Asheville shows proposals for affordable housing on city-owned land

Rev. Jim Abbott
GRAND PLANS: The Rev. Jim Abbott of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in the East End/Valley Street neighborhood looks at the rendering of a proposed affordable housing complex on city-owned property on Charlotte Street. Photo by Leslie Boyd

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.”

Under development

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.”

Money matters

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.”

Open house comments
WORTHY OF NOTE: People attending the Nov. 14 open house were encouraged to leave questions and comments. Photo by Leslie Boyd

Neighborly goals

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.”

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15 thoughts on “Asheville shows proposals for affordable housing on city-owned land

  1. Enlightened Enigma

    It’s time for city to stop worrying about ‘providing’ affordable housing when we already have more subsidized public housing per capita than any other city in NC, even though Asheville is only the 7th largest city. Segregationist democrackkks took the poor people properties from them and created many segregated government plantations all over town and potentially surrounding development is diminished by their poorly managed and criminal presence in otherwise decent nice neighborhoods. The Housing Authority of Asheville is Asheville’s BIGGEST PROBLEM that no one ever talks about. Heinous operation that the rest of us must endure and tolerate daily.
    The Housing Authority never works to mainstream people. They only want to build more new ghettos because their federal paychecks depend on volume! We have PLENTY of affordable housing all over the city! It’s time to educate our ‘leaders’ to include these existing apartments in Asheville affordable housing options, because it IS! It’s time for city to REQUIRE some accountability FROM the Housing Authority. Over 6500 public housing units, plus thousands of other Section 8 vouchers going into landlords’ pockets. So when you hear whining about the need for affordable housing, ask them if they believe if thousands of subsidized AVL housing rentals are affordable? Have they looked into how and why SOME people get subsidized housing and others do not? Why has public housing become a reproductive destination for generations of some local people ?

    • BRO

      public housing and affordable housing are not the same thing, not even close. And public housing has a waiting list of 2 -3 years, which is a long time to be homeless. We don’t have plenty of affordable housing in this town, because most housing is governed by the free market.

      • Enlightened Enigma

        Oh yes they are…housing is housing and it’s time to stop denying that we have WAY more than our share of affordable housing here…fact is, if you can’t afford to live in Asheville, time to relocate to a cheaper place to live! Public housing may have waiting lists but some get in ahead of others all day long…it’s a heinous mess…the housing authority of Asheville…

        • luther blissett

          There should be more public housing. Fact is, your thinking is absurd.

        • BRO

          Sorry “enlightened” – you are just wrong. We do not have way more than our share of affordable housing – and no where else in the nation does either. Usually if people can’t afford to live somewhere, they also do not have the thousands of dollars required to move somewhere else (and additionally give up potential support systems). did you know that this is a problem all over the nation?

        • My Name is Vengeance

          Pretty sure the enigma is that they are anything other than enlightened. Fact is , if you can’t afford to pay and house the folks whose services and labor you depend on in a reasonable manner, if you can’t afford to treat the less fortunate with a modicum of compassion and respect, if you can’t open your mind to the idea that viable communities must support and serve members of all means and walks of life, you should go live in whatever Ayn Rand nonsense fantasy island populated by solitary individuals fending off the clutches of the unwashed masses that will take you. You will not be missed.

  2. jason

    Where’s the outrage from the public for the proposed 550 units on S. Charlotte and 309 on Biltmore Ave? Where are all these people going to park? The roads just can’t handle that many new cars…or the infrastructure is too old for this many cars. What about the traffic? Come on Asheville, you can’t pick and choose which developments are going to cause traffic problems and inconvenience you.

    • Lulz

      LOL the loons are telling you they want congestion so they can implement road diets and pursue mass transit. Wonder how many of them will be at the bus stops in the snow? Or ride their bikes? Zero. And you know why? Because the majority of them don’t have to. The peons otoh well if they’re foolish enough to support leftist, they can deal with it. Nobody said being taught lessons shouldn’t hurt.

      • My Name is Vengeance

        Lulz, I bet there are a number of folks that would like to be punished with reasonably priced housing in walkable living neighborhoods close to where they work. Poor dumb bastards.

    • My Name is Vengeance

      Perhaps there is no outrage because sensible folks realize that having affordable workforce housing would reduce the strain on that infrastructure by allowing someone to live near enough to work to make walking, biking, or taking public transportation practical. Or perhaps they realize affordable housing for people that actually live and work here will merge with the few that have managed to hang on in the nearby neighborhoods like the East End/Valley Street and help strengthen back a community that includes folks other than moneyed elites able to afford to live downtown. Perhaps they realize that the level of impact of developments like this is offset by the benefits it would provide to actual residents of this town, rather than development that only serves the already over-met wants of the tourist trade and hotel developers.

  3. Curious

    Is there a website where the proposed plans for these developments can be seen? (Having them in the online edition of MX would be nice.)

  4. jason

    These places will be falling to the ground within a year. These people do not take care of anything or value anything. This is a waste of tax payer money.

    • My Name is Vengeance

      Jason, seriously? These people? I don’t think you can blow your racist dog whistle any harder if you tried. Interesting that now you have switched your baseless arguments from faux concern about infrastructure to slandering Asheville’s poor and working class citizens. No surprise, really, as it fits right in with all the other spurious trolling nonsense you spout on a regular basis. It’s pretty clear that you read only the headline of a story and maybe a sentence or two and then sound off with some inane MAGAt talking point or freshman debate team rhetorical tripe.

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