Affordable housing essay: How badly do we want it?

Robin Merrell, Pisgah Legal Services Photo courtesy of Pisgah Legal Services

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?”

Here at Pisgah Legal Services, we talk to thousands of people every year who pay too much for rent, live too far from work and/or live in substandard conditions. We see that our local affordable housing problem is complex and will take creative, multidimensional solutions.

The solution to the affordable housing problem is political and community will. Everyone — families, neighborhood groups, politicians, nonprofits, business leaders, etc. — must commit to making affordable housing a priority and evaluate every decision based on how it affects affordable housing.

Here are some approaches that can have an impact quickly:

  • Significantly increase density in zoning districts (when a developer can build more units per acre, the units cost less).
  • Make affordable housing at least 15 to 20 percent of every multifamily development.
  • Incentivize affordable housing development and make it easy for developers to build it. Instead of creating complicated regulations, simplify them.
  • Put 1 cent of the city’s tax revenue into the Housing Trust Fund. Establish a similar county fund.
  • Waive all fees for affordable housing development; increase fees for market-rate development.
  • Work with employers to create housing on underutilized land, and/or funding streams that can subsidize employees’ housing costs.
  • Develop new strategies and try those that have worked elsewhere.
  • A key part of the solution is having the Chamber of Commerce use some of the room occupancy tax for affordable housing. Tourism is a big local industry, and the workers that support it deserve safe, decent housing.

Some elected officials have proposed building affordable housing on the outskirts and busing low- and moderate-income workers to their jobs rather than developing it in convenient, central locations throughout our community. There’s no denying the link between transportation and housing costs, or the need for more transportation choices. But pushing large categories of people to the fringes of the community is not an acceptable option. It is segregation, and it hurts everyone. Our community benefits in many ways from having all types of people living together in communities.

— Robin Merrell and the
Pisgah Legal Services Housing Team


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14 thoughts on “Affordable housing essay: How badly do we want it?

  1. Jaded Local

    How badly do we want it? Not very.

    All of the things listed on that list require a political will that just isn’t there and the idea that the Chamber of Commerce will ever agree to allow any of the room tax to go to anything other than the old boy and gal inbreeding network known as the Tourism Development Authority is laughable at best.

    All over town people have sings in their yards advocating for another park downtown. But for more affordable housing? Nothing other than at least 20 years of hand wringing.

    This town and community has made its priorities known, more hotels, more luxury condos, clamoring for another park downtown just a block or two from one. But affordable housing? All talk, no action.

    • Henry

      Thank Gordon Smith, Esther Manheimer and most of the rest of Council for passing the downtown master plan that allowed all of these hotels to bypass City Council. Cecil voted against it.

      Gordon wanted to dodge a political animal of being seen as anti-development, so he rammed through the mater plan that would keep him from having to vote on all of these new hotels.

      Gordon keeps lying and saying all of this city revenue can go towards affordable housing, yet the Housing Trust Fund is barely above what is was when Gordon first got elected, despite the fact that the City Budget has increased by over $20,000,000 over the last five years.


  2. Henry

    I wonder why Robin never mentions that she lives in Madison County – once of the least dense places in North Carolina.

    How wonderful is it that we have someone who likely has a sprawling back yard and nice 40 minute commute into town telling us poor locals just how we need to spend our tax dollars and live our lives – which Robin doesn’t have to contribute to, I might add. Madison’s taxes are a lot less than Asheville’s.

    Robin, you’re free to move to downtown Asheville and live in one of these density buildings that you claim to support, and start contributing to our tax base. Actions speak louder than words.

    • NFB

      “I wonder why Robin never mentions that she lives in Madison County – once of the least dense places in North Carolina.”

      Probably because it is more affordable than Buncombe. Lots of people who work in Asheville are priced out of living here.

      • Henry

        It’s hypocritical to tell people in one location how to live and what to do with their county/city government when you aren’t subjected to the same set of requirements.

    • Harry

      Aside from your anonymous personal attack on the Xpress contributer and your typos (“mater plan” — is that Latin for mother, or southern for tomato), we’re looking for a point in your mean spirited remarks.

  3. Jim

    Sheesh, do you people not get that housing is affordable……… outsiders, mainly retirees from the north, with big fat government pensions and bank accounts? People are being gentrified out of their neighborhoods now BECAUSE of government. Namely in property taxes for redundant government to employ people who are paid more, yet have no valuable skills. Go search and pay for a document at city hall and by the time you’re finished, you’ve seen at least 3 people. Think about that.

    Growing up, Montford was a dump. Houses were in disrepair and cheap to buy. Go buy one now.

    • Jim

      One last thing to add, no one in their right mind will purchase a property to lose value. Especially now when offers are above asking price. Only unrealistic people believe in a “community will” to undermine market values and why they’ll keep complaining about affordability while getting plenty of nods but no real action. Ever.

    • luther blissett

      “–with big fat government pensions and bank accounts? ”

      Ah, the cranky whine of somebody who got screwed by his boss all his life and has resentful fantasies about those who didn’t.

      • Jim

        Asheville is a haven for retirees. Can you afford to buy property here for more than asking price and dump another 50K in remodeling? Who can?

        The only cranky whine from me is the 5K in property taxes I pay. For absolutely nothing in return.

  4. Native and local

    Great plan from Pisgah Legal, they are in the trenches and understand the complexities. We need to pay attention to what is said and not said here. The City needs to step up spending; the County needs to step up spending; the Chamber and Corporations taking advantage of our town need to be more responsible; but no where did she mention increasing the the citizens’ taxes or stopping STRs….this Council is neglecting it’s duties and shifting responsibility on it’so citizens. Mr. Smith is proving to be all talk and unaccountable for his actions and lack there of.

    • Jim

      Yep. And expecting us to pay while the vultures in brewing, tourism, and hospitality plunder at will.

  5. joann

    Been there, done that. Nothing quite like affordable housing to downgrade a city. All the dregs come in, get on the waiting list, generally collecting welfare, actually living with the opposite sex but not reported to authorities. My city has gone from prosperous and thriving to have to drive 15 miles for decent shopping. Also the only ones who prosper are the ones “in the know” – get in early – stay awhile and sell for nice profit.

  6. The first halfway sane essay so far. The crisis is one of total housing supply; not enough units. and it is caused by the UDO, with its single family zoning, unit density limits, residential height limits, setbacks, and parking requirements. Reversing the crisis will require the total defeat of all neighborhood activists.

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