ASHEVILLE – Developers and local governments need to leverage more resources. Existing stock needs to be preserved. Approval processes need to be streamlined.
Those are all strategies discussed by a panel of experts March 23 at a Leadership Asheville Forum to address one of the area’s largest issues: affordable housing.
Buncombe County announced in December that affordable housing is its top spending priority, and Asheville City Council listed it as a top priority helping to direct the focus of city staff.
The first of two parts, Leadership Asheville Forum’s Housing in WNC event brought four speakers with distinct perspectives to talk about the extent of the issue, and what is being and can be done to provide enough housing to meet growing demand.
Housing is one of four main focus areas for Dogwood Health Trust, said Sarah Grymes, vice president of impact-housing, something the trust homed in on throughout 2021.
That included a housing needs assessment commissioned by Dogwood, known as the Bowen report after the firm that conducted the study, which she said showed a need of more than 13,000 housing units in rental housing in Western North Carolina, with a large share needed for residents 55 and older, as well as people earning 50% and below the area median income.
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According to Asheville’s matrix, 50% of the area median income is $26,300 for a one-person household, and $30,050, $33,800 and $37,550 for two-, three- and four-person households, respectively.
Geoffrey Barton, director of real estate development for nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunity, said the affordable housing organization has been “guided by the belief that if you work in this community you should be able to afford an attractive home in a good neighborhood” since 1988.
Extrapolating from the 15% growth rate in Buncombe County detailed in that Housing Needs Assessment, Barton said 4.3 households, or almost 10 people, relocate to Buncombe County every day.
The housing being constructed in the county is not keeping up, Barton said, also comparing wages against rents over the past 60 years, showing wages adjusted for inflation staying relatively flat while rents continue to climb, as do the share of households who are considered housing cost-burdened, paying more than 30% of their income to rent.
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Nationally, that rate has grown to about 50%, Barton said, and in Buncombe County, 7,500 households pay more than 50% of their income in rent, the same number the city’s comprehensive plan says need to be built in the city in the next 15 years.
“The rate that we are building is vastly under-meeting the need that we have,” he said. “We have a commuter workforce. We have a large number of people who commute into the city today, so we are outsourcing our working population because they can no longer afford to live in Asheville. Sometimes this is called ‘the suburbanization of poverty.'”
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If people don’t like traffic, housing needs to be built where transit is and where jobs are, Barton said.
“We need to be building more densely in our urban center where our workforce lives,” he said. “As we learned from the pandemic, our essential workforce is not a remote workforce. These are in-person jobs. These are our educators, our healthcare workers, our service industry professionals.”
Can the housing problems be solved? How?
Affordable housing often feels like an insurmountable issue locally, but it’s not, Barton said, noting Buncombe’s growth rate of 4.3 new households a day is less than 5% the number of people moving to Charlotte every day.
“We do have a problem, but we are still a small city and it’s not an insurmountable problem,” he said.
It will take aggressive zoning reforms, investing in transit infrastructure, streamlining approval and permitting processes and utilizing resources the area doesn’t use enough, Barton said, like federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.
“This is an invaluable resource that our community is currently missing the boat on, he said.
In 2021, Wake County – home to Raleigh – had about 1,300 units approved, which utilized those 4% tax credits, he said, and Mecklenburg County had 2,400 approved, Barton said.
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The Maplecrest Apartments at Lee Walker Heights used the same tax credit, a total of 212 units, Barton said, and is so far the county’s only deal utilizing those credits.
For Dogwood Health Trust to achieve its goals, it will have to strategically leverage as much federal, state and other partner dollars as possible, Grymes said.
Dogwood Health Trust, formed from the $1.5 billion sale of Mission Health to HCA Healthcare in, works through granting, she said, but wants to do more through impact investing with a focus on workforce housing.
“We’re trying to meet our nonprofit partners where they are,” Grymes said. “Now we have the resources to be able to put into these nonprofits to help them do more, but how can we do that strategically as a private foundation?”
By working with counties and municipalities to help funnel funds to organizations so they can grow in a healthy way, she said, and by using federal funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Agriculture, as well as traditional financing with local banks, historic tax credits and Community Development Block Grants.
“We have to have more stock,” said attorney Derek Allen, answering a question from an attendee. “We have to get the units there. We can’t keep up with it at the pace that we’re introducing new stock into the marketplace and that is going to be the number one driver of those rents and those home prices coming down.
It’s also about preserving existing, naturally-occurring affordable housing like mobile home parks, said Andrea Golden, co-director of PODER Emma.
“It really hits home when you think of it in terms of what happens when we don’t,” Barton said.
Nationally, Black household wealth is one-tenth of white household wealth, he said, and 2021 saw some of the highest home value appreciation rates on record, all while white homes appreciate at a greater rate than Black homes do.
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Barton also said the impacts are still felt in Asheville from redlining, a discriminatory banking practice that for decades denied Black people access to financing by mapping areas of credit worthiness based largely on demographics.
“Housing investments are a racial wealth gap issue, they are a health issue, they are a community prosperity issue,” he said. “My last question for you all is, what are we waiting for?”
Asking a question after panelists’ presentations, Dee Williams, president and CEO of nonprofit Eagles’ Wings Community Development Corporation, asked how to change the dynamic and the paradigm in efforts to build more affordable housing and stop gentrification and displacement.
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Williams said during urban renewal, more land was taken from African Americans in Asheville than any other Southeastern state, including about 1,100 homes.
“What we find is that when we come out and try to lead the initiative, even with algorithms and pro formulas, we have a scarcity of resources and support,” she said. “Even though we believe we do have the answers.”
City Council member Antanette Mosley, not on the panel but in attendance, noted that Williams is a member of the county reparations committee, and would help guide those decisions and set short-, medium- and long-term goals.
“What we would like to do would be to provide funding and also land,” Mosley said. “I’m particularly happy about that, because I believe the community that was harmed and most affected should be the very same community that gets to decide what this process looks like.”
Protecting ‘naturally-occurring affordable housing’
Living in Emma for about 15 years following her eviction from downtown Asheville, Golden was a single-parent renter for many years, and one day did the math to find she had paid more than $120,000 in rent during a conversation with neighbors.
That was one of the seeds that grew into PODER Emma, a neighborhood-based organization that works to help neighbors in mobile home parks go from tenants to owners.
Mobile home parks are “one of the only remaining naturally-occurring forms of affordable housing,” largely unsubsidized and housing working people can afford, Golden said.
The group has its own neighborhood-based loan fund and works with property owners to sell to the community, she said, working with residents to get them on a path to ownership, creating financial equity for their families.
“So that same $120,000 that I paid in rent, I could have been building equity for my kids,” Golden said. “And that’s what we were able to do.”
In the park where she lives, the debt was paid off in eight years, and now she has $60,000 in equity for her children, she said.
After working for four years, the organization has more than $2 million of community-owned assets in Emma, and Golden said they hope they’re just getting started.
Too difficult for developers?
“When you make those land use decisions, it’s probably the most intimate most impactful thing that politicians do in your life, and that’s saying a lot,” said Allen, attorney with Asheville firm Allen Stahl Kilbourne.
One of the biggest impediments to bringing new housing stock to the community is the inability to get projects through the pipeline in an infill capacity, in a timely capacity, or even get them through the pipeline at all, he said.
Allen shared a typical schedule for the city’s conditional zoning process, showing an eight-month slate of meetings and submittals, but said that assumes no delays, no opposition and no continuances.
That’s not how it works, he said, advising his clients to expect a timeline closer to 13 months between application submittal and permits to move any dirt.
In Buncombe County, it’s a special use permit process, requiring a quasi-judicial hearing process and a more stringent review that necessitates applicants hiring of an attorney, Allen said, noting one project that’s been working its way through the county Board of Adjustment since October.
“It is a very long, expensive, and here’s a key part: uncertain process,” he said. “And that uncertainty leads to folks not doing projects inside of the city, then the county, and now we’re talking about what Geoffrey was talking about, the sprawl piece.”
Developers then look to places like Woodfin, Weaverville, Hendersonville, Waynesville or Canton, Allen said, leading to more sprawl and more traffic.
“Inside of our city limits right now, we have far too few construction sites that are up,” he said.
He noted the Avery project downtown that was close to being tabled for a year, and a mixed-use project along the Reed Creek Greenway, which has been in the works for six years.
“Any time you have an infill project, what I hear first is ‘what are the neighbors going to say, what kind of neighbor opposition are we going to have?'” Allen said.
That’s one reason he was so excited to participate in the forum, because he’s never had a project where a group came in and told decision makers they want the project because the community needs housing.
“No one ever shows up from outside that community and says ‘you know what, we need these units, I’m sorry that it’s going beside you let’s try to figure out a way to make it work,'” Allen said. “No one ever shows up.”
He urged the dozens in attendance March 23 to show up.
“I’m coming to this educated group of advisory leaders in our community and I’m saying when you see those projects and you see them get sideways, learn about it, and if you’re so inclined come show up and say ‘you know what, housing and housing stock is important to us,'” Allen said.
Derek Lacey covers environment, growth and development for the Asheville Citizen Times. Reach him at DLacey@gannett.com or 828-417-4842 and find him on Twitter @DerekAVL.