New Asheville government projects, such as the city’s much-ballyhooed reparations effort, tend to move at a pace charitably described as cautious. The conversion of an East Asheville Ramada Inn into permanent supportive housing for at least 100 homeless residents, authorized in a 6-1 vote by City Council Dec. 14, proved an exception.
The project was only announced to the public Dec. 3, and the single public meeting on the proposal prior to Council’s vote was held with one day’s notice Dec. 8. The pivot came after months of previous discussion about remodeling the hotel into a low-barrier shelter, plans that had met with opposition from neighborhood residents and a lack of support from potential funding partners such as Buncombe County.
Asheville leaders claimed that the speed was necessary due to the Dec. 15 expiration of the city’s purchase contract for the hotel. Assigning those purchase rights to Shangri-La Industries, a California-based for-profit developer that has committed to maintain the property as supportive housing for 50 years, would still allow the city to shape the future of the site, said Director of Community and Economic Development Nikki Reid.
But Council member Antanette Mosley, the sole vote against the project, said the process had been deeply flawed. While she acknowledged that the city had not been required to issue a public request for proposals for the new Ramada plan, she said no staff member had explained why they couldn’t have taken that step toward transparency.
“When I asked how we ended up with the proposed partners from out of state, essentially I was told that staff reached out and had heard good things,” Mosley said, in reference to Shangri-La and California-based nonprofit Step Up on Second Street, which will operate supportive services at the property. “What I heard was the good-old-boy network taking place. And so by definition, to me, the process we undertook was not equitable.”
Several community members who commented during the meeting shared Mosley’s concerns. Rick Freeman, president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, said his group had unsuccessfully pushed to delay the vote to allow for “thorough due diligence and thoughtful public engagement.” And West Asheville resident Grace Martinez suggested that “when private capital comes into these projects, I think we need to have a deeper conversation as a community about what that looks like, who is involved and where we want these funds to come from.”
Meanwhile, although Council member Kim Roney ultimately voted for the project, she said Asheville had failed by not already converting the Ramada into a low-barrier shelter. She moved for the city to purchase the hotel and fund the low-barrier shelter itself, at an estimated cost of $24.75 million for five years, but the motion did not receive a second.
Shangri-La will entirely fund the purchase and remodeling of the hotel, recouping its investment from rents on the apartments (much of which will be subsidized with federal housing vouchers). But the city will commit $1.5 million to Step Up on Second Street for support services. Of those funds, $500,000 will come from federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, with the remaining $1 million to be allocated from other sources in the future. Occupants of the permanent supportive housing are slated to start moving in late next year.
Occupants of the city’s current temporary shelter at the Ramada will be allowed to stay through March. Emily Ball, Asheville’s homeless services systems lead, said the city and nonprofit partners would work to find permanent housing for all of those residents; 24 of the 80 staying at the shelter, she said, had already been accepted into housing programs.
Reid emphasized that the city will “continue to work with funding partners and the community on a new, consultant-led planning process for an emergency shelter.” She did not provide a timeline or funding details for the effort.
That lack of specificity irked Patrick Conant, director of local government transparency project Sunshine Request. “The city needs to clarify their commitment and specify a clear path forward for this community,” he said. “Furthermore, I’m also concerned by what seems to be a common cycle in our city. You brought together local groups and individuals for months, created a plan, went under contract to buy a property, then bailed at the last minute; now, we need a ‘consultant-led planning process.’”
Homestay changes pass, allowing kitchens
A long-running debate over the presence of kitchen facilities in Asheville’s homestays was finally resolved by a 6-1 Council vote in favor of new zoning rules. Property owners will now be allowed to rent out spaces that include a stove, full-size refrigerator or sink on a short-term basis; the practice had been banned in 2018 in an effort to preserve spaces for long-term renters.
According to data presented by Robert Michel, head of the Asheville Homestay Network, the kitchen rule hadn’t slowed homestay applications; instead, owners seeking to rent ineligible spaces had ripped out the offending appliances and utility hookups, with most spending between $500 and $1,000 to do so. “There have been some instances where we’ve lost housing stock as a result of this,” confirmed city Principal Planner Shannon Tuch.
Sage Turner was the only Council member to vote against the change, citing concerns that more residents would be displaced by property owners converting apartments into short-term rentals. “I think the kitchens is a risk,” she said. “I just hope this doesn’t continue to push housing prices up.”
In addition to allowing kitchens, Council’s vote now prohibits detached accessory dwelling units from being used as homestays and requires owners with at least a 5% stake in a property to list themselves on homestay applications. Because homestay permits are limited to one per person, the latter move is designed to discourage outside investors from operating multiple properties as STRs.
Mayor Esther Manheimer said the new rules brought greater clarity to Asheville’s regulations but acknowledged that identifying violations remained a problem. While she said city staff has been in negotiations with Airbnb, the leading STR platform, to gain better data on renters and their properties, an agreement is unlikely.
“Airbnb says, ‘We’ll be glad to be the police officers in all this and do the enforcement … but we’ll only do it if you promise to loosen up your short-term rental regulations and, for example, open up short-term rental opportunities in your entire downtown,’” Manheimer said. “It really puts us between a rock and a hard place.”