By the people

How should federal housing and community-development funds be spent in the area over the next five years? It’s Charlotte Caplan‘s job to come up with a recommendation that Asheville City Council can adopt. But Caplan, the city’s Community Development director, wants the people most affected by the spending plan to craft its policies and goals. “You could say I’m delegating it,” Caplan remarks.

Charged with getting citizen input for the five-year plan, Caplan has gone one step further than the public meetings required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: She has created a citizens committee, consisting of four focus groups, each charged with considering one of the plan’s aspects: affordable housing, public housing, homelessness and non-housing community development (such as economic-development programs).

“The last [five-year] plan was more staff-driven,” Caplan mentions. The city of Asheville, which coordinates the plan for a four-county area (Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania), held public meetings after city staff initially drafted the 1994 plan. “The difference, this time, is we’re soliciting citizen participation up front. … The idea is, ‘Come and help us draft this plan, right from the first day of the process.'”

The plan sets up goals and priorities for how millions of dollars in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and HOME funds will be spent in the area, through the year 2005, Caplan explains. Last year, CDBG funds — spent primarily in the immediate Asheville area — totaled about $1.5 million, and HOME funds — distributed throughout the four-county area and restricted to housing programs for low- and moderate-income residents — totaled about $1 million.

The funds are important to area residents and service-providers: More than 70 people have already committed to participating in the citizens committee, Caplan reports. The initial group includes representatives of nonprofits involved in housing and other community services, government leaders, public-housing residents and private businesspersons. “[The turnout] exceeded my expectations for participation,” Caplan remarks.

Each focus group — chaired by citizen representatives — is charged with establishing the needs of the community, and then prioritizing them. A consultant will perform a housing-needs assessment, which focus-group leaders — and, ultimately, the overall steering committee — will use to lay out the first draft of the plan, she explains. Focus-group committees will be meeting regularly through December; the number of meetings varies per group.

It’s a long process. The draft is due by the first of the year, with Asheville City Council expected to adopt it by May 2000.

CDBG and HOME funds are not an unlimited resource: For the past five years, amounts awarded by the federal government have declined or, at best, remained static, Caplan notes.

But Steering Committee Chairman (and a Black Mountain Alderman) Will Kennedy is optimistic about the process: “If we involve as many people as possible, the five-year plan will be a better document, with broad-based support,” he told focus-group leaders at a July 26 meeting. He urged those leaders — Beth Maczka (Affordable Housing Coalition), Althea Goode (Eastview Association), Mary Robertson (Aston Park Towers Association) and Peter Laroche (Consumer Credit Counseling Services) to network, seek out experts in the community, and enlist as much additional manpower in their focus groups as they can muster.

Pleased with the group and the turnout thus far, Kennedy remarked, “Hallelujah, let’s move forward.” With that, he also called the group to arms: Rumor has it that Congress may reduce CDBG and HOME funding by 5 percent or more in the coming year; so Kennedy urged each focus-group leader to write to our representatives (Charles Taylor and David Price), and plead with them to maintain the funding. Calling the possible decrease an emergency, Kennedy commented, “We could be producing a plan we don’t have a hope of accomplishing, if the funding isn’t there.”

Some recent programs funded through CDBG or HOME monies include Habitat for Humanity’s construction of 13 homes for low-to-moderate-income families in Asheville (Twin Springs subdivision), Madison County’s construction of two housing units for low-income families, Hospitality House’s homeless/HIV-AIDS services, and the Hillcrest Enrichment Program for low-income youth.

Kennedy noted, “We are making decisions [on a spending plan] without having to worry about Robert’s Rules of Order.” That is, each focus group and the overall steering committee will seek consensus on issues and recommendations, without voting formally on each one. Discussions will be full and inclusive; the reports to City Council will include minority opinions, as well as majority decisions, Kennedy declared.

So far, Caplan is pleased with the group’s progress, although in some regards, working with the full citizens committee means more work for staff. But, she observes, “I feel like I’ve set four train engines running. Hopefully, they’ll all come together at the end. We’ll have to see how the whole thing emerges.”

For more information about the plan, or to get involved in the process, call Caplan at 259-5721.

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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