Mountain T.O.P. – Above and Beyond Businesses

April 24, 2023


Julie Keel, co-host of the Housing Hub Podcast, joined the show to discuss bringing a spotlight on housing needs in the Upper Cumberland by podcasting. Aided by a South Cumberland Community Fund grant, Keel and co-host Sophia Wickersham work to centralize information for their clients.

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Karen Wilson: Welcome to The BLC Connection Podcast. I am Karen Wilson and your host for today. These small episodes will focus on local businesses that excel at particular things that can be utilized by other businesses. Today’s guest is Julie Keel from Mountain T.O.P. To discuss a podcast that aids people looking for affordable housing on the plateau. Welcome, Julie.

Julie Keel: Hi, Karen. Thanks so much for having me on the podcast. I am delighted to be here. It’s my first time being on a podcast since we’ve started our own podcast, The Housing Hub. So really grateful to be here.

Karen Wilson: Well, I opened up probably a magazine. It wasn’t really a magazine. It’s a newsletter, South Cumberland, I think, Newsletter. And you all were in there about the grants and stuff, and I thought how innovative to start a podcast on housing.

Julie Keel: We thought so too. So I’m glad that you did too.

Karen Wilson: I was very impressed by that. So first, tell us about Mountain T.O.P., what Mountain T.O.P. does. And then talk to us about the affordable housing issue in our area.

Julie Keel: Sure. So Mountain T.O.P., T.O.P. stands for Tennessee Outreach Project. And we are located – our main office is in Grundy County. And we also have a facility in Van Buren County that operates just in the summer months. And we have been in the affordable housing arena all of our existence, almost 50 years. I think we’re 48 years now. So getting close to a big anniversary for us. And I’ve been at Mountain T.O.P. for 16 years. So I’m a transplant to Appalachia, but very much so appreciate, feel honored, to be a part of this culture and invited into to my little community in Tracy City.

Julie Keel: That’s where that’s where I live. And so Mountain T.O.P. works in, does home repair. So we’re that kind of lane of affordable housing, which actually now with the way the housing market is to be able to do home repair is really important. I hear all my affordable housing developer friends being frustrated by the difficulty to develop affordable housing from the ground up. And so we’re kind of poised in a good place right now. Grundy County, we do major and minor home repair year around, and that’s where our main office is located and just where we’re able to do a lot of operations from. But then we expand with our Van Buren County facility. We expand to seven counties in the summertime doing major and minor home repair. And the main mode of the way, we’re a partnership organization and ministry and so we don’t do anything for free. People sometimes are surprised to hear that. And we say, “Nope.” You just have to have the ability to partner with us, the desire to partner with us, and have a need that we can meet. And so some of our grants do have an income requirement, more stringent requirements. And so we’ll follow that guideline. And if not, you know, just I need help with my yard work. Yes, we can do that, if you can help us out in some sort of way. And, you know, I can cook a meal for the group that comes. So the neat thing about –.

Karen Wilson: Kind of pay it forward, that person is giving what they can to contribute.

Julie Keel: Exactly. Yeah. And that’s our way of community development. We believe we all have an asset to give, and so pooling our assets, we tend to create something bigger than if we had just tried to do it, go it alone. That’s kind of our philosophy. It comes from our ministry framework of looking at the world and our role in that as well.

Karen Wilson: That kind of educates that person that you’re doing the work for on your organization and could even help keep them active in helping.

Julie Keel: We see often that – I was going to say, the other unique thing about us is that most of our labor is done through participants or volunteers. And so people pay to come stay at our facilities, and then we deploy folks into the community, working at homes, where we’ve developed relationships with families. We’ve matched them with funding. They might have matched themselves with funding. We have self-funded projects as well. But if you’ve done a, you know, a home remodel project recently, you know that really –

Karen Wilson: Just finding the resources is overwhelming.

Julie Keel: Finding a contractor and getting on the list, but also which, we also have a long lead time. But also just, you know, labor sometimes is the more expensive part of that equation.

Karen Wilson: Definitely.

Julie Keel: So we do things with volunteer labor. And that also [gives us] the ability to expand the impact of grant dollars, so we can make those go farther. Though we try to recoup some of our costs, because labor is, you know, that’s very, very valuable. And I think in the nonprofit world, volunteer labor is undervalued.

Karen Wilson: It is. It is.

Julie Keel: By our funders in the world of philanthropy. And so we’d like to, you know, to make sure people understand, like that’s a very valuable asset that we bring to the table.

Karen Wilson: And I’m sure, if you’re doing major or minor renovation work, things still have to be up to code. They’re inspected. It’s not just, you know, a ramshackle job or something like that.

Julie Keel: Yeah. And it really depends because some of the counties we work in, they don’t follow, they have not adopted a building code, but Mountain T.O.P. has. Like we build to and we tell our volunteers, they’re trained in that sort of way that we have a standard to which we build, and we are going to maintain that. So we’re actually general contractors. We have our contractors licensed at Mountain T.O.P. So we operate in that sort of realm.

Karen Wilson: Right, Right. So that makes you an expert in building too. So you’re not reliant on others to do the job. You know, it’s a good job when it’s done. So talk to us about just what the crisis is. I think sometimes, you know, if we’ve got homes, and we’ve got a place to lay our head every night, we don’t understand how hard it is to get affordable housing.

Julie Keel: Well, Karen, personally, I don’t think that we have an affordable housing crisis. It is a chronic issue in the United States. And I know that even when I say “affordable housing,” that kind of pushes people, kind of politicizes the issue. And we don’t see it in that sort of way. If you look at any state of human flourishing, eventually you’re going to bump up against housing. So if you’re in the world of trying to get a better job, if you’re not adequately housed, you’re eventually going to bump up against that. If you’re recovering from substance use disorder, you don’t have proper housing, eventually that’s going to be a roadblock for your recovery. Education, if you don’t have a place to lay your head so you’re ready to go to school the next day or even, you know, an environment in which to study. So every aspect of our lives, we bump up against housing. And so we have chronically under-invested in affordable housing. And in rural places, that gets even worse because of just the way the funding flows in the United States. I know specifically in Grundy County, Mountain T.O.P. did a housing study in 2021, and we uncovered, and I you know, our data, I think it was done well, and I think we could dive deeper into data. But that we need 660 housing units to meet our basic need in Grundy County alone. And so I know that –

Karen Wilson: That is a lot more than what you’d think. Of course, Grundy is a huge county. It’s very spread out, very rural.

Julie Keel: Right. 341mi². I think I have looked that up so often. Yeah. So traveling from one end of the county to the other is is difficult. And then where housing is located, it also in rural places, I think that that’s important. The other thing that I think has come to light, especially in the last couple of years, are folks that are unhoused or under housed. And so we see that in overcrowding situations. We have probably over a thousand overcrowded housing units in Grundy County. And I know some people choose to live that way because, you know, living with multiple generations helps with things.

Karen Wilson: Taking care of one another, right.

Julie Keel: Yes. Yes. In my household, we currently have three generations, but we have enough bedrooms.

Karen Wilson: Right.

Julie Keel: So, that’s fine. But there are cases where that is indicative of unhoused, under-housed. And so Mountain T.O.P., that’s one of the things we do address is overcrowding. But I think that that has become, especially with other colleagues and social service agencies, that people who don’t have housing at all are, We’re seeing more frequently than we would in previous years. So that housing, I guess the current two-year crisis that really brought to light what is going on with housing in the whole US in affordability. It’s difficult.

Karen Wilson: True. Yes. And I would think that knowing Grundy County, of course, Tracy City, I guess, is what you might consider the city of the county. But you’ve got so many different little communities that kind of function as little cities in themselves. Gruetli and Coalmont, Altamont, I mean, you could go on and on. There’s at least 5 or 6 if not more. Is it, do you have to, or is it difficult, I guess, to figure out how to work with each entity? Or do you all mainly kind of go through a certain through Tracy City or through Monteagle?

Julie Keel: So, it’s a yes and no thing. You know, that, I think that rural places have the issue of being siloed where we get good at what we’re doing, and then we don’t work. It’s harder, because we’re separated, to work with others. But I think in the housing sector, we’ve worked hard – Mountain T.O.P. Last year hosted a housing summit where we brought together local leaders and local social service agencies and brought in some outside insight to really center housing in the conversation. I think that has sparked a lot. And so it is a it’s a little bit of a struggle to keep up with what’s going on across the whole housing spectrum from a shelter for folks who don’t have housing, all the way to what is being built in the, you know, in the market rate sort of housing. And so I know that there are gaps, and it’s always just asking the question, what’s going on? What’s happening next? What’s you know, we hear about a developer coming in and does that move forward, and you know, how slow things can move. Not just in rural places, but in development and community development things move slow. So, yes, it’s a challenge.

Karen Wilson: I would think so. So we focused on Grundy County. Mountain T.O.P., though, we talked about how many counties you all function out of, especially in the summer months. Yes, right. There are maybe six counties?

Julie Keel: So we do Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie, White, Warren, Van Buren, and Bledsoe.

Karen Wilson: Okay.

Julie Keel: And so those last four are out of our Van Buren County camp, and then the other three typically out of our Coalmont, Cumberland Heights. Talk about communities. Yes, the unincorporated part of Grundy County. We’re in the Cumberland Heights community. And so we do have a big footprint when we think about the summer. And mostly we do minor home repair during the summer months. So we have our volunteers, our youth, and they are better skilled at doing things – as technical as a wheelchair ramp, which, listen.

Karen Wilson: Oh, right.

Julie Keel: Or even calculating stringers for a set of stairs. That’s kind of outside of my area of expertise. But we’ll wash windows. We’ll do yard work. We’ll paint. You know, it’s home preservation.

Karen Wilson: It is.

Julie Keel: Safe entries and exits. And then we think about like, you know, when our yards look better, how we feel about our neighborhood or community. Or how we might better connect with our neighbors because then we feel better about the state of our house. And I was mentioning we do see that often where especially, when we work with families multiple times longer projects, where all of a sudden people feel like they can connect better in their community, and they’re in turn volunteering in places that they maybe would have not gone to had Mountaintop not been there. Not that we’re saving the world, but that we just come in bringing some hope in a place where, you know, we’ve long been a disinvested area of the US, and we’re trying to invest.

Karen Wilson: A lot of times you’re talking about elderly people or disabled people that are not physically able to do this kind of work on their own, or they’re on a limited income and cannot afford to pay a contractor to build that ramp or, you know, fix their porch or whatever it is that that they may need doing. So you all partnered with quite a few people. Looks like it was probably a mass organization; Housing Swanee, Green Spaces, BetterFi, South Cumberland Learning Development Center, and the South Cumberland Community Fund, to apply for this grant. Tell us how that collaboration started and all about the grant.

Julie Keel: Sure. So Mountain T.O.P. had relationships with all of these organizations prior to getting together and collaborating. And it was probably, you know, the idea where three or 4 or 5 things were brewing, and then they all coalesced around this idea. One of the things I have to mention is the South Cumberland Community Fund hosted a colloquium last year at the University of the South, and they brought in Whitney Kimball Cole from Rural Strategies and other speakers. And at the end of the colloquium, we were supposed to get together and collaborate. And this table is about housing. And this table is about health care. And this table is about education. So at one of the housing tables, this idea started brewing around with Housing Swanee and Mountain T.O.P., and what’s something we could do together. It kind of continued that conversation. Mountain T.O.P. had Michael Walton, the executive director of Green Spaces, come speak at our housing summit. And so we had a blooming relationship there. Their education program, their advocacy work with housing and health care institutions is really interesting. Their workforce development program is fantastic, and so just a lot of assets there. We’ve long been friends with the folks at BetterFi before they existed, and so that’s the community development financial institution, the CDFI in Grundy County, and they exist to eliminate predatory lending, and so we regularly talk about how microlending around housing projects, what kind of avenues might be there. But they are fantastic with financial education, which that piece, I think, is important when you’re talking about housing. And then the South Cumberland Learning and Development Center is the old Grundy County High School that’s in Tracy City.

Karen Wilson: So glad to see that revamped and revitalized.

Julie Keel: Well, if you haven’t been in there, anybody who’s listening too, but if you haven’t been in there, please come and visit. It’s also has another name, the Litell-Partin Center. So that facility is under rehabilitation. It’s over $2 million invested in that structure. That project is over a decade old. And there’s a great backstory that we have don’t have time on this podcast to talk about. However, the idea is for it to be a one stop shop for social services. And so the Anchor Tenant already. Volunteer Behavioral Health. There is a Catholic Charities. There’s an after school program. American Job Center is in there. They’re working on rehabilitating the second floor. We’ll have elevator access, so universal access in the building. And so The Housing Hub, we’re there right now, one day a week. But we intend to be there five days a week as a drop-in center where you can come in, and we can talk about housing. Because we’ve learned that there is not one thing that will fix this. There’s not one silver bullet. There’s not one answer, like a lot of cases with just, you know, our lives are complicated, and the world is complex. And so a place where you can come and and talk through housing related resources where you might already be visiting for. I mentioned the free clinic. There’s a free health care clinic as well. So people are already coming there for services. And that’s where we’d like to see kind of a The Housing Hub have a physical footprint in that space as well.

Karen Wilson: Right. And so the grant kind of has provided money for you all to provide all of these resources, I guess, and market this idea about a one stop shop for you to come to at The Housing Hub to help you with all that research.

Julie Keel: Correct. Yes. And so you mentioned that grant. And so we have a grant through the South Cumberland Community Fund, and it was a specific collaborative grant call for requests that was a part of their 10th anniversary celebration. And so we were delighted to be recipients of that for this project. And our physical deliverables are that someone paying rent in a place where someone can come get some housing counseling. Also, we’re building a website, so we’re in the baby stages of that. Just finding a person that can build a website kind of take our idea from heads and concept and translate that into what happens on a computer screen is a challenge. And so we’re working through that currently right now. And our partners, we’re talking about a few education opportunities that will happen. We want to get more regular with that, but that’s a capacity building area for us.

Karen Wilson: Oh yeah.

Julie Keel: For any of us. So Green Spaces already does a bit of education and so does BetterFi. And so how can we kind of bring some avenues together where we’re talking about housing along with financial education? How do those two pieces fit together? Or, we’d love to do something with Safe Homes. And so how can we bring in more resources to make sure your home is safe. Things that people can do on their own and build up that capacity to do some education. And for people to know that, you know, that this is happening in a location where you can come to, but then also with the website. I’ll tell you, our big dream is to have an app. We would love to have housing related resources literally at your fingertips, or even a kiosk that you walk into the building. You don’t have to talk to a person, or if someone’s not there, that you’re able to click-in through some demographic questions. Or how old are you? Where do you live? Are you a veteran? What is your income? How many people in your household? You know, those sorts of things that can really guide people and direct them to a list of housing resources that’s then helpful. So we always know that those lists aren’t always the most helpful.

Karen Wilson: Yeah. Sometimes you think you’ve hit the gold mine in information, and then you hit the roadblock. Oh, it’s not available in my county or –.

Julie Keel: Or you have to drive. You have to drive 20 minutes or 40 minutes off the mountain or off the plateau area in seven different directions to gather the resources that you need.

Karen Wilson: It sounds like your demographic is a lot like ours in the fact that you have to – I’ll call it market to these people. But you’ve got elderly. You’ve got young, you know, people with young families. And then you’ve got also young people who utilize apps and things like that. And you have to be able to get the information to them in whatever way that they absorb it best. Whether it’s in person or on the phone or coming in physically to the location or through the app.

Julie Keel: Yep, lots of channels. I mean, I have a hypothesis that there are lots of resources for affordable housing that don’t flow in our area very well. And so just want to champion those resources and get them flowing. That really are, some of them are even for moderately income folks who just don’t know, or, I mean, like I would have a hard time with, you know, signing my name on the dotted line of a mortgage without doing a lot of research and figuring that out.

Karen Wilson: And like you said, there’s predatory lending and things like that. I mean, you always used to think and still do probably of HUD homes and stuff, but some people don’t know about that. Or where do you even begin?

Julie Keel: There’s some mystery around a lot of it too, so.

Karen Wilson: It is. It is. Anytime you deal with the government and grants and just, I don’t know. And then there are so many opportunities for people to take advantage of that. Click on this. Mmm. You’re on a website that’s going to charge you 30%, you know, which is probably not feasible for most anybody. So talk to us, I guess, about your goals. You mentioned the walk-in center, the website, and the podcast. Where are you all at? You know, I guess, you got your grant maybe a year ago?

Julie Keel: Almost a year ago. Yeah. I was thinking this is great because tomorrow I’m doing a little check-in with the folks from the Community Fund to talk about where we are. So we’re at the point of building a grant. We’re in season two of our podcast, and our members are just – we’re having to do some backend or behind-the-scenes stuff for the website. So what resources are we – like some things aren’t even digitized that we –

Karen Wilson: You know, write forms, and you want it to click here and go to the right place.

Julie Keel: Yeah. And you know, there is thought that there could be some centralizing of applying for housing resources locally and how to do that well. Which, you know, which way does that work? And so all that stuff takes a lot more time than I ever imagined. But I do think in the fall, we’ll be doing more education pieces. We’ll have in September, our housing summit will happen again. And that is if somebody works for an organization that serves people in Grundy, Marion and Franklin counties, we think that that’s a place for resource gathering and networking. There’s again, a lot of synergy that happened there, side conversations, you know, things that weren’t at the podium that just all of a sudden have blossomed into some cross collaborations that have been really fruitful. And it’s, you know, people working in their sectors and doing those things well. So I think that’s in our – So marketing, you will see, The Housing Hub is still marketed under Mountain T.O.P. And so we will eventually break off from that, and have our own channels with the website and be able to send people that direction. And do a little bit more targeted sort of marketing that’s not quite intertwined with the regular operation with Mountain T.O.P. And then so The Housing Hub can really have its own identity. But, you know, we’re steadily moving forward as we are all doing our regular jobs at the same time. We’re doing this thing that and cross collaboration. But I can’t say enough about how that work is important. You know, that you look at housing not just in its own silo, but it’s connected to health and health care. And it’s workforce development. And if you care about education reform, if you care about any of the other facets of life, you’ve got to care about housing, too.

Karen Wilson: Right. Yes. I mean, it’s almost the essential block before people can move forward in thinking about health care. I mean, it’s even food might come first. But, you know, but it’s right there with it. You know, to have a place to lay your head where you’re safe, and you can get your rest so you can get up and go to school or go to your job. So that comes first for sure. Any advice to others on, you know, who have considered or maybe not ever considered a podcast as a means of getting their information out there? Because you and I talked. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of people in our area. Podcasts are so popular, but in rural America, you know, it’s kind of innovative.

Julie Keel: Yeah, I think so. And I was surprised at how accessible this all was. So I should say that The Housing Hub was really the brainchild of my colleague, Sophia Wickersham, who works with me at Mountain T.O.P. And while I was over here trying to do a bit of housing counseling and going to community meetings, she had this kind of idea of, let’s coalesce these ideas. And the podcast for The Housing Hub really helped us push forward into that. Like, it gave us a physical representation of what we were trying to do. And so we talked our boss at Mountain T.O.P. into letting us purchase podcast equipment, so headphones and microphones, and then a platform. And we got good. She’s actually located in Denver, Colorado, Sofia is. So we a podcast remotely. And then that for us that was you know having people on remotely wasn’t odd for us. And so she and I have done a few episodes where we’ve been in the same space recording, but most of our recording happens remotely. And I think just like, you know, hearing perspectives and again, thinking about like housing in a way that makes that an issue for folks who’ve not had a had to think about a roof over their head is kind of part of what we’re doing, along with resource gathering and talking about.

Julie Keel: So in season two, we’re going to do a kind of a recap – where does the housing hub work? Where are we now? And then, we have a staff that runs our summer operations. And an alum out of that’s that worked in the housing field, qe’ve talked to him about his perspective and see some like compare and contrasts. Since you’ve been in rural Appalachia doing housing and now you’re in a more urban place, kind of comparing and contrasting that. We talked with the folks at the Isaiah 1:17 House, but that was one of the hardest episodes, I think, personally, for me to record. But to think about how important it is for a roof over a child’s head on their most adult day. We have talked to the Coalition for Home Repair, their executive director. Mountain T.O.P. is part of that. But just, you know, the importance of home repair and housing affordability that I mentioned. We’ll be talking to the USDA in a couple of episodes in season two. Mountain T.O.P. has a great relationship with USDA, and so folks from the state level there. Talk further about USDA programs. That’s one of my passions. Their products are great, and to get those pushed out.

Karen Wilson: But, I will say too, you know, for businesses that are interested or never thought about podcasting, it is a very relatively inexpensive way to get the information out. You’ve got a little investment in mics and headphones and a recording system. And then, you know, I think about YouTube and a lot of people making videos and stuff, but this is something you don’t have to. They can listen to it in their car. They can listen to it while they clean their house or do their yard work. You’re not like bound to a video. You’re not thinking – you’re not like needing all of this data to play the video. You’re just listening. Kind of going back to just listening to a good story. So I think anybody interested in, that has consistent information that they want to get out, a podcast is a great way to do it.

Julie Keel: Yeah, I agree. And it also sets, for me, it sets the issue in the form of a narrative. And I think that that’s the way we learn and hear things well is in, you know, in a story and like telling a story about housing and different perspectives.

Karen Wilson: And then you think, too, you mentioned the USDA. You don’t have to, in your partner in Colorado. You can interview people from all over the United States, all over the world. You don’t have to physically be together to do the podcast.

Julie Keel: Yep, bringing people to the virtual table. Yeah.

Karen Wilson: Yeah. So this is your second season. You kind of went over all the topics, but we’re just so thankful to have you all in our area addressing the need of affordable housing and doing it in rural America. Ben Lomand Connect is such a advocate for rural America and rural Tennessee, and we love to talk to other people that are doing the same thing in a different way.

Julie Keel: You know, I think that there’s no better place to invest than in rural America, specifically in Appalachia. But, you know, the investment of broadband, let’s just talk about that. And what that unlocks for people is pretty big. It’s a big deal.

Karen Wilson: It does. I know recently, you know, we love to think about broadband affordability. And just on a side note, you know, we brought the price down of the gig to what we felt like was affordable to most anyone. And because not everybody, I mean, it’s like a necessity right up there with like electricity now because everything you do from checking your pay stub. It’s all online, and so everybody kind of needs that resource, and we want to make it affordable. We’re a cooperative, and we love to, you know, owned by the people. We got to make it affordable for the people.

Julie Keel: Building on our assets. Well, I’ll tell you, The Housing Hub Podcast from this part of the U.S. runs on Ben Lomand Connect. So, thank you, Ben Lomand Broadband.

Karen Wilson: Well, and two, what all are the resources: Spotify, all of the places that they can find The Housing Hub Podcast.

Julie Keel: So it’s on Apple iTunes Podcast, and then on Spotify. And Housing Hub search for that, and we should pop-up. Also at the Mountain T.O.P. website, you can find a tab under our main menu for The Housing Hub, or a link to follow for The Housing Hub. It’s just one page. And then at the bottom of that page, you’ll see the links directly to our podcast.

Karen Wilson: Well, we wish you the best of luck. I can’t wait to see your website built out and listen to your podcast continue and stuff like that. But thank you for coming down from Tracy City, I believe, and being our guest on The BLC Connection Podcast. And we invite our listeners to tune in for future episodes and share this content with other businesses. Until next time, this is your BLC Connection.

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