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?”
High demand (Asheville’s livability) + limited land and housing supply = expensive housing.
Why is the supply limited? Buildable land is scarce and expensive. The combined effect of national, state and local policies is to encourage single-family homes over multifamily, particularly sprawling exurban and suburban houses.
Is it sensible or fair to complain about the cost of midrise, multifamily housing when fire codes require redundant systems like noncombustible materials, two sets of fireproof exit stairs, fire separation between all occupants, full sprinkler systems and fireproof doors, while allowing children in North Asheville to sleep on the third floor of a wooden house with wooden stairs directly over two large, mobile, gasoline storage devices parked in the first-floor garage? Is it wise to allow NIMBYs to claim a “right” not to share “their” road or “their” view, thereby forcing “our” affordable housing farther out into the county and farther away from jobs and necessary services? Basically, the affordable housing crisis is “the chickens coming home to roost” after decades of policies that generate sprawl-oriented development — developing our land as if there were an unlimited supply — making two (or even three) cars a family necessity and climate change an accidental consequence.
Why is the focus on “affordable housing” and not on “affordable living”? The official “affordable housing” definitions focus narrowly on rent; transportation costs are ignored. Around the turn of the 20th century, most families spent 5 percent or less of their income on transportation. Today we spend 25 percent on transportation, and two lower-income wage earners living in “affordable” housing out in the county need to spend 30 to 40 percent just to be able to get to work. National studies have shown that over 30 percent of the jobs in cities like ours are within 3 miles of downtown. And with the hospital, UNC Asheville, A-B Tech and the Asheville Mall all within a 1.5 miles of downtown, our percentages are probably higher. Two wage earners living near the center of our city have a realistic likelihood of being able to ditch one (or even two cars), walk or bike to work, and actually live affordably. However, there’s a huge shortage of middle-income, workforce housing in the city center. About 45 percent of downtown residential units are upscale or luxury housing. About 40 percent are subsidized affordable housing. Only about 15 percent are for people who aren’t wealthy but don’t qualify for subsidies.
One solution (certainly not the only one) would be to actively encourage more density in the city’s center, where people might actually be able to walk to work or, from the central bus station, catch just one bus to get to work. Imagine the effect on density and affordable living if our zoning encouraged affordable and middle-income, workforce, multifamily housing within a half-mile (or even 1 mile) radius of downtown. Affordable and workforce housing definitions should factor in realistic transportation costs and recognize the limitations that our lack of density forces on our transit system. We need to stop kidding ourselves that someone living in “affordable” housing near a bus line can make a daily commute involving two separate buses, both running once an hour. The limited housing subsidies we have available should be spent on housing near the center. And, for extra credit, our community would really be doing something to address the connected challenges of affordability and global warming.
— Pat Whalen
Public Interest Projects Inc.