Six hands shot skyward as Asheville City Council took its Jan. 8 vote on approving the Riverwoods Subdivision, a 416-unit for-sale development on Ferry Road in South Asheville. After a brief moment, Council member Keith Young joined his colleagues, lifting his own hand to affirm a project that will transform a rural parcel roughly half the size of downtown.
Young cited the project’s lack of affordability as the reason for his hesitation in remarks before the vote. Although Los Angeles-based developer Ron Hirji agreed to make some of the units affordable to buyers earning 100 percent of the area median income ($43,000 per year for an individual), Young said that effort “doesn’t even take a blip off the radar” for Asheville’s affordable housing crisis.
“When I say I literally have physical anxiety about supporting this project, that is real and true,” Young said. “A part of me really feels like I’m letting folks down by approving this project.”
However, Young acknowledged that the subdivision filled a housing need for residents at higher income levels. Jennifer Lanning of Exit Realty, representing the developer, said that the property’s 188 single-family homes could sell for up to $450,000 each. The project’s affordable housing would come from its 36 condominiums, which she said would be listed in the $200,000 range; the remaining units would consist of 188 duplexes and four live-work units at unspecified prices.
Young also noted that the property has long been “in limbo,” echoing earlier remarks by Mayor Esther Manheimer. The mayor explained that the site was once owned by the city but had undergone a complicated series of transactions between area governments, including Buncombe County’s 2015 purchase of the property for $6.8 million as part of an effort to attract Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery that ultimately failed.
“Buncombe County got left holding this property, and now they’ve found someone who will purchase the property and develop it,” Manheimer said. “So this kind of brings this whole situation to a close in my mind, and luckily we’re looking at housing, which is something that we very much need.”
Several residents criticized the deal during public comment, including Casey Campfield, who said the developer’s affordability offer was too low. “Five percent affordable units, when the definition of affordable seems to be heavily qualified here, leaves 95 percent of these units not available for people who make [over the AMI],” he said. “I think that you can negotiate better than that for the citizens of Asheville.”
Council member Julie Mayfield subsequently suggested that the developer offer 10 percent of the units as affordable, but Lanning said those involved with the project “don’t want to necessarily commit to that until we know what the economy’s going to be doing.” She instead offered a guarantee of 8 percent affordability, which Council accepted.
After the vote, Mayfield noted that the subdivision was the first private for-sale development for which Council had secured any affordability guarantees. She suggested that similar projects could be possible but would benefit from more thoughtful scrutiny.
“We need to figure it out. If we had a little more time, we might have come to a different place,” Mayfield said, although she did not call for a delay in Council’s approval before the vote. “I think none of us rest well, knowing the affordability issues that we have.”