Council member Gordon Smith called the result of City Council’s vote on a 290-unit apartment complex off Long Shoals Road in South Asheville “instant gentrification.” Council members Keith Young and Julie Mayfield expressed their agreement with Smith’s emotional remarks, which decried the development’s displacement of 55 low-income, mostly Hispanic families.
Saying that the development will create six times as many housing units as presently exist on the site, Council member Cecil Bothwell countered, “This isn’t wholly bad. It’s a sad shame to break up a community, no doubt, but we have been doing that since we stole the land [from the native inhabitants] in the first place.”
Those regrets aside, Council voted unanimously to approve the zoning change that clears the way for Hathaway Development to distribute the planned 290 units across the two affected parcels of land, 55 Miami Circle and 70 Allen Avenue.
Had Council denied the rezoning proposal, the developer, represented by former Asheville Mayor W. Louis Bissette at the hearing, could have built the same number or more units on the property, albeit in a slightly different configuration, under current zoning.
While the Allen Avenue parcel is now vacant, the 7.66-acre parcel on Miami Circle is the location of the Lakeview Park mobile home park. Members of the community turned out to hear Council’s deliberations, with around 35 Lakeview Park residents of all ages present in Council chambers. The residents have been working with Jim Lowder of Homeward Bound and Deacon Rudy Triana of St. Barnabas Catholic Church to negotiate with the developer for relocation assistance.
Since Homeward Bound typically works with families and individuals who are literally homeless, explained Lowder, the mobile home park residents do not currently qualify for his organization’s programs. Calling the organization’s work on behalf of the residents “an unusual role for us,” Lowder expressed appreciation for the $290,000 in relocation assistance the developer had offered the residents. Homeward Bound will receive the funds from the developer and distribute individual checks to each affected family.
Triana spoke of the months-long negotiation process with the developer as “a long, hard journey.” The developer’s offer of total compensation of $5,273 for each of the 55 families (including the 15 families who have already relocated), he continued, is “sufficient” to the residents, though he would have “liked to have had more.” Triana thanked Council, especially Mayor Esther Manheimer and Smith, for “helping those without a voice and giving them the dignity that Jesus Christ says we should give to all human beings.”
In a back-and-forth discussion with community members, Smith established that Lakeview Park residents are currently paying $225 per month to rent their lots. Bissette said the market rate rents of the new units will be $850 to $1,350. City Planner Jessica Berstein said that the 10% of the units the developer had agreed to designate as affordable to those earning under 80 percent of the area median income would rent for $762 to $895 for a one-bedroom unit and $833 to $1,006 for a two-bedroom unit. 29 units will be designated affordable for a period of 15 years.
“How many school-aged children live in the neighborhood?” Smith asked. Maria Escobedo, president of the neighborhood association responded, “In total there are like maybe 60 or so kids. That’s from K to 12. Most of them go to T.C. Roberson High School or Koontz [Intermediate] because they are so close.”
“So they walk to school?” Smith continued.
“Exactly, and like, if parents aren’t home they will go to neighbors or stuff like that,” replied Escobedo.
Smith jumped in: “So this community is a neighborhood. It isn’t just about houses, it isn’t just about dollar symbols, it’s about neighbors helping neighbors, helping take care of one another’s children, the kids can currently walk to school. None of whom are paying as much as the minimum rents in this proposed development.”
“It’s one big family,” said Escobedo. “Even though we have different cultures and stuff like that, we all see each other like siblings.”
Smith asked Escobedo what will happen now.
“That’s what we don’t know, because some parents work ’til late, everybody’s going to be everywhere, so now we don’t know how it’s going to work. Because the way things are now, you don’t know who to trust. And right there it was one big family,” she replied.
Referring to a final agreement negotiated between the developer and the community’s representatives and signed during a recess in Council’s meeting, Smith said, “I really appreciate the collaboration around the agreement you just reached.”
But, Smith continued:
I’m really troubled by the precedent that it sets. Tonight, we are being asked to sanction the annihilation of a neighborhood, to sanction the destruction of a community. It’ll never come back. The history of this community will end on the day you are all evicted. The tone of our conversation tonight is as though all of this is inevitable, as if, when there’s a low-income community of largely marginalized people, that they can expect this to happen. These are not the values that I hold. What’s happening here is not a matter of inevitability, it’s a matter of choices. The choice to evict 55 households, the choice to move 60 school kids out of their schools and out of their communities, to break up a decades-long community of people, this is a matter of choice. These are choices that are being made.
So, while I appreciate the agreement that you have come to, I also understand that you didn’t have a lot of leverage in this. It’s my understanding that $8,000 to $11,000 per unit would have been more in line with what it actually costs, and that doesn’t even figure in the loss of this larger family.
Escobedo agreed. “And we thought about all of that perspective, but we, you know, the law says we’re not supposed to get anything,” she said. “So we asked for that because y’all were helping us. Otherwise, we would have been like…”
“You would have gotten nothing,” concluded Smith.
“Exactly,” said Escobedo. “We’d end up with nothing.”
Smith confirmed that the developer had initially offered the each family $1,000, and eventually raised the figure to the amount under discussion. “You had asked for $8,000 but that was refused?” Smith asked; Escobedo confirmed Smith’s summary.
Smith continued his remarks, his voice cracking:
It’s exceptional that we are in this position tonight, because normally I would reject this request out of hand. We’re forcibly displacing 55 families? I would just say no, that’s crazy. But the position we’re in tonight is that if we just say no, you guys aren’t guaranteed a thing and they can build anyway. And if we say yes, it looks like we are sanctioning the destruction of a neighborhood, but we are guaranteeing that you guys at least get something as you walk away from all of this.
So it’s a real bind that Council finds itself in, that I find myself in. I’m going to follow y’all’s lead and go with this tonight, because I want to be sure that you guys get what you can get, but I couldn’t let this happen without talking about the real impact on the lives of every one of your households and your families that have become this larger family. And I, for one member of Council, do not support the displacement of entire neighborhoods. This city has a long legacy of unjust displacement of people within its borders, and it’s not something that I’ll support, but here tonight, we’re gonna bear witness to it happening again. The latest chapter of a displaced population within the Asheville city limits; it’ll be on tape for everyone to see tonight. And not mentioning that, not talking about that, I think would be wrong. To the folks who are supportive of destroying this neighborhood, and arguing that somehow this recompense is adding to our affordable housing is patently absurd. It’s displacing people, and then paying them off. We appreciate your payoff. Don’t appreciate the displacement.
As far as 10% affordable: 29 units at $833 a month, three times what people are paying now, half the number of units, it’s instant gentrification.
After the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission reviewed the apartment proposal and recommended that Council approve it on April 18, city staff asked the developer to increase its affordable housing commitment to 20% of the units in the complex. Staff also asked the developer to add a sidewalk along a portion of Miami Circle outside of the project area to Long Shoals Road. At the June 14 Council meeting, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler asked the developer to add one month of free rent to the assistance the families will receive.
Calling the developer’s $290,000 relocation assistance, “as generous as I have seen,” Bissette said that the relocation package was “as far as we can go,” and declined to incorporate any other city-requested changes into the project.