A roof over one’s head: affordable housing overhaul moves forward

What’s needed to solve Asheville’s housing crunch? Fewer development hurdles, a city “land bank” to preserve property for affordable housing, more density and a hard “target number” for units that need to be created each year— these are some of the ideas to come out of a recent meeting of the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee.

Gathered with city staff around a conference room table, committee members discussed the proposals at its Jan. 9 meeting. Over the past few months, the committee interviewed 15 local developers, pulling together a detailed list of why they’re hesitant to build affordable housing.

Committee Chair Lindsey Simerly broached the idea of a city development corporation or “land bank” that could ease the problem of land costs for potential developers of affordable housing. She also advocated increasing the housing trust fund, a comprehensive review of developments, and a target number of housing units needed.

Committee member Robin Raines also backed the development corporation and more density, and added that she’d like to see the city chip in for improved infrastructure near affordable housing and reduce fees for affordable housing developers.

She also called for eliminating some of the city’s rules on lot size and setbacks from the road, which she feels “restricts a lot of land from being used for affordable housing.”

Barber Melton, a committee member and the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, said the group didn’t have any problems with the land bank, but cautioned the other committee members about the increasing scarcity of developable land and the need to preserve it for business too.

“We don’t need stuff that’s huge, but we’ve got to save some land for industry,” she says. “The people moving here have to have a place to work too.”

Scott Dedman, a committee member and executive director of Mountain Housing Opportunities, said that a target number is needed, and the scale of the issue is dire.

“I’m partly joking, but maybe we should use the number of inquiries for our next 60-unit housing development,” Dedman said. “At Larchmont [an MHO development near Merrimon Avenue], that was 2,500 inquiries and 1,000 applications for 60 apartments. That’s the scale of the need, for just one property in one location just a year ago.”

He also expressed some concerns that a land bank might leave less funds to back projects that are ready to build. Simerly mentioned that she believed both approaches were necessary.

Committee member Jayden Gurney, of the Asheville Housing Authority, agreed, observing that “this is going to be an issue for years to come.” For his part, Gurney suggests loosening rules on the size of accessory apartments to allow for more development in existing neighborhoods and more rehabilitation of existing buildings. He noted that the current rules “don’t make a lot of sense [and] eliminate a lot of areas like Shiloh and Kenilworth from having more affordable housing,” he said, adding that it could help increase affordable housing rented by small landlords.

Committee member William Irby said that one way to help solve the lack of affordable housing is to create more housing, period.

“There’s a lot of overpriced housing in Asheville now that should be affordable, but because of the scarcity of units, people have jumped it up into a scale that’s not affordable,” he said. “If we put more good, solid housing in, that’s going to force some of those units to become affordable again.”

Heather Dillashaw, head of the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative, emphasized that “there’s more than one type of affordable housing,” and that the diversity of needs must be kept in mind in any changes that are made, as “just building one kind of affordable housing doesn’t get us where we need to go.” It’s not until this year, she noted, that the affordable housing trust fund received an application for a project that doesn’t require criminal background or credit checks.

Simerly added that staunch neighborhood opposition to affordable housing means that developers are often shy to include people with previous criminal records or financial issues who are trying to turn over a new leaf, leaving significant populations out in the cold.

“When you’ve already got significant opposition from the neighborhood, one of the ways to soften that is to say we’re only going to put the most upstanding citizens next to you,” Simerly said. “That means they’re not going to put someone with mental health issues, or who’s been to jail one time, that’s even been picked up once. It’s something that’s known as a real problem, and when we’re setting these targets we need to jeep that in mind. When there’s such a shortage, the hard-to-house go to the bottom of the list.”

Committee member Mae Creadick said that the city could help address some of this problem by offering a “hard-to-house bonus” and working to “strengthen incentives significantly.”

Dedman observed that while the issue is daunting, if the combined changes could “reduce the cost per unit considerably and once you start doing that, you’re on your way.”

Committee members will take many of their suggestions, refine them further and present them to Asheville City Council’s Feburary retreat. Staff noted that the new Council plans to make promoting affordable housing a top priority this year.

But the committee members didn’t all agree on the ways to go forward. Melton, as a representative of CAN, responded that the group will vigorously oppose any such moves. “Any recommendation that lessens the input of the neighborhoods CAN is not in favor of at all. Every meeting we hear from somebody who’s ticked off because they pay taxes and feel like they should have input.”

Simerly replied that she would advocate curbing neighborhood groups’ power to stall building projects by eliminating discretionary review and doing away with the protest petitions that can mean some developments must muster a supermajority of Council for approval.

As for CAN’s opposition, “we would expect nothing less,” Simerly said, as the members packed up their papers and concluded the meeting.

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