Asheville City Council

You don’t see this too often: Minutes after adopting eight broad strategies for increasing the supply of affordable housing in Asheville, Council members did something tangible.

During their June 23 formal session, they agreed to reduce permit and inspection fees for new single-family homes valued at less than $100,000, as well as multifamily developments built with federal funding and designed for low- and moderate-income residents.

“Good: We adopt [a plan] and, 10 minutes later, we’re doing something about it,” said Vice Mayor Ed Hay.

Council member Barbara Field noted that Council’s move could save builders of affordable dwellings nearly half the usual permit and inspection fees. That might not seem like much, she continued, but for a multifamily development, “That could mean that one more unit gets built.”

She added that the Metropolitan Sewerage District has also agreed to fee reductions for affordable-housing construction. There’s no word yet on whether the Regional Water Authority will follow suit.

The previous week, Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan reported that the city faces an acute housing shortage, in both the ownership and rental sectors. New construction of $100,000-or-less homes meets a mere 23 percent of the demand for such houses, she told City Council members during their June 16 work session.

But the shortage is particularly severe for Asheville residents with low to moderate incomes, Caplan explained. And it contributes to the “explosion of mobile homes” in the county: “The low production of rental housing in the city is definitely contributing to [this] increase,” Caplan remarked.

“There’s nothing wrong with mobile homes,” said Field. “But in terms of … an investment, their value decreases every year … like a car,” she said.

Council member O.T. Tomes added that the increase in mobile-home development also indicates falling incomes in both the city and county. And he added that a $100,000 home — a common price in Asheville — is still beyond the reach of many residents. “We’ve got to deal with the bigger picture: incomes [and] jobs.”

Mayor Leni Sitnick observed that Asheville also needs affordable homes for college graduates who are just starting out.

To meet all these affordable-housing needs, the city needs 675 additional housing units per year over the next five years, Caplan noted.

She recommended that Council adopt eight broad strategies for achieving that goal, including: formal cooperation with Buncombe County; renovating more homes; increased production of rental and ownership housing; and creating more infill/mixed-use development — such as the recent rehab of the former Asheville Hotel downtown, which now has apartments on the upper floors and businesses at street level.

Having approved such overall strategies, city staff could then work out specific goals and actions for the coming year, Caplan said. For instance, the city could spearhead a demonstration project, such as building a Planned Unit Development — an as-yet unused option available under Asheville’s Unified Development Ordinance. PUDs allow developers to nearly double the number of units they can build on some properties, if they agree to designate many of them for low- to moderate-income residents.

The housing shortage, said Field, “is going to take more than just a few of us to solve. It’s a communitywide problem.”

On June 23, Council members voted 6-0 to endorse those eight strategies. Sitnick was excused from voting because of a nosebleed that forced her to leave the meeting.

Cable vote postponed

If InterMedia — Asheville’s cable-TV franchise holder — becomes an Internet service provider, local schools and libraries will get free service and free modems from the company.

That concession has been written into the proposed franchise agreement with InterMedia, which Asheville City Council members almost approved on June 23.

“We’re willing to incorporate the [Internet] language into the franchise,” said InterMedia General Manager Joe Haight.

“This is a very significant step,” said Asheville Council member Chuck Cloninger, visibly pleased by the news.

That’s not to say there weren’t a few remaining points of contention during a public hearing on the franchise that lasted nearly two hours.

Said Council member Earl Cobb, “I was hoping they’d [also] agree to absorb some of the [pass-through] costs.”

Of the $1.1 million franchise package — which includes funding for three public-access channels and a city institutional, closed-system network — all but $168,000 will be passed on to cable subscribers, via a small monthly charge on their bills. Over the 12-year franchise, the pass-through translates into $46.20 for each of InterMedia’s estimated 21,000 customers, Cobb calculated.

The $168,000 that won’t be charged to subscribers amounts to a grant from InterMedia, Assistant City Attorney Patsy Meldrum argued.

The proposed deal includes more than $700,000 in funding for the new access channels — one each for government, education and public use. Nearly half of the money would be provided in the first three years of the new franchise, either in cash or in the form of equipment.

“They wouldn’t give us anything obsolete?” asked Evan Mahaney, a representative of the Western North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We wouldn’t take just any [kind of] equipment,” Meldrum assured him.

Mahaney also raised a common concern among residents for the evening: “Our worst fear is that all the [access-channel] money would go to the government channel, and the public-access channel would be empty.”

Vice Mayor Ed Hay responded that how the access money gets divided is a policy issue, to be decided later by Council members.

After adopting the franchise, they’ll also consider whether to hire a staff person to monitor InterMedia’s compliance — and whether to create a commission to oversee the access channels, city staff explained.

Other residents repeated concerns about the state-of-the-art clause in the franchise agreement: Would it limit Asheville to a 550-megahertz system that might be obsolete within a few years — or hinder efforts to attract high-tech companies that need 750 MHz?

“I urge you to take your time [and] make sure that whatever system you have … gives you the greatest range and flexibility,” said north Asheville resident Rich Mathews, noting that, not too long ago, we were limping along with 286 computers at the low data-transmission speed of 8 MHz.

Tomes agreed. “Not a single one of us can envision what will happen five years from now,” he said.

Meldrum noted that Council can require an annual performance review of InterMedia’s compliance with the franchise, as well as regular monitoring of technological developments in the industry — and what improvements cities similar to Asheville get from their cable-franchise holders.

Haight pointed out that businesses requiring 750 MHz can negotiate with InterMedia for the service, as needed. The company’s new fiber-optics lines — part of a system rebuild that’s nearly 96 percent complete — can handle up to 1,000 MHz.

A little while later, Mayor Leni Sitnick closed the public hearing, at 7:18 p.m. She.remarked that citizens’ input on the cable issues — first discussed by Council in 1994, according to her notes — has been amazing. She also emphasized that Council’s June 23 actions represented the first vote on any aspect of the cable ordinance and franchise, despite earlier criticism that negotiations were taking place behind closed doors.

Earlier in the evening, Council members had unanimously approved a general cable ordinance — a first for the city — that will regulate all future franchise holders in Asheville.

Council member Cobb noted, “We’ve been living with this [current] franchise since 1967. We could continue another four years [until it expires], but we’re losing a lot of money.”

He made a motion to grant the franchise to InterMedia, and Cloninger seconded it. “I’m ready to vote,” said Cobb.

Then Mayor Leni Sitnick came down with a gushing nosebleed.

Fire Chief John Rukavina, a certified medic, rushed to her aid, as fellow Council members escorted her to the small conference room behind Council chambers. But when the nosebleed couldn’t be stopped immediately, emergency personnel recommended taking her to the hospital. As she was wheeled out to the elevator on a stretcher, Sitnick was conscious and talking — through the paper towels she held over her nose.

She asked fellow Council members to delay a vote on the cable franchise, as well as the public hearing on the franchise-fee settlement, which was scheduled to follow it.

Cobb withdrew his motion to adopt the franchise, despite a plea from Haight that Council take a vote. Council members postponed further discussion and any action on the franchise and fee settlement until July 14.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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