As a longtime mountain resident and former service-industry worker, Rich was personally impacted by local costs of living. Returning to the area after a stint in the Peace Corps in 2006, a former teacher and aid worker, Rich found himself working in unrewarding jobs that barely covered the bills. But like many local residents, he was reluctant to leave the job security he had for career-track positions, kept in a cycle of subsistence by high housing costs.
Housing unaffordability is a threat to Asheville's unique cultural and economic fabric, hitting retirees, artists and musicians, people of color, and former industrial workers the hardest. Ashevilleans of all stripes need to recognize that an "Aspen of the South," lacking diversity, devoid of artists and free-spirited entrepreneurship, is not the Asheville we want; we need to come together behind meaningful solutions.
Five Principles for Housing Affordability:
1. Go small, not big, on development.
What does this mean? Right now, the city tries to spur housing affordability by giving tax breaks to big developers who promise to create some affordable housing in exchange. The math on these deals is not great, usually involving a rebate of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to profitable developers in exchange for a few low-rent apartments, usually these in large megacomplexes that concentrate traffic problems, like on Sweeten Creek. Rich would turn this around by offering tax breaks to small-time landlords who rent a basement, extra home, or garage apartment for under the market rate, rewarding them for good citizenship and helping local people struggling with their own high cost of living here. These small landlords have less traffic and infrastructure impacts than big developments; at almost half the rental stock citywide, they're a unique feature of the Asheville scene, an opportunity for regular workers to have a yard or a quirky, individual loft. They need the city's support more than a developer standing to clear millions on a big, out-of-scale project.
Additionally, many local residents have homes that have grown in equity, but financing construction for a garage or basement apartment is still difficult. The city should use affordable housing funds and federal block grants to create a financing mechanism for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), funding low- or zero-interest loans for individual homeowners to build small apartments as long as they rented them affordably for 20 years. Several cities, notably Bowling Green, Ohio, already do this.
2. Empower neighborhoods to come up with their own solutions.
What does this mean? Asheville is a city of neighborhoods. Some are more suitable for backyard and basement apartments than others. Some have busy corridors with bus lines that are more suitable for bigger complexes. Some may prefer small infill or tiny homes, house-sharing or pocket micro-apartments. Some may be facing traffic and parking problems that would be exacerbated by heedless new development. Some may prefer laxer rules regarding short-term rentals or have other creative solutions. The city has the tools and organization to let neighborhoods agree on their own ways to tackle our problems and test them out, letting each neighborhood experiment with what best fits their unique characteristics, and zoning them to suit. Broad-brush solutions don't apply here.
In 2014, Asheville city staff drafted a paper called "Alternatives to Gentrification for the East of the Riverway Area". It proposes a menu of actions to protect the historically black Southside neighborhood from rapid turnover into a more expensive (mostly white) area, pricing out its former residents. Since then, Asheville has been named the second-fastest gentrifying city in the country, yet none of the proposed policies has been enacted. These include provisions for "permanent affordability and stewardship of wealth" by original black home-owning families. These approaches could be used broadly in neighborhoods that are facing rapidly rising housing costs and displacement of longtime residents.
3. Try ambitious policies (even in court), but strategically.
What does this mean? Inclusionary zoning (IZ) means any development over a certain size is required to offer affordable housing. Its legality in North Carolina is in question: a case testing an IZ law in Davidson, NC, was settled by the developer before the judge's ruling. Such ordinances are also contentious in neighborhoods seeking to limit new infill. Rich would allow a neighborhood experiencing a development boom (think Five Points or Shiloh) to volunteer to be a test case for inclusionary zoning using a zoning overlay, to gauge the impact on the city and potentially resolve the legal questions through the court system.
Additionally, in 2016, the Obama administration released a sweeping set of best practices for cities facing affordability issues. Not all of them would be popular or applicable in Asheville (see Inclusionary Zoning), but Rich would apply them where they make sense, using zoning overlays to test them in the hardest-hit areas of the city first.
Lastly, the city should require chain businesses on major corridors to build second- and third-floor apartments overhead. The Town of Cary does this. New businesses like Harris Teeter and Whole Foods would be required to include housing onsite as a condition for approval, instead of building single-story box-type buildings on prime real estate for bus access and jobs. New housing should follow the major roads (Patton, Tunnel, Leicester Hwy) rather than out-of-place large developments creeping into the interiors of neighborhoods, and should include major infrastructure improvements where needed to handle the extra traffic.
4. Use affordable housing bond money at K-Mart Plaza and Innsbruck Mall, not the Charlotte Street Garage.
What does this mean? The proposal to move Public Works out of its facility on Charlotte Street and turn the property into affordable housing is a mistake. The cost of moving a city department will be considerable, and moving it out of downtown will mean moving the kind of jobs the new housing is supposed to provide access to. Asheville has two better sites for an ambitious affordable housing project: the outdated K-Mart Plaza on Patton Avenue and the Innsbruck Mall on Tunnel Road. Both are undervalued, closer to schools and groceries, and could be the start of regrowing the city's two most blighted corridors. Rich would lead a compete re-planning of Patton and Tunnel, engaging with the property owners to sell or partner with the city for new affordable development on those sites.
5. Public housing is the city's racial and economic backstop; do right by it.
As Asheville continues to price out residents, public housing is becoming a last resort for the city's most struggling residents, particularly residents of color. From the senior apartments at Battery Park and Vanderbilt to housing for the working poor at Pisgah View, these developments are vital resources. Yet they are under threat from disrepair, isolation, lack of infrastructure and low access to vital community services. Ambitious projects to revamp Lee Walker Heights as a mixed-income development have hit stumbling blocks. Others have run over cost, with residents left out of their home communities and forced to get by on rental vouchers with dwindling value in our competitive rental market. The city needs to make a hard commitment to see Lee Walker Heights through in a way that's genuine and beneficial to the historic community there, to set an example for future housing project redevelopment, and guarantee safety for their residents. The city needs to keep rental vouchers up to the pace of rents. (It doesn't do any good to have a voucher if there's nowhere to rent.)
Lastly, no discussion of affordable housing is complete without discussing wage growth that keeps pace with rents. Read more about Rich's jobs proposals here.