Survey says: developers tell city commission why they don’t build affordable housing

As part of a major effort to examine Asheville’s lack of affordable housing and possibly overhaul the way city government approaches the issue, the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee interviewed a range of developers throughout the fall to find out why many don’t build affordable housing.

The developers replied that the costs of land, a lack of infrastructure, insufficient transit, city rules inhibiting denser development and neighborhood opposition all play a role in why many of them don’t build more affordable units.

The effort surveyed 15 developers of varying sizes, including both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Staff have compiled a summary of the responses.

“This is an important step,” Commission Chair Lindsey Simerly tells Xpress. “Before, most of the feedback we had on this issue was either anecdotal or related to a specific project.” This time, she adds, answers from a range of different companies with widely varying goals helps give a clearer picture of the obstacles.

“The broad sentiment regarding land-use policies and regulations was that of a disconnect between the City’s affordable housing policies and the regulations governing actual development,” reads part of the staff summary.

Specifically, the report notes that “several city requirements such as setbacks, tree save and open space require larger lots and drive affordable housing costs up.” Several developers said that the availability of transit services also impacts potential financing for affordable housing, as an improved transit system might increase development of less expensive housing. The developers also said that they would prefer the city waive fees for affordable housing developments up front if it wants to incentivize them, rather than giving a rebate later.

Asheville’s no stranger to development fights, which sometimes pit advocates of affordable housing and neighborhood preservation against each other. Indeed, neighborhood opposition emerged as one reason the developers cited for not building affordable housing, saying they decline to pursue it in the first place because of fear of a grueling public battle.

“Those who have participated in a rezoning or other approval requiring a public hearing generally felt the process was unfair and stacked in favor of the neighborhood,” the report notes.

What might change? The commission is using the survey to begin crafting recommendations for Asheville City Council. Those may include that the city start buying land to use for future affordable housing, overhauling development rules that inhibit density nearer the city core, changing what incentives the city offers, and having specific staffers who can help guide a developer through the complexities of dealing with different departments to get approval for a project.

On the neighborhood opposition front, some developers suggested making it harder for neighbors of a potential project to file a protest petition that can require a developer to get a supermajority on Council to proceed. Staff, however, noted that they didn’t have a recommendation one way or another on that proposal.

The Affordable Housing Advisory Commission will discuss the survey results and possible policy changes at its meeting this Thursday, Jan. 9, at 8:30 a.m. in the fifth-floor conference room in City Hall.


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