Lee Walker Heights, seen in August 2014. Jon Elliston/Carolina Public Press

ASHEVILLE — Local housing authority leaders are moving forward with an ambitious upgrade of Lee Walker Heights, the city’s oldest public housing, and the city of Asheville plans to play a major role too.

Earlier this month, the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, the agency in charge of overseeing the city’s more than 1,500 public housing units, requested that potential developers submit their qualifications for the redevelopment. It’s the first step in what could prove a model for overhauling public housing throughout the city.

Lee Walker, which dates back to 1950, sits on 11.5 acres between downtown and Mission Hospitals and has 96 units. Now, HACA aims to add up to 144 new units. The present plan — though this could change as development proposals come forward — is for 96 units to remain public housing, another 84 to be low-income/affordable as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s guidelines, and about 25 percent of the units to be at market rate.

“That could vary though; we could do more affordable” units, HACA Chief Operating Officer David Nash said. “I don’t see us doing less. It could also turn out that the right number of units is 200 or 300.”

The hope is that the revenue from the market rate units will help HACA accrue the funds to better maintain and manage its other properties.

Lee Walker has been a target for an overhaul since a 2007 study identified developments most in need of repair and those that faced the most problems with criminal activity. The development, Nash noted, had problems with disrepair and the highest per capita violent crime rate of all Asheville neighborhoods. But repeated attempts to gain grants from HUD failed, and initially it looked like redevelopment wouldn’t happen for many years.

Earlier this year, however, city officials expressed interest in partnering with HACA to redevelop one of the city’s existing projects. Lee Walker, Nash said, with the existing studies and relatively smaller size, was the place to start.

“Since this had already been in the planning process for five years, it seemed like the most logical one,” he said. “It seems like a more manageable place, scale-wise, to start a major redevelopment.”

The move comes as the authority is also pursuing a major — and sometimes controversial — revamping of its financing and management under a program known as Rental Assistance Demonstration.

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Right now, HACA is in the earliest official stages of the redevelopment, providing a “bare bones” description of its goals, Nash said, while requesting potential developers to present their qualifications. Then, those developers will have a chance to submit their proposals, and HACA, the city, and a committee of Lee Walker residents will pick one for the job. The plan is for HACA to retain ownership of the property, Nash said, though it might partner with private, for-profit companies to get tax credits, something he said HACA has done before.

“We’d go into it with the plan to own the property at the end of the day,” he said.

HACA aims to have the planning done by next June, and oversee the reconstruction between 2016 and 2018. Current residents would be relocated to other projects, Nash said, or, if they choose, would receive Section 8 housing vouchers instead.

“They will have the right to return to the development, absolutely,” he said, after the redevelopment is completed.

The city’s role

At Asheville City Council’s planning retreat in February, multiple Council members said they perceived the need to change public housing with the intent of improving conditions there, and city government wants a mixed-use development at Lee Walker. Mayor Esther Manheimer is one of the main advocates of the redevelopment.

Unlike many other cities, Asheville didn’t use funds from the Hope VI program in the 1990s to redevelop its projects. That program redeveloped many units with newer ones, but also displaced many residents and in some cases led to a net loss of public housing units. Some skeptics of HACA’s RAD program have cited Hope VI as an example of what they’d like to avoid.

Esther Manheimer by Max Cooper
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, who advocates redeveloping public housing with assistance from the city. Max Cooper/courtesy The Asheville Blade.

“Those funds aren’t available anymore, so creativity and partnerships are required for any redevelopment,” Manheimer told Carolina Public Press. “I have made it one of my priorities and I hope it will be one of the city’s to be ready, willing and able to improve the quality of life for folks in Asheville living in public housing.”

According to both Manheimer and Nash, in this case the city’s help would likely mean subsidies for the redevelopment from the city’s coffers and its affordable housing trust fund, as well as support with infrastructure.

“I don’t think the city is standing there paternalistically with all the answers, but I think we’re ready to partner will all the stakeholder groups once they determine the best way forward,” Manheimer said. “I’ve done a lot of reading on this personally. I’m ready to hear the possibilities. They’re going to be exciting and challenging, but I think we know that raising children in pockets of poverty isn’t the best thing. Ultimately I want to hear with what the community favors.”

Manheimer said that she has been meeting regularly with the housing authority, and that Lee Walker community members will be part of the decision-making process. She said she’s also open to working with the nascent coalition of activists and residents that has called for more attention toward residents’ concerns throughout the changes happening in public housing.

Traditionally, the city has partnered with developers and backed them with funds in return for the creation of a set number of affordable units. Delving into public housing development is new, Manheimer noted.

“This is a delicate thing,” she said. “This is the housing authority’s project, but they know for it to be successful it needs strong city support and support from the community.”

Questions remain as process moves forward

The major changes to housing, with the RAD management overhaul coming around the same time as a proposed redevelopment on some very valuable property, have led to some speculation from residents about their fate. The history of other projects, like urban renewal and Hope VI, that ended up displacing residents agencies initially claimed they would help, looms large. The critics have asserted that the process for RAD hasn’t been transparent, and have expressed worries that as much of the property has become prime real estate, residents could find themselves out in the cold.

At a May meeting about the management changes, Lee Walker residents were, for the time being, simply curious as the project is in its early stages. A number noted that they mainly wanted the city and HACA to make sure they listened to resident concerns as the redevelopment proceeds.

Nash said that HACA put out an open call for volunteers from the residents to sit on a committee that will help decide on the design, scale and approval of the development.

If it succeeds, Nash noted, Lee Walker could provide a model to upgrade Asheville’s next oldest housing projects — the much-larger Pisgah View and Hillcrest — and possibly more from there, turning housing projects into mixed-income developments.

“It won’t be exactly the same model, because those are different models, but it could serve as a model down the road,” he said. “At some point — I’m not going to say I know when — all of our properties are going to wear out and need to be replaced. We have to look toward that.”

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David Forbes is a former contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press.

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  1. I wrote a lengthy reply to the article on Lee Walker Heights Asheville. I wonder where it went because I do not see it .