sevier County can afford to pay $377 in rent a month, far below the fair market rent for any type of apartment. A minimum wage worker would need to work 59 hours a week to afford a studio apartment.

• The mean renter wage in Sevier County is $8.48 an hour.

• To afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent (which is $563), a person making the average renter wage would need to work 51 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.

• For a two bedroom apartment (FMR is $696), a renter would need to work 63 hours a week, or 1.6 full time jobs.

• Prior to the fire, there was a shortage of 1,270 affordable homes available to the county’s 1,820 extremely-low-income (making 30 percent of AMI or less) renters (available meaning not occupied by someone of a higher income). There was a shortage of 1,635 homes available and affordable to the county’s 4,380 very-low-income renters.

• In Sevier County before the fires, 80 percent of extremely-low-income, 78 percent of very-low-income, and 46 percent of low-income households were paying more than 30 percent of their small income to rent.

Source: Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless

Featured Photo: Burned out apartments along Campbell Lead Road in Gatlinburg.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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