David Gantt has branded the lack of work-force housing the Asheville area's "dirty little secret." "It's not right to tell workers we need them but [they] can't live here," said Gantt, Chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, at a June 15 press conference at the Governor's Western Residence in Asheville.
The event was called to spotlight a report released by UNC-Chapel Hill's Center for Urban & Regional Studies, titled "A Long Way From Home: The Impacts of a Limited Supply of Workforce Housing in the Asheville Metropolitan Area."
Although 67 percent of the jobs in the metro (which also includes Haywood, Henderson and Madison counties) are in Buncombe County, it accounts for only 54 percent of the housing. This creates a "mismatch between where people work and where they live," explained Susan Perry Cole, director of the North Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations, which co-sponsored the study. Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs are disappearing rapidly, replaced by substantially lower-paying work.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, "affordable" housing costs no more than 30 percent of the occupants' income. By that measure, a worker earning the Asheville metro's median income ($43,819 in 2007, the report notes) could afford homes costing up to $131,457 — far below the local median cost ($183,900 in 2007). As of last year, those numbers hadn't changed much. Such disparities have made the Asheville area the second-least-affordable in North Carolina (trailing only Wilmington), the report notes.
Asheville Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, also on hand for the report's release, summed up the philosophy behind this latest assessment of the housing disparity: "Everyone who works in Asheville should be able to live in Asheville."
All together now
Taking the long view from the front lines, Scott Dedman of the Asheville-based nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities remarked: "A lot of things have happened in the past 22 years. It's all coming together now." Asked if he's seen any improvement in the local housing situation, Dedman, who is MHO's executive director, replied, "Absolutely."
Both Asheville and Buncombe County now contribute to separate housing trust funds. Established in 2000 and 2004, respectively, these revolving-loan programs finance affordable-housing projects (the county's fund also provides rebates of permit fees for affordable-housing projects). Since 2001, the city's trust fund has helped finance 598 new rental units and 89 single-family homes or condominiums, reports Community Development Analyst Randy Stallings.
Buncombe's housing fund, meanwhile, has supported the creation of 289 units since 2004, says Donna Cottrell, a county accountant and planner.
Those totals, however, are quite a bit shy of the goal set a few years ago by a joint Housing Task Force — 500 units per year for the next 20 years, both officials acknowledge.
The UNC study also points out some of the obstacles to creating affordable housing here, including high land prices, NIMBYism and steep terrain. To improve the odds, local officials and organizations have shifted more toward collaborative projects, particularly those located on or near major thoroughfares and close to the targeted employers.
Most recently, MHO's Glen Rock mixed-use development — now under way on Depot Street in the River Arts District — will provide the kinds of living quarters the metropolitan area needs for its teachers, nurses, firefighters and police. A stone's throw from Mission Hospital and Asheville's primary medical community, the project is being carried out in partnership with Mission, Dedman emphasized.
Janet Moore, the hospital's director of marketing and community relations, said such projects speak to the medical community's ability to attract and keep trained staff, many of them educated at neighboring A-B Tech. Mission, she noted, learned the hard way that offering new nurses and other staff housing assistance — such as a down payment on a home — is a more effective recruitment tool than signing bonuses. "We are training them," said Moore; "They need somewhere to live."
Such efforts, she continued, also dovetail with the hospital's overall mission: improving the health of area residents by allowing them to walk or bike to work instead of commuting.
Near is dear
One surprise in the study was how highly the folks surveyed rated living within walking or cycling distance of their job as a factor that would make them more likely to move closer to the workplace, noted co-author Daniel Rodriguez, the director of UNC's Carolina Transportation Program. The walking/biking factor ranked second, behind "safe neighborhood."
The study also links work-force housing with overall environmental health, Rodriguez added: When people live closer to where they work, they spend less time commuting.
And that could significantly reduce transportation-related pollution, which contributes to ozone and the haze that's been apparent this June, said Dedman, gesturing at the mountain scenery surrounding the Western Residence.
"In North Carolina," the report points out, "gasoline and diesel combustion accounted for 93 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions, CO2 and other … gases." In that vein, Rodriguez also emphasized another finding: Nearly 8,000 low-income residents commute an average of 15 miles per day to jobs located within seven miles of downtown Asheville; of the 258 who responded to the study survey, 62 percent indicated they'd be willing or at least interested in moving closer to their jobs. According to the study, each worker who did so would reduce his or her yearly commute by an average of 8,770 miles, save about $4,600 in travel costs and gain up to 250 hours of personal time. And for every 100 commuters who moved closer to work, significantly less toxic gases would be released into our local air: Nitrogen oxide emissions would drop by 117 kilograms, carbon monoxide by 1,011 kg and CO2 emissions by 350 tons.
That's "equivalent to the savings from turning off all streetlights in the city of Asheville for 10 consecutive days or driving 220 Chevy Malibus from Asheville to Seattle and back," the report notes.
On the other hand, study authors concede, not all commuters want to move to Asheville: As one study participant commented, "A doublewide in the county with a goat and a dog in the yard is more attractive for many."
For more information about the study, visit the website at http://curs.unc.edu/.
Margaret Williams can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 152, or email@example.com.