The supply of affordable housing in Asheville is diminishing — and so is the city’s share of federal Housing and Urban Development money.
Asheville ranks lowest in the state — and 144th out of 184 cities, nationally — in housing affordability, according to the new Consolidated Housing and Community Development Plan for 2000-2005, unveiled at City Council’s April 18 work session. If approved, the five-year plan will serve as a spending guide for $15 million in Community Development Block Grants and federal HOME funds.
“Unemployment is very low, but 44 percent of jobs in the four-county region don’t pay enough to rent a two-bedroom apartment,” said Charlotte Caplan, Asheville’s director of community development.
The plan, Caplan explained, prioritizes federal funding to focus on helping those in the greatest need — such as the homeless, disabled, frail elderly, and very-low-income families. It also concentrates on eliminating discrimination in home sales and rentals, as well as helping public-housing authorities maintain their units.
The plan also suggests some more controversial strategies local governments might try: creating a housing trust fund by dedicating 1 percent of local property taxes, (about $370,000 a year, in Asheville); amending the Unified Development Ordinance to allow low-income, multifamily housing in all residential neighborhoods; encouraging attractive, manufactured-home developments; and addressing lead-based-paint hazards through grant assistance and housing-code inspections.
The housing-trust-fund idea is often shopped around by city governments, but finding the funding to start one is usually the sticking point. Joyce Harrison — co-chair of the Homes for Asheville-Buncombe Task Force — urged Council to implement a trust fund similar to those already working successfully, she pointed out, in Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Durham and Greensboro.
“How does it work in other communities, and how will it work in our community?” asked Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger.
Harrison said that $370,000 would be enough to build 37 new affordable homes (in the $75,000 range) each year. The money would be paid out in loans, not grants, to housing authorities — which would bear the rest of the costs. In Buncombe County, 1 percent of property taxes would amount to $1.5 million, she added, but Council members were quick to assert that it wouldn’t happen soon, because this is an election year.
Somewhat rhetorically, Council member Barbara Field asked Harrison: “Are you asking us to raise taxes, or do you have a suggestion as to what program we might cut from the budget?” Her point, Field said, was that the city could use that $370,000 for many other pressing needs. Field, who chairs the Housing and Community Development Committee, says she’s very much in favor of a housing trust fund. However, she noted that programs receiving city funding this year will need to be fleshed out in Council’s upcoming May budget sessions.
“This is about taking a leadership role on this issue, and committing a portion of public funds to affordable housing,” clarified Council member Ed Hay, who appeared ready to start the trust fund immediately. “This is about stepping out and making something happen.” The idea, he said, is not to fund the program every year, but to show that the city has incorporated affordable housing into its budget. That, he noted, could set the stage for a bond referendum to generate serious funding, three or four years down the road. Harrison agreed.
“This is not a giveaway,” added Council member Charles Worley, arguing that the funding would come back both in terms of loan payments and increased economic development.
While Hay showed strong support for the housing trust fund, he said the city would have to be more cautious with what he described as other “hot points” in the Community Development Plan: principally, amending the UDO to allow low-income, multifamily housing in residential zoning districts, and reducing lead-paint hazards in homes.
“We had long UDO meetings on this three years ago, and citizens indicated they didn’t want multifamily units built in their neighborhoods,” Hay reminded Council. And, given the high cost of lead-paint removal, he said he expects much resistance from apartment-building owners.
The price of clean water
The Regional Water Authority wants the city to chip in $13,000 toward the cost of relocating pesticide-mixing stations that are close to the new Mills River water treatment plant, and cleaning up the existing chemical pollution.
“I hope y’all are enjoying the drinking water in your glasses,” joked Water Authority Chairman John Tate, who was perhaps attempting to butter up the mayor and tout the successful operation of the new plant.
Tate said the current $730,000 cleanup project is being funded predominantly through grants from the Clean Water Trust Fund. But to qualify for an additional $65,000 grant from the Cross Creek Foundation — which would pay the two-year salary and expenses of a water conservationist to oversee riverbank stabilization — the participating cities and counties (Hendersonville and Asheville, and Henderson and Buncombe counties) must provide matching funds. Asheville’s share would be the $13,000.
Worley, who was Regional Water Authority chairman before Tate, pointed out that contributing to the project is the best way to ensure the cleanest possible water. He recommended that Council strongly support the funding request.
Mayor Leni Sitnick, however, had some reservations.
“I believe in polluters being responsible for their own pollution and cleaning it up,” Sitnick stated, going on to echo Barbara Field’s concerns about city residents being taxed both by Asheville and Buncombe County to pay for water resources. “I don’t feel comfortable matching those grants out of Asheville taxpayers’ money,” Sitnick continued. “I’m not convinced this is something we need to do.”
Tate replied that the Regional Water Authority is a partnership among all the county and city governments, and also noted, “The city has more users than anyone.”