Representatives from over 30 different local nonprofit organizations met in the U.S. Cellular Center’s Banquet Hall on Friday, March 24 to make their best case for receiving federal and city funding for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Asheville City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee, which includes chair Gordon Smith, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler and Julie Mayfield, makes recommendations to the full Council for the distribution of nearly $1 million from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that funds projects and programs for low- to moderate-income residents. The committee also makes recommendations for funding through the city’s Strategic Partnership Fund (SPF).
Each nonprofit applicant for CDBG funding received 10 minutes during the first half of the meeting to make a presentation and answer questions. During the second half of the meeting, applicants for SPF funding made their pitches.
Smith prefaced the presentations by acknowledging the hard work that had gone into the proposals. “We know that everybody on this list, and again I’m just struck reading everybody’s proposals, how exceptional the work is and how much heart and soul is going into all of this work, with all of these folks serving,” Smith said. “This is a statement of gratitude for what’s happening and also a statement of regret from the fact that some people are going to get told ‘no’ today, not because their projects are unworthy or because they’re not working hard enough, but because we don’t have enough resources currently to be able to meet all of these.”
The Housing Authority of the City of Asheville kicked off the CDBG applications, presenting plans for the redevelopment of the Lee Walker Heights public housing neighborhood. Other presentations included proposals related to affordable housing, emergency home repair, domestic violence services, small business development, child care and academic help, arts funding, and homelessness prevention.
Committee members asked some groups if they had done any research or studies on results or outcomes on their programs. Wisler was interested in knowing if there was a way to see results in numerical terms. “Historically, the city has spent money, obviously not enough, we’re never going to have enough, but our opportunity gap is getting worse, not better, the worst in the state,” Wisler said. “Yet, we are spending money to try to help fix that, and we’re not getting results.”
Wisler continued to point out the overlap between organizations targeting similar areas. She wondered if there was a way to analyze the common ground among organizations: “So many of these programs are targeting the exact same group of people, it’s almost like I want there to be a list of all the people that are being helped and determine whether we’re really helping these families or not.
“I guess I get a little frustrated because I feel like everybody’s saying the same thing, and they’re trying to get positive outcomes with the same group of people. And I feel like I don’t know whether it’s really working or not,” Wisler said.
Working out the math
After a break for lunch, funds were awarded to each group, resulting in a $7,289 leftover balance. Some members of the committee wanted to distribute the overage evenly among the groups that had sent in a joint application because those three organizations — Mountain BizWorks, Eagle Market Street Development Corporation and Carolina Small Business Development Fund — complement one another. Wisler was wary of this idea, commenting that it might not be fair for those who were being conservative with their requests. She suggested that there could be another meeting for allocation of the funds.
“I just think at this stage in the ballgame what we should do is just say, ‘If we have another $400,000 left, then everybody can come back in,’” Wisler said. “But I feel like, I suspect, that people were trying to be conservative in their ask, and so the people who were more aggressive in their ask, you’ve rewarded, whereas I’m not really sure that that’s the message I want to put out.”
Mayfield commented that groups might be discouraged or just not come back for yet another meeting. Smith said there was no way the committee could have known there would be leftover money and noted that this was the weirdest problem they had ever had.
According to Community Development Department staffer Heather Dillashaw, who responded to a request for clarification after the meeting, the additional funds were allocated in an additional round of figuring that occurred during the meeting. The chart below reflects the total allocations; no additional funds remain to be redistributed. Council will vote on the CDBG funding recommendations at its meeting on May 9.
At the grassroots
After another short break, the committee reconvened at 1:37 p.m. to consider Strategic Partnership applications. Smith again prefaced the discussion with his gratitude for all who were there. “We value your vision and your work, not only what you’re doing in the community but in your willingness to put yourself through a process like this and open yourselves up for this kind of conversation,” Smith said. “It’s really hard.”
He also noted that the committee was being extra-cautious with spending, even though Asheville is currently booming economically. Wisler said that longer-term partners tend to have higher priority, not for their line of work necessarily, but for the reliability they have demonstrated. Wisler and Mayfield both pointed out some concerns and frustrations with organizations not heeding the city’s advice to engage in more collaboration and connection with their peer organizations.
Mayfield, who works in the nonprofit sector as co-director of the environmental advocacy organization MountainTrue, urged groups to connect. “There is an efficiency and effectiveness that comes with scale, and I just cannot encourage you enough to be much more intentional about working together and coordinating the services that you are providing to the population as a way to both manage your own resources better and have better outcomes,” Mayfield said.
Those comments seemed to cause a stir among some attendees, especially those with more recently founded groups. Dewana Little, executive director of Positive Changes, expressed frustration. “Even though we are small organizations, we do have a greater impact, especially on a minority level, because we are on the ground,” Little said. “I think it gets lost in translation that our programs have been running for a while, out of our own pockets.”
Pastor Spencer Hardaway of Rock Hill Missionary Baptist Church, passionately urged the committee to not ignore grassroots organizations just because they do not have the data yet. “Don’t let us believe that we are last-funded, because we all know that it’s hard, help me Lord Jesus, for when we come for money and come for funding, we’re always put on the backscale, we’re always denied funding,” Pastor Hardaway said. “Folks who don’t look like us, for us, by us, are able to get funding in our communities and we’re not. Don’t let that be the nail that’s driven into this meeting.”
Smith reassured applicants that the committee members’ comments were not an attack on any organization’s work, but that they must make tough decisions when it comes to funding. “As you’re hearing comments from up here, none of it is a slam against work that’s getting done out there,” Smith said. “What it is, is from this table, folks are trying to figure out how are we, with $158,000 — which is a pitiful amount of money to throw at this, it’s pitiful — how are we going to make the best use of it? There’s not an offense intended.”
Not all organizations were granted their requests, as the committee members had warned. In final public comments, some members of the audience voiced concerns and discouragement with the process. Members of the committee and representatives from other organizations urged those with concerns to keep the conversation going by attending public meetings to voice their struggles.
Dillashaw wrote in an email received on March 28 that the committee’s recommendations will go before the full Council for a vote at Council’s meeting on April 11.
The committee also heard updates on an affordable housing development at 338 Hilliard St. The development marks the city’s first effort to partner with private entities to redevelop city-owned property as affordable housing. The Hilliard Street site was previously the location of a city Parks and Recreation Department maintenance facility, which has been relocated.
Dillashaw and Jeff Staudinger said that a new proposal submitted by Tribute Companies reduces the number of units from 60 to 40 and the building’s height from four to three stories. Smith explained in an email after the meeting that the company realized cost factors made its initial proposal unworkable from a financial perspective. Council will vote on the revised proposal at its April 11 meeting.