Community members debate new microhousing developments

MICRODEVELOPMENTS: The first set of microapartments, slated to be constructed on a 0.18-acre lot at 217 Hilliard Ave., will include 80 units. Photo courtesy of the City of Asheville

A new form of affordable housing has been a contentious topic among city leaders and developers in Asheville.

Two microapartment developments, with individual housing units averaging about 250-350 square feet, have been approved for nearly $2.5 million of Land Use Incentive Grant funding, a program designed to bolster affordable, workforce and low-income rental housing. The grants come in the form of tax rebates over 20 years.

The grant requires that 20% of the units in both developments — about 50 units — be deemed affordable with rent less than $1,190. The amount is based on 30% of the area median income. While the grant locks in that rate for the affordable units for 20 years, developer David Moritz confirmed that market-price rent would be between $1,000 and $1,200, meaning that the city-subsidized units would not be any cheaper than those for regular tenants initially.

The developments have sparked debate among city officials and residents over whether microhousing is truly a solution to the affordable housing crisis.

Status of the developments 

The first set of microapartments, slated to be constructed on a 0.18-acre lot at 217 Hilliard Ave., will include 80 units over five stories. No unit will be larger than 350 square feet but will be fully furnished and include a private bathroom and a half-kitchen that includes a sink and space for small kitchen appliances, like a microwave and a minifridge. A communal kitchen and living space on each floor will be shared by 16-20 tenants. No vehicle parking is included, though there will be bike storage.

The second development on Aston Street will include two seven-story buildings on a 0.64-acre parcel, with 72 units facing Sawyer Street and 159 units facing Aston Street. The design is similar to 217 Hilliard Ave., with communal laundry, kitchen and lounge spaces.

Though microhousing is new to Asheville, Moritz says his business partner, Scott Shapiro, has built such developments nationwide, including Martin Flats, a 150-unit micro-apartment complex in Nashville, Tenn. Mortz said it’s 100% occupied, primarily by residents in their late 20s. It opened in October 2021 with rent around $1,000 a month with utilities and Wi-Fi included.

Moritz anticipates a similar rent in Asheville but said it could rise, depending on inflation and construction costs. For comparison’s sake, nearby studio apartments on Patton Avenue run about $1,800 a month.

Both developments are obtaining the necessary permits to break ground. According to Moritz, developers hope to have the Hilliard project completed by 2025, and the Aston project by early 2026.

Debating LUIG

After the City Council voted 5-2 in June 2022 to approve the Hilliard Avenue grant, the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee recommended that Council suspend LUIG awards for microhousing, noting that Asheville policy “does not contemplate microapartments, which are substantially smaller than a typical studio unit.”

Council initially tabled approving a $1.9 million LUIG grant for the Aston development in May, but when staff recommended a further delay in July, several Council members voiced their concern that further delaying the vote could lead to the development being canceled altogether. Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore noted that while there may be concerns with the project, it would ultimately bring in more affordable housing, which is the purpose of LUIG.

“I think that this development is a good fit for the city and will help to bring more diversity downtown because people could actually live where they work instead of having to commute,” Kilgore said. “Yes, it will serve as a pilot to see if this kind of housing will work, but I think that we may not want to take a chance at losing this development.”

Council member Sage Turner noted that while the policies within the LUIG program should be updated, Council should not further delay a housing development that has been in the works for nearly a year.

“I fully agree that we need to look at our LUIG policies, but in the meantime, let’s not stop what is already in the queue,” Turner said. “We put so much effort into addressing our housing crisis … and this project is helping with the issue.”

Council members Sheneika Smith and Antanette Mosley opposed the grant because they were still unsure if the development meets affordability requirements laid out in the LUIG policies.

The benefits of microliving

Kim Giovacco, a resident of the Acony Bell Tiny Home Community in Mills River, says she lived in a microapartment in Boston and had a positive experience.

“The apartment I lived in [while in Boston] was 200 square feet with no parking, and I lived there for six years with no issues,” says Giovacco. “While I personally would not want to share a kitchen with other people, if some people want to put up with that, it is their choice.”

This sentiment was echoed by UNC Asheville student Cole Jackson, who says that he would be interested in microhousing once he graduates in May.

“I would definitely consider living in a microapartment once I graduate. I don’t want to have to move back in with my parents, but I don’t make enough in a month to get a full-sized apartment. Having to only pay $1,000 for rent and all of my utilities; that’s not too much more than what I pay for campus housing.”

Kristen McKinnley has lived in a microapartment in Nashville for about a year and a half and has had few issues. She pays $1,200 a month for rent and utilities.

“So far, living in a microapartment has not been a terrible experience. I initially moved into this apartment to save up for a house,” McKinnley says. “While I still have a lot left to save, I think living here has definitely helped me overall. I will say the units look a lot bigger before you move in; once you are living here, it definitely starts to feel cramped, especially if you ever try to have someone over.”

While some people may be OK with the price and the size of the units, critics of the development argue that the units are too small and too expensive to be deemed affordable housing.

“Microhousing as a concept is not a bad idea, but charging $1,000 a month for 250 square feet of space is egregious,” says downtown resident Mark Mendell. “I know that we need creative solutions to help solve the affordable housing crisis, but this isn’t it. These apartments don’t give people an opportunity to save up for a better life, they just trap them in high rents and take advantage of people who may not be able to afford anything else. It’s basically just a human parking lot.”

Developers say building affordable housing in Asheville and Buncombe is difficult.

“There’s not that many affordable housing projects coming to the table because it’s hard to make the numbers work,” said Barry Bialik, a developer and past chairman of Asheville’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee.

“There’s not one piece of land in the city that you can build on right now that costs less than $100,000,” says Bialik.

Land is generally about 25% of the total cost, “so if there are no lots for sale for $100,000, that means there will be no houses tomorrow for sale for less than $400,000 unless we take drastic measures to open up the land and bring the land costs down.”

Additionally, the City of Asheville “doesn’t extend any of its own infrastructure,” Bialik says. “It has to be on a private developer to do everything.”

Moritz says he and his firm are “doing everything they can to keep the cost of rent low for residents,” but ultimately they have to take into consideration the high costs of development. “It is much more expensive to build these apartments than when we initially started drafting plans, and ultimately the rent rate we set will reflect those costs.

“Some people may or may not like it. Some people have the privilege of owning a home, like I do. Not everybody does. This is a choice people will make,” Moritz says. “If someone decides to live there, they’ve decided it’s the best option for them in Asheville.”


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About Chase Davis
Chase Davis is an Asheville-based reporter working for Mountain Xpress. He was born and raised in Georgia and holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science from LaGrange College. Follow me @ChaseDavis0913

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10 thoughts on “Community members debate new microhousing developments

  1. Grant Millin

    I don’t think our people understand the future of more hotels, Luxe Asheville, and outsiders thinking Asheville is their right to move to as a magical Anthropogenic Climate Golden Parachute.

  2. Jt

    One, downtown is already a parking nightmare. Adding hundreds of people with zero car space means bigger nightmare.
    Two, wouldn’t it be more cost effective to rehab existing older buildings without fancy finishes? Simple, bare bones studios would fill a need . ReStore stores have plenty of donated fixtures, cabinets, tile, and doors. The city could do this with old properties but wants to put it all on developers whose only goal is profit. Of course that is doomed to failure.

    • dyfed

      Comments like this, that are completely out of touch with the reality of multiple different issues surrounding housing and development, are what convince me that Asheville needs much less democratic input on housing. The people are literally so undereducated on the issue that they suggest things that are literally backwards.

      For the record:

      1) No, it is not cheaper to rehab existing buildings in general. It is more expensive and riskier unless you have a dream building with great bones that’s a known quantity. Any such buildings in Asheville went off market long ago.

      2) No, it will not be cheaper to attempt to source all the components used and pay for the labor to fit all these completely different products with different parts and sizes into an existing building.

      3) The city absolutely cannot afford to do this and would have to issue a massive amount of debt to even begin, then they’d have to hire the exact same developers you’re talking about to actually do the work because the City is not a construction contractor.

      4) 99.9%+ of housing in the world is owned and built by private developers. It works if you actually let them build housing rather than constantly stand in the way as the City does. It is not doomed to failure. Au contraire, your suggestions are complete nonstarters and show total unfamiliarity with basic economic propositions of the market.

      5) People love to talk about how great it is to have mass transit and then as soon as you build something that uses the transit system they complain. If you want everybody in downtown to own a car, why are we spending millions on a barely-used bus system?

  3. From some studies about tight living quarters: “Tight living quarters can feel claustrophobic. Micro-apartment dwellers could feel physically crowded in their own space or socially crowded by the number of people around. ” “Living alone can lead some to feel socially isolated. The American Psychological Association lists several health consequences of social isolation, including impaired immunity and poor sleep quality. ” This is not the solution for our community. Where is the dignity for someone living in such tight quarters? We give more space to our Free-Range Chickens. What are our city’s PRIORITIES? Whomever proffered this solution can keep walking. There are plenty of other options, as Jt stated above. Get the money out of politics and get creative. If we got the money out of our politics, we could get creative with our solutions.

    • T100

      Poor sleep quality is a given when you share walls with 3 neighbors on the sides and 2 more above and below and at least 2 or 3 LOVE to play loud music all night.

  4. indy499

    The developers lied from day one. They told neighbors zero city money would be requested for the Aston project. Just a bald lie.

    It is cheaper to share a 2 bedroom apartrment than rent these turkeys. Will be willing to bet anyone this will be transient housing within 3 years of completion. Analogies to Boston are comical.

  5. MV

    If they can’t rent long term at that price and then convert to short term vacation rental, tax payers will have subsidized tourism yet again.

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