Affordable housing essay: Let’s subsidize real affordability

Cindy Visnich Weeks, Vice President, Director of Community Investments, Mountain Housing Opportunities Inc. Photo courtesy of Mountain Housing Opportunities

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?”

Affordable housing is part of a community’s total economic development picture. Yet in Asheville, the two are viewed and treated separately. Economic development officials work on providing more jobs for residents; housing officials work on providing more homes for the workforce. The underlying economic fact is that the single biggest monthly expense for any worker is typically their rent or mortgage payment. And in Asheville, wages are low, and housing costs are high. That’s the basic disconnect.

If we broke down all the jobs we’ve recruited in the last five years, how many of those workers are being paid a living wage? We hear about the “average wages,” but we can’t keep assessing the jobs we recruit based on the averages. We need to consider the actual wage rates so we can see if these new jobs will enable workers to support a home and a family. It’s OK if most of them don’t, because that’s the reality of our tourism economy. However, we have to be brave enough to ask that question.

Let’s take a hard look at the past five years and ask: How many jobs did we create? What will each of these jobs pay? How much did we pay the corporations bringing the jobs, and therefore, how much was paid to subsidize each one? How many of those jobs won’t pay enough to allow the worker to afford a modest apartment or home? How many workforce homes did we create in that same five-year period? How much funding did we use to incentivize the construction of true workforce housing?

Government funds are used to boost both job growth and affordable/workforce housing: All we have to do is match them up. For every job created with a subsidy that doesn’t provide a living wage, let’s provide a genuinely affordable home.

— Cindy Visnich Weeks
Vice President, Director of Community Investments
Mountain Housing Opportunities Inc.

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15 thoughts on “Affordable housing essay: Let’s subsidize real affordability

  1. Curious

    The writer is stating the problem clearly and asking important questions. Does she ever provide any solutions? She concludes, “Government funds are used to boost both job growth and affordable/workforce housing: All we have to do is match them up. For every job created with a subsidy that doesn’t provide a living wage, let’s provide a genuinely affordable home.” How does “we” (and who is “we”) “match them up?” Who is it she is proposing “provide a genuinely affordable home”? How does this work? Specifics, please.

  2. Scott Dedman

    The writer’s development programs at Mountain Housing Opportunities are completing 109 homes this year in Buncombe and Madison Counties. Here is part of the photo caption from another article also in today’s issue of MountainX: MHO, a private, nonprofit housing and community development corporation, is the largest producer of affordable housing west of Charlotte. MHO produces over $10 million each year in affordable and workforce housing development, home lending, housing preservation and neighborhood revitalization. This year, MHO is completing 109 new affordable homes in Leicester, Swannanoa and Mars Hill and preserving over 100 homes for low-income homeowners this year in Asheville and Buncombe County. http://mountainx.com/news/home-cheap-home-affordable-housing-essays-part-two/ More info at mtnhousing.org.

  3. PotteryMan

    If we taught our schoolchildren Calculus like the Japanese do, instead of Pottery and Shop, our (future) workers might actually have a chance in the international market.

  4. Henry

    Shorter Cindy Weeks: let’s continue to subsidize affordable housing so that I will have a job and my company can grow.

    Fun fact: the apartments that MHO builds with city and county tax payer dollars, combined with federal tax credits, are only restricted to be affordable for 20 years.

    Then MHO just happens to own an apartment complex in downtown Asheville without any restrictions.

    I’m absolutely positive that MHO would NEVER sell those apartments and make a fat profit. I just know that they’ll keep those homes affordable for as long as the buildings are standing. Right, MHO?

    • Scott Dedman

      Over 15,000 families in Buncombe County pay over 30% of their income for rent; most of them pay over 50% of their income for rent. At MHO we add 60-100 new homes each year to the local housing supply (this year more than 100). When we get to 300+ (we hope within a few years) we’ll begin to think that we’re almost starting to catch up with the local market need and demand. We’ve never sold an apartment or made it unaffordable, and we don’t intend to, but we have bought apartments from private landlords and developers to keep that from happening when their affordability requirements ended (usually 30 year requirements). We’re a local nonprofit corporation in the business of affordable housing. It’s what we do.

        • Henry

          I guess that’s why you make $100,000 a year, isn’t Scott? And according to your own return, you only put in 40 hours per week!

          http://pdfs.citizenaudit.org/2014_12_EO/27-1087774_990_201312.pdf

          MHO also realizes a substantial developer’s fee for their work (read: profit) – which is paid out of their taxpayer dollars they receive.

          Remember when Habitat collected developer’s fees for their work? Me either.

          You also don’t contribute to the local property tax, as you have 5 year exemptions for your new buildings that provide affordable housing, and your apartments held under the 501(c)3 label are tax free too.

          So, you make $100,000 a year, all while having the government subsidize the entire cost of your buildings, and then don’t pay taxes on the real estate. Oh, and your employees have a pension system too.

          Whatever we do, let’s keep subsidizing these people, they’re not rich enough yet.

  5. Robert Malt

    “Government funds” no such thing. Let’s be honest and call it what it is…money from taxpayers. These schemes have never worked…and never will. For every person “helped”, there are many more people at the margin who are pushed into unaffordability by increased taxes to fund these schemes.

  6. Paul Szurek

    Cindy–in response to your question, basically all the jobs recruited by the Economic Development Coalition, and all those for which the City and County have provided incentives, pay substantially more than a living wage. These are basically high-productivity advanced manufacturing jobs, with a lot of responsibility for machines and materials. In addition, the incentives are performance based (i.e., no jobs, no capital investment, no incentive earned) and pay for themselves over time via additional tax base that would otherwise not be here.

    Regards,

    Paul

    • Shane Henry

      Where are these factories?
      How many people do they employ?
      What is the mode income of all people employed by these companies you’ve recruited?
      According to YOUR understanding of the Asheville economy, what do you consider a “living wage”?

      • Paul Szurek

        The factories are located in various places in Buncombe County–Enka, Black Mountain, the river area, Vista Industrial Park, Sweeten Creek Industrial Park, Avery Creek, etc.

        Total employment in these recruited factories is approximately 2,000 right now and is expected to grow another 3,000 over the next five years as plant lines are built out and order books grow.

        I have seen various calculations of what constitutes a “living wage”. The low-end wage in these recruited jobs (the average would be much higher) is in the $16 to $18 per hour range. That is well above all the estimates of “living wage” that I have seen.

        Regards.

        • Shane Henry

          What are the names and addresses of these factories?

          I’m a life long resident, I have heard about all the factories that close over the years but i’very heard very little about any new ones opening. Let alone any that actually pay a living wage to all their employees

          • Paul Szurek

            I am away from detailed data of all the names and addresses, but here are a few off the top of my head: Linamar, Keerfott, Jacob Holm, NyproNordisk, Borg Warner, New Belgium, AVL Technologies, GE Aviation . . . you could probably look up addresses pretty easily.

            You are correct that manufacturing jobs declined over a period of decades as furniture manufacturing and textiles operations moved overseas, at one point falling below, I believe, 17,000 in the MSA. They now exceed 19,000 once again. Some of the most advanced industrial parts and products in the country are produced here in Asheville, such as satellite communication equipment, engine parts for the newest, most fuel efficient jet engines made out of new materials like ceramic matrix composite, truck axle systems, engine blocks for large trucks and equipment, sophisticated gear parts for transmissions with very detailed tolerances, non-woven fabrics, etc. The difference between these jobs and the old textile jobs is that the average equipment investment per employee is somewhere along the line of 10 to 20 times what it was in that earlier era of manufacturing, meaning each employee now has dramatically more responsibility and productivity . . . and pay.

            If you are looking for a job and feel you are a good fit, even if you might need some refresher training at AB Tech, I would encourage you to contact these companies and inquire about opportunities. Or attend one of the job fairs periodically sponsored by these and other employers (the Economic Development Coalition has an annual job fair during the Christmas holidays as well).

  7. 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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