Asheville City Council discusses and debates on first day of retreat

Clustered around tables in the U.S. Cellular Center banquet hall during the first day of their annual retreat, Asheville City Council and city staff deliberated everything from affordable housing to surveillance on Feb. 7. The purpose of the annual retreat is for Council to brainstorm their priorities. Then, city staff will try to turn them into budget items and specific ordinance changes in the coming year. Council’s retreat continues through noon on Saturday, Feb. 8.

Here are a few highlights of their discussions:

Affordable housing

This is a major goal of a number of Council members, and the morning of Feb. 7 started off with some good news on this front. City staff noted that, according to a recent study, the city of Asheville’s government was far more productive creating affordable housing units than comparable local governments across the rest of North Carolina.

However, the same study found that 47 percent of Asheville’s population is “rent-burdened,” meaning that housing costs and utilities take up more than 30 percent of their income. It’s not clear whether the city’s efforts will be enough to overcome what multiple elected officials and staff have described as a “crisis.” Council member Marc Hunt noted that it wasn’t just a matter of poverty, either, commenting, “We’ve got firefighters and police officers that can’t afford to live in the city.”

To encourage affordable-housing development, Hunt suggested revising the city’s rules to allow more density in more places, something that multiple Council members, especially Gordon Smith, have also supported. Other ideas that came up, mirroring some of those recently brought forward by the city’s Affrodable Housing Advisory Committee, such as creating a “land bank” to reserve key properties in certain areas and waiving fees for affordable housing developments upfront rather than giving companies rebates later.

Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball used the Larchmont project on Merrimon Avenue as an example, saying that the city could perhaps do a better job of educating the public to dispel neighborhood opposition to affordable housing.

“With the Larchmont, we heard that the sky’s falling and everything’s going to be horrible,” she noted, but the development had instead worked just fine.

However, with limited time, City Manager Gary Jackson cautioned Council that they were perhaps getting too detailed with the discussion and had broached enough ideas that it would take staff a lot of time to turn them into policy goals. Typically, Council members brainstorm at retreats, coming up with sometimes disparate ideas, and staff develop and prioritize those into a list of action items for Council’s review later. Mayor Esther Manheimer calls it the “the chaos approach.”

After earlier noting that they had upcoming work sessions on the legislature and the budget, Manheimer, when asked what might help further address affordable housing, quipped, “How about a work session?”

Transit

Council decided to make Sunday bus service and extended hours for the city’s transit system a priority. Smith noted that these are major goals of both the ridership and the local business community.

Recently, a group of transit riders, the People’s Voice on Transportation Equality, designated Sunday service a top priority in advocating an overhaul of the existing system.

However, Council member Cecil Bothwell wondered if that might not be the best use of funds, given the constraints the city operates under. Council member Jan Davis also observed that the city faces significant budget restraints that might put limits on attempts to expand transit service.

Poverty

Hunt added a whole new area to the city’s strategic plan, saying he feels a serious push is needed to solve the “deeply entrenched cycle of poverty,” especially in Asheville’s public housing.

Specifically, he wants the city to take a more active role in working with the Asheville Housing Authority and the Asheville City Schools to “disperse pockets of poverty” and improve public education. Manheimer noted that, broadly, Hunt was talking about “the empowerment of the underprivileged.” Smith suggested the goal be “economic mobility.”

Bothwell said the issue is “a really gnarly knot” tied up with larger issues of the war on drugs and the prison system.

“Middle-class people in Montford go buy drugs from poor people, but they aren’t the ones going to prison,” he said.

Surveillance and law enforcement

On the law enforcement front, Davis asserted that the city needs to seriously tackle graffiti, female toplessness, panhandling and public drunkenness, especially in downtown. Manheimer said she had heard more residents from all over the city complain about cars speeding through neighborhoods.

One possible measure is more cameras in the area, something the Asheville Police Department and city staff have said is a prioirty. Bothwell said that he was “generally against surveillance on civil liberties grounds,” but if cameras in specific “graffiti hot spots” or at intersections where speeding is common could catch criminals, they might work.

Smith, however, noted that he had “a lot of concerns about surveillance. I’d need to know a lot more.”

Hunt said that the APD’s revised “community policing approach” has led to better interactions with the community, and “I’d like to see that continue to be priority.”

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