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Making a Homestead a Home: Andrea and Justin’s MHO Journey

May 8, 2023 | MHO Journeys, News

Photo by Corey Biskind

Andrea and Justin are no strangers to hard work. They live on a rural property in Northwest Buncombe County where they operate a small family farm. They raise sheep, pigs, chickens, cows, seasonal vegetables, flowers, and, among other things, their three boys: eight-year-old twins Oliver and Oscar and five-year-old Ira. 

Andrea calls herself an Asheville baby. Her family’s ties to the area stretch back generations, but homeownership wasn’t something she thought she could achieve. She’d grown up in a series of rental homes and was focused on making ends meet, working at local businesses, and looking for an opportunity to start one herself. She met Justin in 2013 when she officiated his brother’s wedding, and they married soon after. 

That same year, Justin was looking for a place to rent on Craigslist when he came across an ad that beckoned, “Want to start a homestead, but can’t afford the land?” Justin has a background in horticulture and was managing a large livestock operation in Leicester, NC, at the time. He quickly connected with the ad owners and drove over to check out the homestead. When he arrived, Justin saw an overgrown lot and a house being swallowed by vines and brush. 

“The house was about to be lost,” Justin remembers. “They were looking for somebody to rent from them and fix up the house in a bartering system.” They struck a deal that allowed Justin to fix up the home in exchange for living on the property, and if that went well, it would one day allow him to own the home outright.  

So, Andrea and Justin both got to work building a small, sustainable homestead operation on the property while they fixed up the house.  

Life picked up speed when Justin and Andrea welcomed twin boys in 2015. A little brother followed in 2018. They’d secured their meat handlers license and launched a local CSA subscription business. Home renovation takes time and the family had to adjust, working on projects when they could to ensure the home stayed livable and safe for the boys. Justin welcomed help from the property owner, Michael, who he now considered a close friend and mentor. Michael, a master craftsman, worked with Justin on some of the more complicated home renovations. Together, they started planning for one of the biggest renovations yet: a new roof.

Then, 2020 came. Justin and Andrea felt like everything they’d worked so hard for started to come undone. COVID-19 shuttered area farmers’ markets, and the cost of feed and farm supplies skyrocketed. Andrea quit her job to stay home with the boys when schools and childcare centers closed. In 2021, their twins were diagnosed with chronic respiratory disease. Michael, Justin’s trusted renovation partner, unfortunately became ill and could not help Justin with the new roof as planned. And then, the roof started to leak. 

“The goal got farther and farther away,” Justin shares. “We started getting water leaks, and it started damaging the work we had already done. This all happened in a year where we really thought we had a good grip on things. We were making fast progress, and then we were going backward.” 

Michael’s health started to decline quickly. In early 2022, he made arrangements for Justin and Andrea to take ownership of the property. This happy milestone—one they’d worked so hard for over the last nine years—was blunted by Michael’s passing.

Justin and Andrea felt overwhelmed. When a nurse from Oscar and Oliver’s care team was visiting them at home, Andrea pointed out the leaking roof and the wood stove and kerosene used to heat their home. The nurse worried these issues could seriously impact the boys’ health, and she shared that the family qualified for help with home repairs through a new NC Medicaid initiative called the Healthy Opportunities Pilot—HOP for short. HOP’s goal is to address broader factors that can determine a person’s health, known as social determinants of health. HOP connects Medicaid-eligible people with resources to support their overall health and safety and services that can help with food, housing, transportation, legal support, and emotional well-being.

Justin and Andrea were a little reluctant at first. “We didn’t want to be a charity case,” Justin says. But he also knew they couldn’t move forward with such costly repairs. 

“There are people out there who are worse off than we are,” Andrea agrees. “But when we heard what was offered, we wanted to follow up and see what we can do to make our lives better and our kids’ health better.” 

That’s when they connected with Eric Johnson from Mountain Housing Opportunities’ Essential Home Repair team. MHO’s Essential Home Repair program joined the Healthy Opportunities Pilot network as a partner when HOP launched in 2022. Eric met with the family and devised a plan to replace the roof. He also replaced their old wood stove and kerosene heaters with a safe, energy-efficient mini split heating and cooling system. These repairs have already made a significant difference in the family’s health. 

“Mold is a huge concern of mine. And to not have to worry about the roof is massive,” Andrea says. “I think it helps us feel less anxious, especially not having to run a wood stove with two asthmatic children that now need medication twice a day. It definitely helps me out a lot.” 

The repairs will ensure that Justin and Andrea’s home will stay safe and viable for years to come. They appreciated the professionalism of the contractors that installed the new heating system and the roof. To her surprise, Andrea even got to pick the roof’s color. “Fire engine red, of course!” she reminiscences. “It’s beautiful, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.”

In a fitting tribute, the roof was completed just a week before Michael was interred on an adjacent property. “It was nice to have everybody ride up the mountain for the memorial and have this beautiful red roof on the house,” Andrea recalls. 

Andrea hopes that sharing her story will encourage families like hers to find the help they need. And that it will inspire others to offer help when they can. 

Photo by Katie Richard

“We find ways to give back. That is definitely something that I want to continue and have our kids do. We want to make sure they learn how to take care of themselves but also take care of the people that have taken care of them. You really can’t do anything alone… It takes a community.” Andrea emphasizes. “If this helps more people access things they need to have a better life all around, then don’t hesitate to call me!”

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