Michael Blair moved to Asheville a few weeks ago to start a new job and was surprised to see how much apartments cost in the city. Fortunately, his wife, who has lived here before, knew to look for apartments in older buildings, and they landed a three-bedroom apartment they could afford.
But Blair finds himself in the minority among his new co-workers — his job is community development director for Asheville city government. About 75 percent of city employees live outside the city limits, according to Paul D’Angelo, city housing and economics specialist.
Housing that is within the financial means of the average worker in Asheville has been in short supply for years and is becoming increasingly difficult to find as building costs continue to rise. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual income in the city is $39,918, or just over $19 per hour.
For someone making that salary, the federally recommended maximum spending of 30 percent of income for housing works out to $995 on rent and utilities monthly. The average Asheville rent, often not including utilities, is $1,148.
Blair arrived just in time to be part of the city’s push to increase the supply of affordable housing. In 2016, Asheville voters approved a $25 million bond to address the issue, $15 million of which is earmarked for repurposing city land into housing for middle- and lower-income families. At a Nov. 14 open house at the city’s Public Works Building, he reviewed proposals for up to 550 new affordable rental units on those properties.
“It’s a desirable place,” Blair said of his newly adopted city at the open house. “People want to come here, and that demand makes affordable housing more difficult to find.”
The three parcels being considered for affordable housing are on South Charlotte Street, where the city now has its Public Works Garage and Fleet Management facilities; on Biltmore Avenue at the old Matthews Ford site; and on Riverside Drive. Although the city does not currently own the Biltmore site, it has the option to purchase the property from Duke Energy for $5.3 million at any time until April 2024.
D’Angelo said the Riverside Drive site, which lies in the flood plain and is not as large as the other two, likely won’t be prioritized for development. The city-owned property, also known as the “Ice House,” was recently the focus of a Center for Craft and Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce study that recommended its transformation into affordable housing and studio space for the city’s creative community.
In an email to Xpress after the open house, city spokesperson Polly McDaniel said the Ice House redevelopment would be discussed at City Council’s meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 11. “The city of Asheville was a partner in the study and recognizes the opportunity for the creation of affordable live and work space for creatives at 91 Riverside Drive,” she wrote. “However, Biltmore and Charlotte provide more cost-effective affordable housing for a broader section of the community.”
Vera Clay was one of about 40 people who came to the open house to learn more. She has worked with low-income families for much of her career and is currently with Community Action Opportunities, a nonprofit. She’s worried about how quickly construction costs are rising and whether the housing will be affordable for people making less than $15 an hour.
“We have to get creative,” she said. “We have to do something new, because if you keep looking at what you’ve always done, you’re looking at things staying the same.”
Architectural firm Lord Aeck Sargent presented development plans for both Biltmore Avenue and Charlotte Street, accompanied by a range of scenarios for the city to subsidize the housing. At market value, the proposed units would rent for $1,346 per month on average, while subsidized units could rent for as little as $786 per month, a 41 percent discount.
Neither development would offer units for sale, unlike the project on city-owned 360 Hilliard Ave. approved by City Council on Nov. 13. Although that project was originally slated for rentals, the developer said 25-40 percent increases in construction costs since its previous approval in June 2017 made renting the units economically infeasible.
Under the most expensive proposal presented at the open house, a third of the apartments in the new projects would be “heavily” subsidized to be affordable for people making 60-80 percent of the area median income of $61,300 (no more than $49,040, or roughly $23.50 an hour), while two-thirds would be “moderately” subsidized for those making 80-120 percent of AMI (no more than $73,560, or roughly $35.37 an hour). The least costly plan for the city would moderately subsidize only 20 percent of the units.
“It will be up to the city to decide, and of course, they can use whatever scenario they see fit. These are just examples,” said Bob Begle, principal at Lord Aeck Sargent.
Joshua Bell, owner of Bell Engineering, said either site — Charlotte Street, which would have about 550 units built in two phases at an estimated cost of about $94 million, or Biltmore Avenue, which would have 309 apartments at an estimated cost of $49 million — would put a dent in the housing shortage for middle-income families.
“The Biltmore site would be easier to build on because we just have to demolish the building that’s there,” Bell explained. “The Charlotte Street site would have to have the facilities there relocated, and that would take a little longer.”
The Rev. Jim Abbott of St. Matthias Episcopal Church and neighbor Helen Lindberg attended the open house looking for features that would make the Charlotte Street development pedestrian-friendly. Both are members of the East End/Valley Street Neighborhood, which once included houses where the proposed development would be built.
“This was all housing here,” Abbott said, motioning to the map along Charlotte Street. “This used to be a two-lane road that connected the community, called Valley Street. When they knocked down the housing as part of urban renewal, they widened Valley Street and renamed it South Charlotte Street, effectively dividing the community.”
But Abbott and Lindberg both approved of the proposed development. “They’ll have to find a way to slow traffic through there, but it’s good to see housing coming back to the neighborhood,” Lindberg said. The current speed limit on South Charlotte Street is 45 mph.
Other attendees wrote notes with questions and comments about public spaces, traffic issues and more, but most seemed positive about the proposed developments. Comments cited the fact that both sites are on public transit lines and within walking distance of downtown shops and restaurants, reducing the need to drive for people who work downtown. All comments will be shared with the city’s Housing and Community Development Committee.
Randall Barnett, a real estate broker with The Buyer’s Agent in Asheville, said he would like to see the Charlotte Street development built. “I voted for the bond in 2016,” he said. “We need the housing badly.”
Barnett said he’s not sure how affordable the housing will be for low-income workers, but he believes the development will have a positive effect on the housing stock in the city. “It’s an experiment,” he said. “We’ll learn from it, and I’m feeling pretty positive about it overall.”