Efforts to bring more affordable housing and early childhood education to Buncombe County got a big boost May 3. At its meeting that evening, the county Board of Commissioners unanimously approved nearly $4.9 million in allocations from Buncombe’s federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to three projects in those areas proposed by community partners.
The three applications were the first to be funded out of 105 projects that had been submitted in response to the county’s latest request for proposals, which closed April 12. According to a presentation by Rachael Nygaard, the county’s strategic partnerships director, funding for the housing projects was accelerated because of looming tax credit application deadlines, while the prekindergarten project was funded early to align with the start of the 2022-23 academic year.
The largest grant awarded May 3 was $3.2 million to the nonprofit Buncombe Partnership for Children to expand pre-K availability and accessibility. The pilot project will employ six strategies for increasing access to pre-K, such as boosting pay to attract more teachers, supporting additional education and licensing for pre-K staff, and working directly with families and providers to address barriers such as transportation. The partnership’s application for the two-year project estimates that the funds will help roughly 1,180 children starting this school year.
“What this means in the lives of people in Buncombe County is that we have the chance to take a bold step towards better serving more children and ensuring that more kids in our community have access to the quality education, care and learning that happens in pre-K. And particularly, we’re doing that with an approach that’s informed by equity around both racial justice issues and economic justice issues,” said Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. “We know that pre-K can be a game-changer in the lives of children. And we know that to make it a game-changer, we have to seriously invest in it.”
Commissioners also voted to award roughly $720,000 to Mountain Housing Opportunities for its Lakeshore Villas project, which will create 120 affordable rental units. According to MHO’s application, the units will be affordable for those earning between 30% of the area median income ($1,580 for a single person; $26,500 for a family of four) and 80% AMI ($42,100 for a single person; $60,100 for a family of four). The proposal also estimates that as many as 20% of the units will house residents who are currently homeless.
And more than $935,000 was approved for Phase 1 of the Asheville Housing Authority’s Reimagining Deaverview project, which aims to construct roughly 80 affordable units as part of a larger plan to demolish and rebuild Asheville’s second-oldest public housing community. The project includes apartments that would be affordable to those earning 30% to 60% AMI. The AHA’s original ask was $1.2 million; the organization is also seeking support from the city of Asheville.
Buncombe County was awarded a little over $50.7 million in ARPA funds from the federal government. After the latest round of grants, the county has allocated more than $27.9 million of that money, or a little over 55%.
Commissioners criticize occupancy tax
The commissioners unanimously approved a budget amendment that boosted the county’s budget for occupancy tax revenue income and expenditures by $11 million. The move was made to meet accounting requirements: Because occupancy tax revenues are expected to exceed $36 million this fiscal year — about 34% more than the roughly $27.2 million the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority budgeted for in June — the county needed sufficient budget headroom to collect that money and pass it through to the BCTDA.
But some members used the opportunity to blast the current occupancy tax situation. State law requires that 75% of revenue generated by the tax be spent on advertising for tourism, with the remaining 25% must be spent on tourism-related capital projects.
Board Chair Brownie Newman called that distribution “outrageous” and a “disservice to this community.” He and Beach-Ferrara both called for more of the tax to go toward community needs, citing Asheville’s affordable housing crisis. Meanwhile, Commissioner Parker Sloan maintained that the county should stop levying the tax altogether.
“That negotiated position that’s been debated in the legislature for years now, it’s really too late for that, in my mind,” Sloan said, referencing previous discussions between government officials and tourism leaders to reduce the portion of the tax dedicated to marketing. “We’ve gone beyond that point to where we can expect that they’re still negotiating in good faith with us.”
“I think it’s time for us, as a board, to do what we need to do — what I think we have to do — which is to end the collection of the hotel occupancy tax as soon as possible,” he continued. No other board members weighed in on Sloan’s comments.
The N.C. General Assembly is expected to consider a bill that would shift some occupancy tax proceeds away from tourism marketing and expand their allowable uses during its short session, which is scheduled to begin Wednesday, May 18.