Buncombe County Commission

“Affordable housing has been our community’s dirty little secret.”

— Buncombe County Commissioner David Gantt

Asheville holds the dubious distinction of having the most expensive housing market in the state, according to the Affordable Housing Coalition of Asheville & Buncombe County.

Factor in the area’s many low- and moderate-income residents and it means that some 8,800 Buncombe County households pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent — the benchmark for affordability.

It’s a sobering fact. Yet the reality that finding affordable housing remains an elusive goal for thousands of area residents is hardly breaking news. Last week, however, affordable-housing advocates saw a glimmer of hope that the Buncombe County commissioners might take steps to help tackle the problem.

At its Jan. 27 meeting, the Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to direct County Manager Wanda Greene to try to find $300,000 in the current budget for a housing trust fund — as long as the money doesn’t come from the county’s fund balance.

Safe, attractive homes

The proposed trust fund is envisioned as a revolving loan pool that would provide below-market-rate funding to developers to build affordable homes, explained County-City Housing Task Force member Scott Dedman, who is executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities.

Dedman’s presentation came on the heels of the task force’s report to the board, presented on Jan. 6. The task force (made up of nonprofit leaders, real-estate agents and other industry reps) called on the county to set aside $1.7 million in property-tax revenue during the next fiscal year to help bankroll the fund. The group also wants the city and county to reduce permit fees for affordable-housing projects and has asked the city to revise its zoning rules (The task force’s report is posted online at www.buncombecounty.org; follow the links to the agenda for the Jan. 6 commissioners’ meeting.)

The task force makes the following arguments for establishing a housing trust fund:

• “All citizens of our community should be able to live in a safe, attractive, affordable home in a good neighborhood”;

• A “healthy housing economy” makes good business sense, since housing construction creates local jobs and provides homes for employees;

• Children who live in safe, stable homes are better able to take advantage of a good education and improve their quality of life; and

• Building an attractive home increases land value and increases the tax base so that more properties share the tax burden.

Acknowledging that the amount may make the commissioners “blink or wince,” Dedman suggested that the commissioners view a $1.7 million allocation as an ideal goal — but start out by taking a smaller step toward establishing the trust fund.

And since this is an election year, the board is unlikely to approve a tax increase, say local political observers.

“Regulatory nightmares”

Not everyone present embraced the idea of the trust fund, however.

Mac Swicegood, president of the Council of Independent Business Owners, spoke against dedicating one cent of the property-tax rate to affordable housing (which would raise the requested $1.7 million). The task force itself, he argued, is not united in its support for that measure. Instead, Swicegood pushed for eliminating the “regulatory nightmares” that he blamed for the shortage of affordable housing.

“While an effort to lessen the regulatory burden is long overdue, we cannot support the use of tax dollars as the first step to remedy the housing dilemma,” said Swicegood. “We request that the commissioners table any action on the use of taxpayer dollars. We encourage, instead, that commissioners concentrate all efforts on creating new jobs through economic development.”

But county resident Walter Plaue, an affordable-housing proponent, voiced a different view. The city of Asheville, he noted, has used its housing trust fund to leverage additional support for affordable housing.

“You gotta show that we are serious here … before you go asking someone else for money,” Plaue observed.

Beginning with Commissioner David Young, board members took turns embracing the idea of allocating $300,000 to establish the trust fund, provided Greene could find the money in the budget. And Vice Chairman Bill Stanley proclaimed that while there may be barriers to affordable housing in the city (meaning zoning restrictions), Swicegood should alert the board if he found any in the county.

“Affordable housing has been our community’s dirty little secret,” declared Commissioner David Gantt, adding that the working poor and middle-income residents are getting “squeezed out.”

Greene agreed to come back with a proposal in three weeks.

The last big push for a county housing trust fund came in June 2002, when members of the Affordable Housing Coalition lobbied the board for a half-cent tax increase to establish such a fund. Instead, the commissioners opted to reduce the tax rate, cutting funding to a number of nonprofits in the process. (Because that year’s revaluation boosted property values, however, the county still collected about $12 million more in property taxes in fiscal year 2002-03 than the previous year — and only $3 million to $4 million of that amount can be attributed to economic growth, reports Tax Director Gary C. Roberts.)

Five months later, the County-City Housing Task Force was formed to address the issue.

Low-power empowerment

During the public-comment portion of the meeting, several speakers touched on a continuing flap over the county’s allocation of $5,000 last fall to the nonprofit Empowerment Resource Center of Asheville/Buncombe. The group asked for money to help launch its low-power FM radio station, WRES.

Two weeks earlier, county residents Don Yelton and Chad Nesbitt (who host a weekly radio show on WISE-AM) had begun questioning why the commissioners hadn’t voted on the allocation (as the Asheville City Council did in response to a similar request). They also challenged the requirement that station volunteers be NAACP members. Their complaints had prompted a Jan. 22 article in the Asheville Citizen-Times, part of which Nesbitt read to the commissioners while continuing to question their handling of the matter.

ERC board member Jim Barrett thanked the commissioners for the October allocation and said he’d be happy to answer any questions. Gantt said it was his understanding that volunteers at the radio station had to be NAACP members while the radio station was housed in the group’s offices, but he asked whether that requirement would be lifted once the station moved to a permanent home.

Barrett said his board hasn’t taken a position on the matter, noting that volunteers must be responsible and that those managing the facility be completely loyal to the organization.

In response to a question from Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey about whether political commentary would be permitted on the station, Barrett, an attorney who is director of the nonprofit Pisgah Legal Services, said nonprofits are prohibited from engaging in political commentary, though he wasn’t sure what Federal Communications Commission rules have to say about it.

After the meeting, Greene told Xpress that she’d authorized the allocation under the state law that covers economic-development startup grants. Greene also said she hadn’t polled the commissioners on the matter, though Ramsey said later that at least three commissioners had contacted the county manager to voice their support for the allocation.

“I think it’s unfortunate they criticize Wanda, because she did what the board told her to do,” said Ramsey, adding that the amount in question is a tiny percentage of the county’s budget. “We’re arguing about $5,000 — I think that’s pretty ludicrous.”

Yelton, meanwhile, used his time at the lectern to berate the commissioners about another concern — their having chosen to go into closed session at the board’s Jan. 6 meeting to discuss a pair of issues. The items in question — the Chemtronics site cleanup and several subdivisions described as “illegal” in the meeting minutes — should have been discussed in open session, argued Yelton, calling on Ramsey to resign.

“Nathan, do what’s right or step down,” Yelton proclaimed.

Unperturbed, Ramsey smiled during Yelton’s admonishment, then brushed off the suggestion, saying, “We do the best with what we got.”

After the meeting, Greene told Xpress that both discussions concerned potential legal matters and could thus be conducted in closed session under state law. Yelton subsequently faxed this reporter a letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency saying that the remedial project manager in Atlanta “is not aware of any ongoing or [pending] lawsuit” involving the Chemtronics site.

Other business

The commissioners also:

• heard from consultant Richard Stahr of Brown & Caldwell, who reported that the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson needs to set aside $5 million to $6 million annually to pay for water-system repairs;

• declined (on a split vote) to approve a resolution opposing the U.S. Navy’s plans to build a landing field in Washington County, N.C. (only Gantt and Commissioner Patsy Keever voted in favor of the resolution);

• briefly talked about the Buncombe County Planning Board’s ongoing review of the proposed Joint Planning Area, acknowledging that the group may not be able to complete its work by late March, as the commissioners had requested. (Before any new land-use regulations are enacted, a public hearing will be scheduled, noted Assistant County Manager/Planning Director Jon Creighton.)

The board also appointed the following people to the new Land Conservation Advisory Board: John Ager, Karen Cragnolin, Bob Gale, Kathryn Gubista, Ada Khoury, Karl Koon, Esther Pardue, Carl Silverstein, Albert Sneed, Carr Swicegood, Leslee Thornton, Mary Weber and Harry Weiss.

At meeting’s end, the commissioners shooed the public out of the meeting room and held a closed-door session to talk about two economic-development matters, a personnel issue and a potential legal matter.

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