By Nikki Gensert
A land use incentive grant application for an 80-unit microhousing development at 217 Hilliard Ave. prompted discussion about the grant program at Asheville City Council’s June 14 meeting. Although Council ultimately approved the roughly $593,000 grant in a 5-2 vote, with Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith and Antanette Mosley opposed, members questioned whether the award would effectively boost affordable housing in the city.
David Moritz, the project’s developer, described it as “reasonably priced workforce housing.” Each unit will be no more than 250 square feet and share a kitchen and living area with 14-17 other units on each floor. The smaller size and communal style, Moritz said, are designed to make the development more affordable than other housing options downtown.
According to the terms of the grant, 16 of those units would be designated as affordable for people earning at or below 80% of the area median income, which would cap rents at $1,053 per month with utilities included. However, Moritz confirmed that market-price rent for all of the project’s units would be about $1,000 including utilities, meaning that the city-subsidized units would not immediately be cheaper for their tenants.
Mortiz pointed out that the terms of the city grant would lock the rent for those 16 units at the 80% AMI affordability level for 20 years regardless of any rent increases to the market-price units. He would also be required to accept housing choice vouchers for eight of the affordable units. In return, he would receive a tax rebate of over $28,000 per year for 21 years, equivalent to a roughly $37,000 subsidy for each affordable unit.
A staff report available before the meeting noted that the development — the first microhousing project to come before Council — adhered to all of the requirements of the incentive grant policy, even though rent for its affordable and market-rate units would be the same. Council member Sage Turner, chair of Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee, said that body was planning to discuss updating the policy to require more from future microhousing developments.
City staff pointed out that the current grant policy does allow Council to negotiate with the developer over specific terms. Both Mosley and Council member Kim Roney asked if Moritz would be willing to consider providing fewer affordable units at a deeper level of affordability, but he was not receptive.
“This is our genuine best attempt to bring reasonably priced housing to downtown Asheville,” Moritz said. He cited rising construction costs and said that his current offer was the best he could do, although he noted that he had not done the math to see if the project could provide fewer units affordable to those at lower income levels.
Council members also questioned whether the project went far enough toward the goal of affordable housing and asked how it might impact the nearby Southside neighborhood. Both Smith and Mosley said that the development did not meet the affordability level that residents in that community need and might also increase property values for nearby homeowners, thereby leading to higher tax bills.
Meanwhile, Roney said that, while she struggled with the decision, she voted yes on the grant on behalf of the eight people who would be able to use housing vouchers for the affordable units.
Residents comment on proposed budget
Council also heard public comment on the city’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022-23. In response to Council comments on City Manager Debra Campbell’s presentation of the budget May 24, city staff had made several additions in advance of the June 14 hearing.
The budget now includes $108,000 in funding to create an urban forester position, boosts funding for reparations from $365,000 to $500,000 and allocates $300,000 to increase employee salaries in line with Buncombe County’s living wage beginning in January. Of the $543,000 in total additional spending, $408,000 would be paid for using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, with the remainder covered by expected revenue increases.
People who signed up to speak on the budget were pleasantly surprised by the urban forester addition. “I came here tonight under the impression that there wouldn’t be funding for an urban forester recommended for the FY23 budget, so now I am here to say thank you,” said Dawn Chávez, executive director of Asheville GreenWorks, “Having an urban forester on staff is essential to improving and maintaining a healthy urban forest in Asheville.”
Several speakers called for the city to cut police funding and instead use that money for other community resources. “I would like to urge Council to actually diversify public safety response instead of continuing to pour resources into the Asheville Police Department,” said Emma Hutchins. “We need paramedicine, community paramedicine, mental health resources that are not housed within APD.”
Council is scheduled to hold its final vote on the budget at its next meeting on Tuesday, June 28.