Asheville City Council

It’s time to ante up: Asheville City Council members say they support affordable housing; neighborhood residents claim to, as well, although they qualify their support, urging single-family homes, rather than multifamily units.

This is your chance to come through, Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan told Council members on Nov. 3.

City staff and Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee propose buying a 6.8-acre parcel on Virginia and Brotherton avenues, in West Asheville, and building 20 to 30 single-family, affordable homes there. The land is owned by the Asheville Housing Authority, which attempted unsuccessfully to site a multifamily development on the land back in 1994, Caplan reported. She estimated that the city would need $130,000 to buy the property and pay for “pre-development costs.”

The funds could come from a surplus in the city’s Community Development Block Grant coffers, Caplan explained. Loans, paid out in previous years’ grant programs, have been paid off recently, and the city will take in additional money from the sale of an Asheland Avenue property that had been acquired with CDBG funds, she noted.

Money isn’t everything: Council member Tommy Sellers, a strong advocate for West Asheville, raised a series of questions, most of them posed earlier in 1994 by neighborhood residents who opposed the Housing Authority’s plan to develop the property. Back then, City Council agreed with residents and turned down the project, due to concerns about the neighborhood’s inadequate infrastructure — primarily, its aging water lines and inadequate water pressure for emergency needs. “What’s different now from what it was five years ago?” asked Sellers.

The Regional Water Authority has extended a six-inch water line into the neighborhood, and water pressures now remain stable at the hydrants, delivering more than 500 gallons per minute, replied Water Resources Civil Engineer Mike Brookshire.

Still not entirely satisfied, Sellers asked Brookshire about the condition of other lines supplying Virginia Avenue properties.

Those lines are 40 to 50 years old, like others in many parts of the city, Brookshire responded. “[They’ve] got some age [on them], but [they’re] functional.” He reported that, just that morning, those lines had tested adequate at 540 gallons per minute.

That’s sufficient for fire-emergency needs and would probably be enough to include a sprinkler system in the proposed development, reported Asheville Fire Chief John Rukavina.

Sellers said he wanted that assurance in writing. He also questioned why the city should pay $130,000, when the Housing Authority had paid less than $73,000 for the property, six years ago. Sellers asserted that the Housing Authority was hoping to recoup lawyers’ and other fees it had incurred during the failed development attempt.

“We’re certainly not going to pay more than the fair-market value,” Caplan declared. “[Your] question assumes the Housing Authority has incurred costs it’s trying to recover. That’s not my concern.” She emphasized that the land’s most recent appraised value is $120,000 — and she has an independent appraiser evaluating that estimate. Considering the appreciation typically seen in property prices in the Asheville area in the past six years, she doesn’t consider that increase unreasonable.

Caplan also emphasized that the proposed project is considerably different from what the Housing Authority tried to do: It would be a single-family development, modeled on cohousing principles, which included clustered homes linked with footpaths, shared green spaces and parking areas. “It’s a design that fosters a sense of community,” said Caplan. What’s more, future homeowners — low- and moderate-income citizens — would even get to help design the development. The city, in turn, would funnel some future CDBG funds into improving the infrastructure, such as streets, sidewalks and storm drainage.

Caplan also noted that one-third of the lot is undevelopable, due to steep terrain, although, legally, it can support up to 50 single-family homes, by virtue of its RS-8 zoning classifcation (residential, single-family, eight units per acre).

“I would hate to see this land undeveloped. … It helps [provide] affordable housing [and] avoids urban sprawl,” she said.

But Council members remained cautious.

Council member Chuck Cloninger stressed the importance of design — making the development blend into the neighborhood.

Earl Cobb, on the other hand, voiced concern about the cost of the individual homes: A figure of $100,000 per unit had been mentioned, he noted, complaining that this is not truly affordable for the city’s low and moderate-income residents. “I can’t see subsidizing $100,000 homes,” Cobbs declared, adding that surrounding homes cost much less.

Houses in the neighborhood range in value from $40,000-$90,000, with the median around $75,000, responded Caplan, adding, “I would hope we’d be targeting our selling prices within that range.” As for design, the city would require the developer (as yet unspecified) to get input from the project’s future homeowners, as well as current neighborhood residents. Council members will also have a chance to review the final site plans, she emphasized.

“It’s often been said that the city’s not doing enough for affordable housing,” Mayor Leni Sitnick observed. But the term “city,” Sitnick pointed out, also includes the community and its residents. “This is the kind of [project] we ought to be doing — as a city [and] as a community.”

“I agree,” said Cobb. “I just want to keep the home prices at a truly affordable level — not $100,000.”

Back in 1994, West Asheville residents who opposed the multifamily proposal declared that they would support single-family development, noted Housing Authority Director David Jones.

Council member Barbara Field picked up on that thought, proclaiming: “It’s time to put our money where our mouths are for affordable housing. … This is a real opportunity to put some homes out there for my daughter, for your son,” she said, turning to Sitnick. “If our policy is to facilitate affordable housing, and a project comes to us like this one, we should support it. … The community said it wanted single-family development: We should hold them to their word. In the past, no matter where we tried affordable housing, the community was against against it. We’ve got to show political courage [and] leadership.”

But the first stage is simply to approve the purchase of the land, remarked Vice Mayor Ed Hay. He also emphasized that this doesn’t involve city-taxpayer money: “This is federal dollars [earmarked] for housing.”

Council members took no formal action on the proposal, which is slated to be discussed at a Nov. 9 public hearing.

In a related issue, Caplan mentioned some other immediate needs that could be funded through the surplus in Community Development Block Grant funds: a $70,000 loan guarantee for Neighborhood Housing Services, which is developing office and retail space and apartments at the head of Montford Avenue; and a $35,000 reallocation, to plan for infrastructure improvements at a Mountain Housing Opportunities development in the West End/Clingman Avenue neighborhood. Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee has also recommended allocating additional HOME funds ($50,000) to provide rental-housing assistance to low-income tenants in danger of becoming homeless.

Council’s Housing Committee (currently Field, Hay and O.T. Tomes) allocates CDBG and HOME funds each year.

Fixing up Oak Knoll Apartments

In other affordable-housing news, Council members gave their informal approval for a $6 million bond issue by the Asheville Housing Authority to renovate the privately owned Oak Knoll Apartments in Oakley.

According to Authority Director David Jones, those 180 units serve Section 8 tenants, but the federal contract for providing that service will soon expire.

The renovation deal, he explained, will allow the owner to take advantage of tax credits, and the Authority to maintain an inventory of much-needed affordable housing in the city, for many years to come. The developer will pay off the bond debt, reported Jones.

City Attorney Bob Oast explained that state tax statutes require Council’s approval. “It’s a formality,” he told Council members.

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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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