Candidates talk affordable housing, homelessness with business leaders

Van Duncan Paul Benjamin Jennifer Horton
CAMPAIGN TRAIL: From left, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners candidates Paul Benjamin, Jennifer Horton and Van Duncan address Asheville's Council of Independent Business Owners on May 10. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Three candidates for Buncombe County Board of Commissioners gathered at the May 10 Council of Independent Business Owners meeting to lay out their vision for the county’s future direction.

Participants included District 1 candidates Paul Benjamin, a Republican, and Jennifer Horton, a Democrat, as well as former Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan, who is running for chair as an unaffiliated candidate. (Commissioner Amanda Edwards, a Democrat, is also running for chair but was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict.)

Inside UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center, the three participants fielded questions from CIBO president Buzzy Cannady about development, education, homelessness, harm reduction and other topics.

Top priorities and zoning 

The conversation began with each candidate listing the top three issues commissioners are facing.

Horton listed education, the mental health crisis and homelessness.

Duncan said the toughest issue for the county is maintaining essential services in “challenging budget times,” followed by homelessness and education.

Meanwhile, Benjamin said short-term rentals — specifically, the difficulty of balancing STR owners’ rights to participate in the free market while also appreciating the challenges many residents face amid high housing costs — are a top concern. (He ran out of time and was unable to include his additional two items.)

Cannady went on to note that Buncombe County recently approved a comprehensive plan to direct growth. He asked the candidates to explain potential changes to the county’s zoning rules they would support and if they favored an additional zoning process similar to the City of Asheville.

Horton declined to answer the question, explaining she had not done enough research.

Duncan did not support zoning regulations akin to the city’s. “I think we make it so hard on contractors and builders right now,” he said, asserting that some in the industry have told him “they’re not building in Buncombe County” due to current regulations.

Benjamin concurred with Duncan. “When governments pull back on regulations, families flourish,” Benjamin said. “A lot of contractors, their hands are tied waiting for approval and all these different regulations that put hurdles in their way.”

Later, Cannady asked what changes were necessary to promote the construction of more affordable housing units.

Benjamin stated that excess builders’ fees stemming from regulations increased construction costs that were then passed down to renters and buyers, “which reduces the affordability of these units.”

Horton countered, stressing the important role regulations play in keeping residents and investments safe. “What happens when we build a six-story building that topples down in six months because it was definitely put in place [where] it shouldn’t have been built? We’re going to end up spending more money because we’re going to fix more stuff [that’s broken].”

She added, “I don’t like spending money twice, especially in business.”

Needle exchange and homelessness 

The candidates fielded several questions related to homelessness, public safety and harm reduction. All agreed a mental health crisis contributes to the homeless population.

Duncan said he didn’t support the community’s current harm reduction practices. Buncombe County Health and Human Services offers clean syringes, as well as the overdose reversal drug naloxone and testing for bloodborne viruses; Steady Collective, Western North Carolina AIDS Project and Holler Harm Reduction also provide injection supplies. Duncan called the public health practice “too much of a free-for-all” and out of control.

“In my last year as sheriff, we gave out over 500,000 needles in Buncombe County,” Duncan said. “The problem is they call it needle exchange — there’s no exchange. They get dumped on the street. They get dumped in neighborhoods. It’s hard to argue that it’s harm reduction when you’re dumping dirty needles to where kids and us in general can encounter those things and have accidental sticks.” (A one-for-one model needle exchange is prohibited under North Carolina state law.)

Later in the conversation, Duncan estimated that 20%-25% of homeless people “choose to live on the street.” He continued, “And a lot of times what we do in Buncombe County is we enable that. We provide occasional shelter, we feed, we do free needles — we do all these kinds of things [that are] only going to grow that population.”

Benjamin echoed Duncan’s claim. “We need to provide strategies … to address the chronic homeless [who] are being attracted by our hospitality toward them,” he said.

When it comes to public safety, Benjamin offered his “four prongs”: prevention, intervention, treatment and enforcement. He also quoted Proverbs 22:6 — “‘train up a child in the way he should go” — stating that 40% of homes in the county are “single-parent homes; kids raised without dads.” (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 31% of households in Buncombe County with children under 18 were headed by a single parent — either male or female — in 2022.)

Horton spoke favorably of funding the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office to increase public safety. “What makes me feel safe is knowing that when I call 911, there’s going to be a response,” she said.

Horton contributed her perspective on harm reduction as a registered nurse. If a community doesn’t provide needles for intravenous drug users, “they’re going to bust out your windows for your diabetic needles,” she alleged. “They’re going to make a way [to get needles]. An addict is always going to make a way to get what they need.”

She shared that her sister lives in public housing. “I’ve seen needles on the ground,” Horton said. “I don’t like that. But let’s make rules, regulations, and educate so that that doesn’t happen as much. But if we take needles from these addicts, we’re looking for more problems.”

Horton also shared her own experience with homelessness. “I’ve been homeless here in Buncombe County, and I have thrived as a business owner in Buncombe County,” she said. She attributed her success to being embraced by her fellow residents.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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2 thoughts on “Candidates talk affordable housing, homelessness with business leaders

  1. Old lady

    Sheriff Duncan all the way. Horton sounds like an out of touch crackpot. Back in the days when Buncombe County wasn’t handing out 500,000 needles free, junkies adapted and learned how to make crack. Junkies will adapt. It’s time to run these vagrants out of Asheville and make junkies not cool anymore. It infuriates me that a penny of my tax dollars go to needles.

  2. Boston people

    Hm, with all these so called caring business owners, why don’t they focus on getting these people circulated into the workforce? You must craw before you walk! I’m thinking with the laws of you can’t be prejudice or bias most people should rent their fine homes and go live for free on your handouts! That way they could get back some of the tax money they blown on your idiotic ideas.

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