ASHEVILLE — At a special worksession in City Hall Tuesday afternoon, Asheville City Council members agreed to look into a number of measures to address an affordable housing situation some elected officials and city staff have dubbed a crisis.
But the potential measures — including new uses of city-owned land, expanded incentives for housing and overhauling development rules to allow more density — attracted skeptical questions from some Council members as they reviewed a draft of the city’s Comprehensive Affordable Housing Strategy policy (see the policy below). Others noted that they could be in for some major political battles when it came to implementing the proposals.
Asheville’s seen steadily worsening affordability over the past decade as the population has grown. This year, the city made a list by research firm RealtyTrac as one of the least affordable areas in the country. The city’s own affordable housing advisory committee has expressed concerns as well, and has considered possible solutions in meetings throughout the year.
Multiple studies by the city, including a “scorecard” of its policies finished early this year, have found that the rising cost of housing and too few affordable units combine with low wages to create a situation that’s increasingly difficult for many working city residents.
The scorecard and a recent city staff report found more than half of Asheville’s renters — and 38 percent of its homeowners — pay more than 30 percent of their income in housing costs. That level qualifies them as “cost-burdened” according to federal criteria, meaning that their housing costs can pose problems in making ends meet.
The growing problem has also attracted increasing public attention. As about 50 people packed the room for the meeting, Mayor Esther Manheimer noted that “I think this is the most people we’ve had at a worksession” while staff drug extra chairs into the aisles to accommodate them all.
City-wide details, options
Community development director Jeff Staudinger, who oversees the city’s efforts on affordable housing, presented the initial report on the “ongoing crisis” and the city’s potential options. He asserted that the problem required multiple solutions and that the problem, likewise, had multiple causes.
Much of Asheville’s recent job growth, he noted, came in the lower-paying areas of the food service and retail sectors, and 31 percent of the jobs created in the Asheville area pay less than $25,000 a year.
The city bases its calculations on what it considers affordable housing on what a household making a given median income can afford. Usually the units it subsidizes are meant to not take more than 30 percent of a household’s income from people making 30 to 120 percent of the median income.
Because of the way the city developed — spread out and not particularly dense — transportation costs also devoured a major portion of income for many residents, something Staudinger observes makes the situation worse.
But compared to other North Carolina cities, Staudinger asserted that city programs like the Housing Trust Fund — where the the city loans money to private developers in return for guarantees of affordable units — and partnerships with developers were creating comparatively more units of affordable housing.
“We are achieving,” he said. “But the report also pointed out that to do more we need to look across the board at any number of alternative solutions.”
That required focusing on low and middle-income families, as well as “the need to grow in and up,” meaning increased density and likely new development rules to promote it. Already, he said, staff were finalizing rules to allow more residential development in the city’s commercial districts.
There were also, he said, several city properties close to the core of the city, such as a garage on Hilliard Street, that were worth considering for redevelopment as affordable housing. Staudinger also noted that the city would need to expand its existing programs (like the trust fund) and even look at its policies on wages on transportation, as those had a major impact.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” he added.
Vice Mayor Marc Hunt pointed to the city’s plan to overhaul Lee Walker Heights in cooperation with the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, and said he felt that the city needed to focus on redeveloping more public housing to create more units for low-income families.
He also said that he favored creating community land trusts, where an organization buys land and guarantees its affordability and use for decades to come, but he felt the effort would primarily come from the private sector, not the city. Manheimer also favored using city funds to “break the cycle of poverty.”
But Council member Gwen Wisler expressed some skepticism about the usefulness of the city’s affordable housing programs.
“One thing I’m struggling with is dollars [spent] per household,” she said. “Are you going to spend $1 million to help a 100 families or spend $1 million to increase bus service?”
Staudinger replied that out of a roughly $100 million city budget, “dedicating one percent of that to affordable housing doesn’t seem out of bounds to me, but of course that’s a decision you all have to wrestle with.”
He added that every time the city ensured long-term affordable units, “you help far more than a few households” because multiple families would benefit from it.
Report: Asheville needs 500 affordable units per year
As part of its increased efforts, the report recommended that the city set a specific goal for the number of affordable units it will help create each year, and Staudinger said he felt a goal of 290 to 350 units a year might be both “ambitious and realistic.” A 2008 report from the city indicated that Asheville will need 500 affordable units per year for 10 years to alleviate its affordability problem.
Council member Cecil Bothwell asked whether investments in transit might also make a big impact, perhaps even a bigger one, compared to increased housing subsidies. He also wanted to see what strategies to arrest the impact of gentrification worked best in other cities, “because we’re seeing things go up fast in the River Arts District.”
Staudinger noted that most cities focused on locating housing closer to transit and urban cores, but that they would look further into the impact of transit.
Wisler also noted, when discussing potential uses for city property like the aforementioned garage, that the tennis players at Aston Park might instead like to see parking in that area.
Council member Jan Davis said he hoped the city could move a little faster on using some of its property for affordable housing. He also wanted to see more attention to economic development because “the city’s not in the housing business” and many well-paying jobs in the area aren’t located within city limits.
Council member Gordon Smith said it might be necessary to overhaul the city’s development rules to make serious headway on the housing problem.
“The code we have kind of comes out of a 20th-century sensibility that may not be fitting what’s happening here in Asheville today,” he said. More density, he added, means more city residents closer to jobs and schools.
Council member Chris Pelly also favored more density, but paired with increased amenities in neighborhoods to help with the impact of more residents living closer together.
Because the meeting was a worksession, Council didn’t take a formal vote or have public comment; the event was intended to lay the groundwork for future changes to city rules. Manheimer noted that future changes to city policy stemming from the discussion would come up through Council’s Housing and Development committee and possible future public comment forums.
She also encouraged the attendees to keep up their support when the city pushed to put these possible solutions in place.
“Implementing some of these is going to be tough: there’s going to be some resistance to increased density,” she said. “It always sounds good theoretically, but when it’s right in front of you is when you get a little pushback.”
“I think our community is to a place where we’re ready to end the affordable housing crisis,” Smith added. “This plan is the way forward.”
“I’m going to translate,” she continued. “What that means is that when we adopt this policy, y’all better show up.”