By several metrics, Asheville’s living wage keeps going up

GOING UP: As the cost of housing in Buncombe County goes up, the living wage follows, according to certifier Just Economics of WNC. Another national certifier has also seen the living wage rise in Buncombe County, even though it considers a more complex calculation of various metrics. Graph by Scott Southwick

No matter whom you ask, the living wage — the minimum amount a single worker must earn to cover basic needs without outside help — is going up in Buncombe County.

According to Just Economics of Western North Carolina, which has been calculating the local living wage since 2008, a single person working full time in Buncombe County needs to make $22.10 per hour to afford basic expenses. That’s a $2 increase over last year’s rate and more than double what it was when it was first calculated 17 years ago.

In fact, it’s rising so quickly, Just Economics added a tiered certification last year so employers could be listed even if they couldn’t quite keep up. The certification program allows businesses to remain in the Living Wage Program if they agree to pay a “pledged rate” of $19 an hour while committing to annual increases toward the new $22.10 rate.

“Certainly, we understand that local businesses that are trying to keep up with the living wage rate are challenged by an increase in labor costs when a lot of multinational corporations  … have advantages to some extent. And so we applaud employers that are keeping up with a living wage rate and employers that are working to do that,” says Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics. “We are working to make sure that we are balancing both what’s feasible for employers [with] what it actually costs for employees to live here.”

Businesses already certified with Just Economics renew their certifications every two years, typically in March, Meath says. If they are certified at the pledged rate, they must increase wages 3% plus inflation each year, until they reach the certified rate.

J.B. McKibben, president of McKibben Equities, which manages 100 hospitality properties around the country, including three in Asheville, says the group sets pay rates differently based on each market.

“Different markets and cities have different priorities, and in Asheville, a living wage has been a focus for the city for some time, along with affordable housing,” he says.

Other living wage calculators, including those from independent certifier Living Wage for US and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, show an increasing living wage in Buncombe County as well.

Rising cost of housing

In Asheville, the biggest driver of unaffordability is housing.

“One of the reasons that this program was initiated to begin with is because the cost of housing is out of alignment with wages in our community, and we still see this. We have the highest fair-market rents in the state. But we do not have wages that are competing with other metropolitan areas like Charlotte, Raleigh and other places,” Meath says.

Fair-market rent, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has increased 87% since 2019 in the Asheville area, an “explosive change” that has significantly affected the local labor market, according to Just Economics.

Fair-market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Buncombe County in 2024 is $1,496 a month, compared with $1,298 just last year, according to HUD.

Because many landlords require tenants to earn three times the rent amount, Just Economics bases its living wage rate on that concept, using HUD’s fair-market rent as a baseline.

“We believe that a living wage must be rooted in a worker’s ability to live in the region,” Meath says.

Businesses on board

In Buncombe, 444 businesses have signed on with Just Economics’ Living Wage Program, driving about $20 million in wage increases over 17 years, Meath estimates.

Pisgah Brewing Co. in Black Mountain signed up in the very beginning.

“Part of it’s doing the right thing and not taking advantage of people. Part of it is when I offer good wages, I turn these positions into careers versus jobs,” says Pisgah owner Dave Quinn.

Quinn says maintaining a living wage has always been important to his business, and he appreciates the guidance Just Economics provides in setting wages.

“I take their input, and I look at what’s going on in the world, and look at what we can afford and the performance of our people, and just do our best.”

The program is also attractive to newer businesses, like Nuthatch Garden Services, based in Asheville, which joined in July.

“No. 1, we are committed to sustainability and sustainable business practices and sustainable gardening practices. We definitely want to look at the whole picture of social sustainability and economic sustainability. So it’s just really important that we feel like we’re all paying ourselves a living wage,” says owner Gwen Hill.

Nuthatch aims to be a leader in its industry on wages, Hill adds, “because it’s really important for people to be able to live.”

Other long-term certified businesses are acutely aware of the challenges of keeping up with an ever-rising wage. At Affordable Bedding, rising overhead costs have put strains on the business’s ability to maintain viability, while competition from businesses that pay their workers less puts pressure on owners to reconsider their own certification, says President Patrick McMahon.

Ultimately, sustained sales have allowed the Patton Avenue bedding business to maintain its certification for more than 20 years, he says.

For McKibben Hospitality, which operates Aloft Asheville Downtown, AC Hotel Asheville Downtown and Kimpton Hotel Arras, an emphasis has been put on wages at its Asheville properties, the only locations in its portfolio where a certified living wage is paid, says McKibben.

“I do believe the certification has had some positive impact on hiring and recruitment; however, I believe a larger impact comes from our benefits package and company culture,” he says.

Generally, McKibben strives to pay in the 75th percentile in average wages by position at other locations, but it pays in the 100th percentile in Asheville, partly because of the community’s emphasis on paying a living wage, he says.

For employees, working for less than a living wage means relying on credit cards or multiple jobs to get by, says Bri Snyder, a longtime barista in Asheville who now works full time at Whole Foods. (Snyder uses they/them pronouns.)

Snyder struggled to get by in the past, even at living wage-certified coffee shops because they don’t offer Snyder full-time hours, leaving them scrambling to work second jobs, Snyder says.

Still, when a business can say it maintains its living wage certification, it’s one sign that it considers workers’ needs, vital to a healthy work environment, Snyder says.

A different approach

While Just Economics bases its living wage on housing for a single adult, groups such as Living Wage for US and MIT use different metrics.

According to Living Wage for US, which released its new rates in November, Buncombe County’s living wage is $24.08 per hour. That is based on what it would cost two working adults with two children to live in the Buncombe County area, taking several criteria into consideration.

MIT, which updates its calculation every two years, has not yet announced 2024 rates. It put the living wage for a single adult with no children in Buncombe County at $19.62 in 2022. For two working adults with two children, MIT says each worker would need $27.70 to afford bills in Buncombe County. Meath expects those numbers to go up this year.

While MIT does not have a certification program like the other two, all three generally operate with similar guiding principles. The goal is to raise the wage floor for workers so they can afford a “decent but basic standard of living,” including necessities like housing, health care, child care, food and clothing on one full-time job, Meath says. More than 40% of workers nationally make less than $15 an hour, which is lower than a living wage for most of the country, according to Living Wage for US.

“If you really boil down the living wage movement overall, what it’s looking at is what are the things that are sort of considered human rights, where everyone should be able to have access to those opportunities, and what do those things cost,” says Michelle Murray, CEO of Living Wage for US.

Murray, who has more than a decade of experience working to define and promote living wages around the world, says that Just Economics’ method works on a local level, but isn’t scalable across the country or world. Living Wage for US aims to create a standard living wage calculation that all businesses can refer to, regardless of location, and is recruiting Just Economics to join the movement.

International standard

Living Wage for US was launched in November 2021 to create a “internationally comparable and locally specific” living wage certification program.

Based on data from the Economic Policy Institute, Living Wage for US considers the cost of housing, food, transportation, health insurance, out-of-pocket health care costs and retirement to come up with its living wage rate. Certain benefits, such as health care, retirement or child care, are considered when tailoring a specific rate for each employer seeking certification.

Murray says she considers a living wage rate to be what it costs for two working adults with two children to live in an area, instead of a single adult, because having children should be a decision made by people, not pocketbooks.

“We want to make sure workers can support themselves and their families. We sort of have a sense that if you can’t feed your kids, can we really talk about this being a living wage at the end of the day?” asks Murray.

Businesses seeking certification with Living Wage for US pay a startup fee and annual membership based on the size of the company. In exchange, they get a personalized rate based on geography and benefits provided to employees.

For example, businesses that offer employees a health care benefit can pay a lower living wage rate, as determined by complex calculations performed by Living Wage for US.

Businesses also can earn a credit on personalized wage rates for providing employees retirement benefits or a stipend to spend on child care or transportation, according to Living Wage’s website.

Living Wage for US also considers the cost of commuting. Asheville’s commuting zone includes Madison, Haywood, Henderson and Transylvania counties. Because of that, the metric uses housing costs in Haywood, the lowest in the area.

Otherwise, Buncombe’s calculated living wage would be $33.23 per hour, according to Living Wage for US.

Murray argues that using commuting zones in addition to the nuanced breakdown of categories adding up to a living wage gives workers more choice on how to define what’s most important to them.

“We’re saying you could have a family and [live in] the lowest-cost county in a commuting zone. But you might choose not to have a family,” Murray says. “Then you can probably afford to live in the higher-cost counties where you might be able to walk or bike to work. There’s always worker choice.”

Living Wage for US has 40 certified companies enrolled in its program nationwide and about 400 working to get certified, Murray says. She attributes more than $250 million in wage increases to the program and hopes to grow that number by partnering with grassroots certifiers like Just Economics that have extensive local buy-in in their home jurisdictions.

“The future of the living wage is really to align all of these methods so that there aren’t contradictions in what those numbers are. But we support using benchmarks for your wage rates.”

For McKibben, who says he also reviews MIT’s program, the priority to pay workers at his company’s Buncombe properties a living wage will remain, no matter what standard is used.

“We are open to alternative methodology. However, one thing that will not change is our commitment to paying a living wage,” he says.


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6 thoughts on “By several metrics, Asheville’s living wage keeps going up

  1. dyfed

    “Living wage” is usually a pretty poor metric because it assumes modes of life that are fairly uncommon. A single adult with no children usually does not, in an expensive city, even attempt to live in an apartment or house alone. That would be economically foolish: they get roommates instead, and their housing cost ends up being a fraction of what living wage proponents project.

    What’s more important is recognizing that the term implies something that isn’t actually true: that you need to make X wage in order to “live.” As evidenced by the data in the article, over 40% of the labor force doesn’t make the “living wage.” The actual wage required in order to live, work, and remain housed is considerably lower than the projected living wage!

    Yes, it would be nice if relative poverty didn’t exist—but largely you cannot hit a target like the living wage where whenever people are lifted out of poverty the goalposts are moved further and further. Some people are always going to make less than the median.

    How this bears on Asheville is pretty obvious. There are a few major industries and one of them—food service and hospitality—is pretty dead-end; it’s not a career. There are two outlets from that industry that involve making more money, unless you become an owner: transitioning out with the benefit of education, or moving away from this expensive area and giving up on the “Asheville lifestyle.”

    Until we build heavier industry with more jobs (which won’t happen without people making zoning and location compromises, and better decisions with taxes) then it will continue to be a terrible struggle for those with no better employment prospects than food and hospitality in Asheville.

    • MV

      This city and many who live here (and in our wasteful state and country) also need to build their frugality muscles and get some financial literacy education (which should be a requirement in public schools). This isn’t to say that housing isn’t expensive or wages are low (they are), but I’ve known some renters to drive 50k cars bought on credit. Some people dine out frequently, drink overpriced beer, have multiple pets, take lots of vacations and then complain that their rent is too high. I suggest reading:

  2. indy499

    LOL, what does Bri’s pronouns have to do with the story, esp since they weren’t used in the story?

    What pronouns do the others quoted prefer?

  3. Jim

    Funny that a real driver of unaffordable housing is never talked about, my newest tax appraisal on my house was 150% higher than 3 years ago. As a person of retirement age struggling to get by on minimal income and savings, the county is trying to make me homeless.

    • KW

      Meanwhile, properties that are meant to be private residences are earning big bucks for tourism investors who are not levied a higher property tax rate.

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