Rich stopped by the Asheville FM New Hour for an interview the other day. Listen to the full recording at Asheville FM. Lightly edited transcript below:
Trevon Dunn: You're listening to Asheville FM at WSFM LP 103.3 Asheville. My name is Trevon Dunn and I'm here with the Asheville FM News Hour. Speaking with Rich Lee.
Rich: I'm Rich Lee. I have been a resident of this area for just about 20 years now. I am a financial planner who specializes in green investments. So I do a lot of budgeting and financial planning for our local artists and teachers and nonprofit workers and people like that. I was a West Asheville resident for many years, and helped form our [East] West Asheville Neighborhood Association here. Now I live in Haw Creek.
Trevon: And you are running for city council and we'd like to ask you a few questions?
Trevon: What are your thoughts on maintaining a balance between Asheville's developing tourism industry and meeting the needs and Asheville citizens to keep Asheville livable?
Rich: Well, I think the cycle that we're in of more hotels being built and then more advertising being done to bring more people in which just leads to more hotels is not a sustainable cycle. The city brought in an expert a few months ago who calculated that the cost of tourism to Asheville in terms of wear and tear on our infrastructure, traffic downtown, extra calls to police and EMS, and low wages and our distorted housing market here, are actually costing the city more than we make in revenue from tourism businesses. So something needs to be changed there.
I'm in favor of getting some control by the city over the hotel room tax, which comes in right now to $17 to $19 million dollars a year. We could take some of that money a long ways toward fixing sidewalks and infrastructure downtown and other local needs. And then I think we need to have a really serious conversation with the tourism industry about the role that they need to play as good stewards in the community, providing housing for their workers, supporting living wages and bus access and transit.
Trevon: What do you think could be done to improve the problem of affordability in Asheville?
Rich: I really think we need to take a different approach on this. The city's main approach right now to affordability is to give somewhere between $10,000 and $50,000 per apartment to a developer who's building one of these big apartment complexes like there's so many of in South Asheville, in the hopes that they'll promise a lower-than-average rent there. You're basically paying a profitable business to carve out a little bit of their business for low-income people. And it's not really working.
I think the city needs to look at the way Asheville has typically [historically] handled rentals, which is small landlords like me, people who own a basement that's fitted out as an apartment or something like that. And I'd like to see us give zero-interest loans to people who want to build garage apartments and backyard apartments. Give tax rebates to people who are renting them out long-term lower than the going market rate, and other approaches that support local small-time people more than big businesses and actually put real affordable housing in our neighborhoods.
Trevon: What is your plan for the future of short-term rentals in Asheville?
Rich: I think we're close on a set of regulations that serves locals. I'm definitely concerned about big outside investors in Florida or somewhere telling their realtor, you know, "Go up to this place called Asheville and buy ten houses in a neighborhood, so I can turn them into a revenue stream." We hear a lot of stories about people being evicted from their rentals, or turned out, or properties selling for these insanely inflated prices, because people are speculating on them for rentals.
At the same time, you want to respect property rights. You want to have flexibility for local people who really need to do this to get by. So right now, we allow people to rent a room in their house as a vacation rental as long as they live there. I would like to see some flexibility for, for example, for teachers who want to rent out for the summer while they're out of town and not getting paid, and other things like that, that make sense.
Trevon: What is your position on the removal of local confederate monuments and plaques?
Rich: I am personally for it. I think at the end of a community conversation around what to do about monuments like the Vance Monument downtown, the Robert E. Lee monument downtown, the Confederate soldiers' in front of the courthouse, I think they'll probably end up moved or renamed. We've got to remember that in many cases, Confederate monuments in the South were put up to intimidate black residents. And you could say that they still somewhat do.
What we need to have a bigger conversation on after we've done that is the real inequity that still remains around here. Black residents of Asheville are shrinking as a share of the population and shrinking in real numbers. They're more likely to live in public housing, more likely to get stopped by the police, more likely to be on the bottom end of the education [achievement] gap in our school system, and more likely to... or less likely to own businesses than the white population here. And we could take down the Confederate monuments and not do anything about those things, we'd still be in pretty bad shape, racial-equity-wise, here.
Trevon: What do you think should be done with the Haywood Street property in downtown Asheville?
Rich: I think it should be a park owned by the city. It's marked on the Downtown Master Plan, that a lot of effort and public input went into, as a park. I do think if you go out and look at it, there's obviously this pit with a big retaining wall around it. And so there's a real opportunity to fill in that pit with a low, one-story building that becomes a restroom or an art space or gathering space for Civic Center events, and then the top of it be the park with a green roof, that you enter from above. So, look down at it from a satellite, it looks like a park. From down below, it actually makes sense in the context of the streets.
Trevon: And lastly, on the ballot there will be a voter referendum asking Asheville residents if they support dividing the city into electoral districts. How do you think this will impact future elections?
Rich: I am voting no on the voter referendum. I'm against the districts that are imposed on us by state law. And I hope we beat it in court. Everyone turning out to vote no on the referendum is part of boosting our court case there, so we can get control of our own elections back.
Once we do that, I'm fine with having a conversation about how to make sure people from every side of the city are represented on our city council. I think that's really important as a growing city. I think we could discuss doing a mix of at-large or district seats, or doing it like the county school board where there are districts but everybody votes on them. My main priority right now, and everybody else's, should be stopping this law imposed on us by Raleigh.