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A finished HOPE Building program home sits on a reclaimed strip mining site in Emmalena, KY.

Building Homes and Bettering Lives in Appalachia

By Shawn Poynter (Hazard, KY)

Eastern Kentucky is known to the wider nation for a few things: old-time music, coal mining, and poverty. Two of those things seem to be intrinsically linked. Since the first commercial coal operation opened in the region 120 years ago, a cycle of booms and busts has kept the region lagging, economically, behind much of the country.


An old gas station, with home above, has been turned into a thrift store near downtown Hazard, Kentucky.

Though coal employs very few workers directly (fewer than 5,000 in 2019), the economic impact of the industry is massive and far-reaching. The bulk of the area's considerable wealth and resources have been dug out and shipped off to far-away cities that are home to coal company headquarters. Local communities are left with little more than hardship, health problems, and a depressed economy.

Arlis Fields has lived in Hazard's Grapevine community since before the “new road” was built. The Housing Development Alliance is repairing his bathroom, which has been damaged by a water leak.


Homes on a hill in a downtown Hazard neighborhood.

In November 2020, I spent some time with the Housing Development Alliance (HDA), based in Hazard, Kentucky. The HDA is an affordable housing developer serving four counties in eastern Kentucky using the power of housing to transform lives and build a brighter future for communities. Their programs have helped more than 2,700 low-income people in rural southeastern Kentucky to become new homeowners, make home improvement repairs, and break free of debt.


New construction on a home on top of a reclaimed strip mining site in Emmalena, KY.

HDA believes that affordable housing is the best way to break the cycle of poverty and allow people to start building generational wealth. In Central Appalachia, a region known for its economic depression, the four counties HDA serves are hit especially hard by poverty. They are some of poorest in the nation by virtually every metric.

Marlana Moffitt (left) and Ruby Gayheart (right) with their kids Nevaeh Sparger, dark hair, and Jazzlyn Hale, stand in front of their first owned home, built by HDA, in Ary, KY.


Marlana Moffitt (left) and Ruby Gayheart (right) are thankful for Housing Development Alliance for making their dream of owning a home come true.

A good, high quality home is a sign of permanence and is a deep investment in a place. The homes they build are affordable and will stand the test of time, meaning that they can be passed down from generation to generation. By giving very low, low, and middle income families – the workforce of eastern Kentucky – a chance to become homeowners, they are laying a new foundation for the future of Appalachia.


Jazzlyn Hale and Michael Sparger play on a hill in front of the Ary, KY home.

Their newest program, HOPE Building, helps folks in substance use recovery successfully re-enter the workforce through construction training, with trainees helping construct 15 houses over three years for middle income families.

Housing Development Alliance employee Steven Hort (left) instructs Bobby Partin, a HOPE Building program participant, on how to make trim on a siding brake

This fall, I watched first-hand as some of these HOPE Building participants learned their trades through hanging trim, constructing floors, and building decks. They said the program was helping them get back on their feet as they build a better life for them and their families. I photographed a gentleman who had lived in the same home for decades and was having his bathroom floor, dangerously weakened by water damage, replaced by HDA carpenters. I met a family who, after years of life hardships and renting ill-kept apartments, had just taken ownership of a new HDA-build home. Each member of the family glowed with pride.


Bobby Partin, a HOPE Building program participant, cuts a piece of siding material during work on a new house in Emmalena, KY.


Nevaeh Sparger (left) and Jazzlyn Hale (right) on the front porch of their newly-built home.

In a region that has suffered from an extraction-based industry, organizations like the Housing Development Alliance offer a model based on bringing wealth, training and resources into communities from which much has been taken.

The importance of the Housing Development Alliance, and other local housing organizations like them, cannot be overstated, and they cannot be over-appreciated. They are a source of hope and safety for countless families across the country.

HOPE Building program participants Zach Donta, left to right, Billy Feltner, and Terrell Ethel work with Housing Development Alliance employee Ronnie Boyd on construction of a new home in Viper, KY.



Knoxville, TN

(w)  (ig) @poynter_photo_co


For the past 20 years, Shawn Poynter has been a freelance editorial and commercial photographer, first in eastern Kentucky, more recently in Knoxville, TN. Poynter’s experiences of being raised in rural western Kentucky and working in Appalachian eastern Kentucky are major influences on how he works, aiming to expose injustice while highlighting the good works being done in rural and underserved areas. For 10 years, Poynter worked for the Daily Yonder, a news outlet that specializes in national rural issues. His clients include the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other national and international publications.

"Because I lived in eastern Kentucky for a few years in the aughts, I was interested to learn more about who was working on solving the affordable housing problem and what that looked like. What I found was a group of people who are dedicated to helping folks in the region by providing ways to affordably own a home, repair the one you already have, and provide trades training to folks looking to get their life on a better track."

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