Affordable housing essay: Consider the bigger picture

Vicki Meath, Executive Director, Just Economics Photo courtesy of Vicki Meath

Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series in which local experts were asked: “What would it take to solve the Asheville area’s affordable housing problem?”

We’re a town in crisis, and few residents need yet another study to tell them that housing that is genuinely affordable by much of Asheville’s workforce is scarce or nonexistent. So what needs to happen?

Whether or not you are personally struggling with affordable housing, this issue affects the very fabric of our town, and we need to understand where the practical solutions lie. As residents, we have to start thinking about what’s best for the whole community, even if it isn’t popular in our particular neighborhood. We need to understand the transition from what was once public housing to Section 8 vouchers, and that many people with those vouchers have no place to use them, due to the overall lack of affordable housing. Besides pushing local elected officials to take bold action, we can participate in creative community solutions that are beyond those leaders’ scope — organizing community land trusts, supporting innovative ideas and educating ourselves about complex solutions.

The business community and elected officials need to understand the impact that low wages, underfunded public transit and nonexistent affordable housing have on workforce availability. Just Economics’ living wage (currently $12.50 per hour, or $11 per hour with employer-provided health insurance) is the bare minimum of what it takes for a single individual to afford a one-bedroom apartment in the county. It’s a better starting place, not an end goal. And meanwhile, a high percentage of downtown workers aren’t making even this bare minimum wage, lack full-time work or have dependents. So what happens to Asheville when there’s nowhere near the city that workers can afford to live? We need the business community to embrace a living wage and support infrastructure investments for the workforce.

We need to advocate for things that city and county leaders can actually do. Most of the options for slowing the rise in housing costs, including things like rent control, aren’t currently legal in North Carolina. And many of the options for increasing supply, such as tax breaks and subsidies, are extremely costly yet yield limited benefits. Nonetheless, we must push forward. It may be time for Asheville, regardless of the legal threats, to push the envelope on mandatory inclusionary zoning, which is used in 44 other states. The city and county can work together to provide effective incentives for creating affordable housing along major corridors and extending transit lines beyond the city limits. All our local governments need to invest more resources in increasing the affordable housing stock and slowing cost growth.

Basically, it’s going to take all hands on deck to change this dangerous trajectory of unaffordability and extreme gentrification. As an entire community, we need to be informed about the issues, be cognizant of the big picture, roll up our sleeves and get to work.

— Vicki Meath
Executive Director
Just Economics

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