The Buncombe County Young Democrats and the Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce hosted a forum for Asheville City Council candidates Oct. 23 at Habitat Tavern and Commons, stirring a conversation centered on one of Asheville’s largest employment demographics: the service industry.
According to the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, nearly 28 percent of Asheville’s workforce can be found in the hospitality sector. The mission of the Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce group is to improve the economic environment and address human rights concerns for restaurant workers in Asheville.
During the forum, each candidate was allotted 90 seconds to answer each question with a 30-second response time allowed if directly addressed by another candidate.
First-time candidate Kim Roney introduced herself with a reference to her work in the service industry at Richmond Hill Inn, The Admiral, Desoto Lounge and the Mothlight, as well as her community involvement in helping to develop radio station Asheville FM. She characterized herself as “your service industry worker who is running to represent you.”
Dee Williams touted her ownership of and involvement in bars and food carts over the years, while Vijay Kapoor acknowledged his background of bartending for a catering company in Philadelphia before founding a business focused on economic analysis for cities across the country. “[Bartending] gave me a glimpse into the long-hour, low-pay work of the service industry,” he said.
Rich Lee pointed to his time working at a mall before becoming a financial planner. “I see your budgets, I see your incomes. I feel like the country doctor that sees you in the grocery store and knows what you look like in a paper gown, at least financially,” he joked.
The lone incumbent, Gwen Wisler, pointed to her tenure on the council in which she voted to increase funding for transit, as well as her work as a consultant for small businesses. “We all know the issues facing Asheville. We have an economy overly dependent on tourism, and we’ve got continued unacceptable inequity,” she said.
Finally, Sheneika Smith noted her work at Green Opportunities and her experience as a working-class mother in Asheville.
The state and the living wage
The first question addressed the state’s pre-emptive laws restricting cities’ autonomy, particularly in the area of living wage. Candidates were asked to discuss their understanding of these laws and how it informs their strategies to address them.
Kapoor opened by citing his experience as an attorney working with state law in the office of the governor of Pennsylvania, noting that such legislation “forces us to be creative at the local level and pressure companies to work with us.” He also put forth the idea of working within the laws rather than bucking them. “I’m not running to be the city manager, but I am able to push back,” he said.
Smith responded that “wage equity and sustainability is healthy for wealth distribution,” adding that she wants to see a $15-an-hour minimum wage and servers paid $5 an hour, seemingly ignoring the statewide ban on such a practice. She also called out Asheville for not working with cities across the state to push for change, citing the recent victory in litigation over the local watershed as an example.
Wisler said going head-to-head with the state puts a target on Asheville’s back. “We have to be creative and work around those laws,” she said, calling for Asheville to continue being a role model for living wages. Williams said it’s time to stop talking about what we can’t do and focus on what we can do. She highlighted Mission Hospital’s ban-the-box fair hiring movement, saying, “When you can dance with Mission, you can dance with the best of them.”
Lee, noting that he was twice endorsed by AFL-CIO, asked, “What kind of jobs are we creating?” He claimed that many jobs in Asheville can’t sustain people from high school graduation through retirement, and many of the jobs brought into the area are filled by outside workers and not by the local workforce.
Roney claimed that despite the best intentions of the living-wage movement, there is a disparity between a living wage and what she referred to as a “housing wage,” noting that many locals and downtown workers are being pushed out of the city by a lack of affordable housing. She clarified that while a living wage in Asheville is $13 an hour according to Just Economics, to realistically own what the city deems “affordable housing” requires an income of $17-$22 per hour.
The second question was about transportation and the changes brewing with the frequently criticized Asheville Redefines Transit bus system. Smith said that many Green Opportunities graduates have a hard time maintaining jobs because buses don’t run on time or are canceled, and stated her support for fare-free transit. “We should think about ridership programs to increase ridership to attract public and private partnerships and federal grants,” she said. It is worth noting that attracting new riders was the initial intention of the ART overhaul.
Roney, who does not own a car, has ridden the bus since 2006 and serves on the city’s Transit Committee, noted that the debate right now seems to be between spending $3 million on a separate trolley system to benefit tourists or making bus fare free until midnight. She said she would rather see a system that will benefit both tourists and local workers.
Williams cited her work as a transportation contractor and focused on greenways and bike lanes, saying there would be a need for added security for free transit. “There’s no such thing as free,” she said before stating a need for reliable transit and a downtown trolley.
Wisler noted her support for the $3 million increase in funding for transit and called for a community conversation about priorities. She observed that the new contract embeds improved service prerogatives with the new transportation management agency.
Lee noted that the transit issue is how he first got involved in Asheville politics and cited his work in negotiating the first bike lane in West Asheville as well as the push to approve liquidated damages so bus management companies have to pay fees for late buses. He wants to see buses run later and more often and would like bus service extended beyond city limits.
Like Williams, Kapoor was skeptical of the fare-free system. “I’m a budget person,” he said. “I can’t see a way to fund extensions or a fare-free system without a dedicated source.” He questioned whether “current routes are the ones where the jobs are and where people really live now,” and called for a satellite parking system outside the city to bring workers into downtown.
The question of parking
The third question revolved around parking. It was noted that for most restaurant workers, it takes an hour of work to earn enough money to park for the night, which leads many workers to park far away and walk, raising safety concerns.
Lee opened the responses saying, “We have a deficit in parking that falls the hardest on workers.” He said parking fees can account for 10 percent of a worker’s income and proposed partnerships with existing parking decks to provide community parking, as well as looking to French Broad Food Co-op, county decks and private gravel lots as other options.
Kapoor suggested considering spaces like the new Health and Human Services building as well as gravel lots and mentioned the idea of a circulator system that could bus people into the city from parking garages outside of town. “Locals complain about parking issues and don’t visit town because of parking,” he said. And Wisler, too, claimed parking will be alleviated by the new HHS building and noted that she worked hard to get the county to make a concession to allow locals to park there. She also called for discounted parking for locals and pitched the idea of ride-sharing programs for downtown employees, particularly for late night.
Roney recalled attending an N.C. Department of Transportation planning meeting that was held at a venue that couldn’t be accessed by bus. She envisions a future without cars but said she supports the idea of smart parking with different rates for tourists and locals, adding that the city needs a private-public transit center to incentivize tourist use.
Smith said parking has been an issue since the advent of the area’s tourism boom and called for collaborations with the county and the Tourist Development Authority to incentivize more parking options downtown. Williams pushed back, claiming that “public-private partnership is no more than a stopgap” due to a “lack of proper planning for infrastructure.” She also expressed support for a trolley system or circulator that would allow downtown workers to park outside the city as well as land planning and use that would “make connectivity a reality.”
Rents on the rise
Question No. 4 began with the observation that for restaurant workers in the area, rent burdens can be one-third of a monthly budget and that just two or three days of missed work could mean eviction for many. The question was raised as to whether there should be a rental crisis fund.
Out of the gate, Smith called herself a fan of the emergency fund idea, observing that people are moving because of escalating rent prices, but a housing trust fund can keep that talent in town. She added that such a fund would provide immediate relief for the people who have helped to develop the tourism industry from which the city is profiting.
But Kapoor admitted he struggles with the issue. “Conceptually, it makes sense, and I like the idea,” he said, but stressed a need to be clear about qualifying guidelines. “I’m open to the idea, but I would want to work with city staff on criteria and how much we can afford.”
Roney said she couldn’t afford to live in this town if she hadn’t bought a home eight years ago. She wants to bring downtown into the same arena as neighborhoods in terms of short-term rentals, saying that downtown residents are being forced out due to the rise of the short-term rental market. She also proposed providing tax incentives for landlords who offer affordable housing. Williams called for the construction of permanently affordable rental housing priced at 30 percent of median income and stated her support of a crisis housing fund, although she does not want that to be the only thing residents have to rely on.
Lee called the crisis fund a “novel idea; an incentive that puts money into [the hands of] low-income people for once,” adding that “surely that is more inexpensive than what we spend on homelessness.” Ensuring housing security, he noted, would be an avenue for preventing an increase in the city’s homeless population.
Wisler was less enthusiastic about the idea of such a fund, saying she would explore it, but there is “not city infrastructure for that kind of thing.” She suggested that perhaps a nonprofit could take those reins instead. She would rather attack the housing problem on a long-term basis and incentivize developers to focus on creating affordable housing. She also mentioned the possibility of using the city’s $25 million in bond funding to support a community land trust and develop community-owned land.
State of the unions
The fifth query on the docket noted the lack of unions in Asheville and asked what local private organizers could do within the limitations imposed by a right-to-work state.
Williams opened by touting an endorsement by the Teamsters union and stating that she is in favor of unionization, particularly for firefighters and public employees. “Firefighters get paid once a month, and that puts a burden on the families,” she said. She then called to ensure public employee unionization.
Wisler noted that North Carolina lacks the right to encourage city employees to unionize. In light of this, she advocated for contracting privately unionized companies as the city has done with the transit system. Kapoor said he understands the legal framework and wants to play within those boundaries. “It is important, particularly at the city level, to listen to your employees,” he said, calling for the city to tailor employee compensation packages to meet their needs. “You cannot collectively bargain in North Carolina, but it doesn’t mean the city can’t listen to where the employees want to be … and it is incumbent upon the city to do so.”
Smith pushed to look at other campaigns around the state and collaborate with them to develop a plan for Asheville. “Our service industry could benefit from being unionized,” she said. Roney highlighted the bus drivers union and noted that since the law prevents unions from having contract negotiations with the city (but federal law requires union workers for federally funded transit systems), it costs the city more money to have a management company in the middle. She also noted that the lack of metrics on bus performance shows holes in the current system, stating that “metrics benefit the people and the workers.”
Lee pushed back with a reference to all of the unions that are functioning in the city and observed that the city is actually allowed to speak with employees and negotiate. “Workplace democracy is growing daily with employee-owned companies,” he said, suggesting that the city establish a center for workplace democracy to educate employees and give them power.
The sixth question was a little more specific, targeting a rule barring U.S. Cellular Center employees from accepting tips and what could be done to address the issue.
Roney came out with guns blazing, calling it “wage theft” and asserting, “It’s our job on Council to set a positive example,” before noting the prevalence of wage theft in the restaurant industry overall. Lee pointed out his involvement when seasonal city workers were exempted from the living-wage ordinance and declared his solidarity with U.S. Cellular Center employees.
Smith, too, came out swinging. “There’s a lot of exploitation in the service industry,” she said, noting a desire to set a “precedent that values all work.” Kapoor said he has often left tips at the U.S. Cellular Center thinking workers would get them. “It is mind-boggling why they wouldn’t be allowed to keep those tips,” he said, vowing to support those workers.
Williams observed that “values come from the top down.” She called out the U.S. Cellular Center for not only stiffing the staff on tips but for not hiring living-wage cleaning crews. She also called on City Council to “imbue whatever city manager you have with the values and ethics that they need to properly charge each departmental head.” She was called out for not directly answering the question, to which she responded, “I would absolutely make sure they got the tips.”
Wisler said she has asked the city manager to address the issue and hasn’t heard any response. She called for better signage about lack of tipping and said that city policy dictates that city employees should not get gratuities. “You wouldn’t want your police officers or your City Council members to expect tips in return for work,” she pointed out. She also noted that the civic center employees are paid a living wage.
On a lighter note
The final question asked the candidates to name their favorite dish is to cook at home and their favorite dish when out to eat.
Smith said her kids like sushi but tend to go for mac and cheese at home. Wisler’s family favorite is layered tamale casserole at home, but she lamented that the pescatarian diet she and her husband follow is often challenged by the prevalence of bacon on Asheville menus. Lee confesses to only cooking things that he can sautée in 15 minutes and praised downtown restaurant Baba Nahm. Kapoor joked that his kids are “on an all-carb diet,” which translates to a lot of mac and cheese. He also tends to eat a lot of pizza. Williams praised Ingles’ baked wings. Roney, who noted her time working for great chefs around town, said she eats mostly from her garden, making bahn mi breakfast tacos or eating out at living-wage spots like Desoto Lounge, Limones and Blue Dream Curry House.