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Appalachian Scene: A Voice for Appalachia

by Carl Hoffman

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There is no more potent symbol of the American Dream than a house of one's own, and winding through the byways of eastern Kentucky with Dave Lollis, houses, the most visible fruits of his labor, seem to pop up around every bend. They're easy to spot: tidy houses, sometimes alone on a hillside, often clustered in modest subdivisions filled with swing-sets, gardens, and basketball hoops. Always with a little front porch—"porches are important around here," he says—and, more often than not, with a deck, too. "Housing is not a panacea," he says, waving at a woman tending her garden in the new subdivision of Welchburg Estates, in Jackson County, "but it can be a catalyst for physical and mental health and gives people a new pride."

Lollis has been fighting for Appalachians' pride for decades. When he became director of advocacy for the regional nonprofit development corporation Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises (FAHE) in 1980 in Berea, Kentucky, FAHE consisted of seven local housing groups and had a budget of $16,000. Now FAHE is a coalition of 33 local housing groups with assets of $26 million that has abetted the completion of more than 2,700 single-family homes and 3,000 multi-family homes, rehabilitated 30,000 substandard houses, and weatherized 30,000 more, for families whose 2002 median income was just $12,187.

And by the time Lollis had retired in December 2002, he'd helped build a community development and finance powerhouse called Appalbanc—an umbrella organization with three affiliate community development corporations, including FAHE—that had combined assets of nearly $40 million and operated in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Appalbanc's Central Appalachian Peoples Federal Credit Union, with assets of $12 million and two branches, has provided 11,000 loans totaling $30 million to members with low and moderate incomes. Its Human/Economic Appalachian Development (HEAD) Corporation's Community Loan Fund has made 100 small business loans totaling another $30 million and has created more than 400 jobs. "FAHE and Appalbanc grew in extraordinary ways," says Mark Pinsky, president and CEO of the National Community Capital Association, "and Dave Lollis proved that things people don't think are possible are possible." Indeed, says Jim King, executive director of FAHE, "The statistics only tell half the story. Dave has a vision and passion that move people."

Appalachian Roots

Lollis is a stocky, deep-voiced native of the mountains. Supposedly retired, he can't seem to stop working for the region he can't stay away from. The son of a rural preacher who attended Yale University, he was born in Asheville, North Carolina, and always felt that his family "was an Appalachian family." Yet after graduating from Transylvania University in Lexington in the late 1950s, Lollis left the region for a federal government job and graduate school in Washington, D.C. Many get swept away by life in the nation's capital. Not Lollis. The experience, he says, "left me feeling that most of the people I was having trouble with were like me, people who'd left rural places and never gone back."

In the early 1960s, Lollis quit his job, dropped out of graduate school, and moved to the front lines of the burgeoning civil rights movement in Mississippi. "Dave came out of a family deeply devoted to church," says F. Lynn Luallen, CEO of the Kentucky Housing Corporation, "and I think he's always felt a calling to work in the vineyards, so to speak, to do good." As director of the church-based Mount Beulah Center, he undertook citizen education and voter registration projects with people recruited from across Mississippi. But then a grand jury indicted him on six counts of violating state integration laws, one count of conspiracy, and one count of sedition. "It was a tense time," he recalls. The charges were suspended, but the experience, he says, "deeply colored who I am." It not only toughened his resolve to work for justice, but also gave him an understanding of the importance of allowing local people to lead themselves.

Lollis returned to Washington, where he took a job with the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Manpower, Automation, and Training—working with a wide range of clients, from youths on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Kentucky miners to sharecroppers. Then it was back to Appalachia, where Lollis worked to get "poor and disenfranchised people" on the boards of local community action agencies. When New York University created its Center for the Study of the Unemployed, Lollis moved from Berea to Greenwich Village to work there, and stayed for ten years.

Lollis loved the city but missed Kentucky. Moving back, he became involved in the Sanctified Hill project in Harlan County. When the tunnels of abandoned mines collapsed and an entire hillside tumbled onto a community's homes and churches, Lollis helped a local teacher named Mattie Knight organize the construction of new housing, including 32 single-family homes and 10 multi- family housing units. "It was very complicated to give these people—mostly miners who'd owned their houses free and clear—new ones that were debt free, and that got me back into housing and community development."

By 1980 his kids were grown, and Lollis was all set to retire, when he suddenly found himself director of HEAD and FAHE, as well as of MATCH, an arts marketing cooperative. The organizations had little money and a single shabby office, and Lollis had neither a degree in finance nor an MBA. No matter. "He worked when there was no paycheck and slept in the office, and he wasn't afraid to fail," says King.

"It all comes down to money, and Dave understood how to connect the dots to raise it," says Luallen. "He understood the issues. He could show you that there's a need for people to have money to buy a used car to get to work, for instance. He can tell a compelling story, and the reason it's compelling is because he knows what he's talking about. He knows the people, and they trust him."

"If Dave had had an MBA," says Pinsky, "he'd have said none of this makes sense."

Front-Porch Counseling

But spend a day with Lollis in eastern Kentucky and it does make sense, as he points out house after house whose financing would confound the average mortgage broker. At the Welchburg Estates subdivision, where the FAHE member group Kentucky Mountain Housing Development Corporation has built 11 houses, he drops in on Opal Himes, who lives in an 864-square-foot, three-bedroom house on a half-acre lot. Until moving in about a year ago, Himes, who suffers from severe arthritis and has trouble walking, paid $96 a month for a one-bedroom apartment up a flight of stairs in McKee. Now she owns her own place, with a front porch, room for a garden, and no stairs, and she has a mortgage payment of only about $125 a month. "I own it!" she says, "and there's plenty of space for my three grandkids to come visit."

Himes would never have qualified for a standard mortgage. Most of FAHE's clients hold minimum-wage jobs or receive Social Security, but by assembling a complex financing puzzle and keeping construction costs low (FAHE houses cost an average of $65,000 and are financed with 0 to 4 percent mortgages), FAHE can help them become homeowners. "We do a whole lot of front-porch counseling," Lollis says. "We sit down with them, look at their budget, and make the closing a whole tutorial. We say, 'If you miss a payment, come talk to us. We won't succeed unless you do.' "

In the tiny town of McKee, he drops in on a branch of the Central Appalachian Peoples Federal Credit Union (CAPFCU). Until the credit union opened, the single bank in town "was reluctant to loan money to folks with limited incomes and questionable credit," says Daylene Hensley, CAPFCU vice president and manager of the McKee branch. Says Lollis, "They generally require 40 percent down on 15-year mortgages, for instance, which was good for the bank but doesn't help much for everyday people." Today, the credit union has given loans to more than 300 people who have never had affordable credit before.

As the day and the miles wind on, so do the houses and neighborhoods that shouldn't exist, according to the equations of traditional finance, and didn't exist before Dave Lollis came along. "The story of Dave is the story of people who don't know that there are things they can't do," says Pinsky. Lollis, of course, doesn't see it that way. "This is just about real people with real problems who just need some encouragement," he says. "That's what's fun about this work."

Even though Lollis officially retired as FAHE's president on December 31, his impact on the region goes on. On behalf of FAHE and the Virginia Community Development Corporation, he is leading an effort to capitalize a multi-million-dollar equity fund for housing projects that use tax credits. He's also spearheading an effort to organize a new national network of rural community developers and serves on numerous housing and community development boards and councils. In January FAHE introduced the "A Voice for Appalachia" Endowment, established in Lollis's honor to support continued advocacy for Central Appalachia, particularly in the area of affordable housing. And the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation has named a half-million-dollar contribution to the West Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund in honor of his work in the state.

Lollis says he plans to remain in the region he calls home. "I was happy I got to work in New York and lots of other places, but I was never confused about where I wanted to come back to."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington D.C.