Is Asheville’s creative community getting priced out?

Abby Roach, aka Abby the Spoon Lady
KANSAS OR BUSK: "A good number of our venues pay less than minimum wage. That’s why our performers can’t live here," says longtime Asheville icon Abby the Spoon Lady, who has recently moved from her rental in Woodfin into a converted bus that she plans to take to her hometown of Wichita, Kan., in a few months. She says affordability problems, along with a diminishing number of busking locations, have motivated her move. Photo by Laura Hackett

Local artist Kris Lars says that during the winter months when sales were down, she sometimes lived in a tent in order to hang onto her workspace. For four years, Lars rented space in the Phil Mechanic Studios on Roberts Street, which was then one of the more affordable River Arts District properties. Discouraged by the rising rents, Lars eventually gave up her studio and took a nonarts-related job; the building was sold to a Texas investor in 2016. Lars says she knows several artists who live in campers to avoid paying prohibitive rates for residential space.

Filmmaker and audio engineer Braethun Bharathae-Lane says, “I lived out of my car for a year until I found a property in Black Mountain. But most of my activities are in Asheville, so I’m having to commute all the time in crazy traffic. There’s a lack of affordable parking. All these little charges start to add up.”

Meanwhile, beloved local busker Abby Roach (aka Abby the Spoon Lady) has announced that she’ll be relocating in the coming months. “I don’t see anything within the central downtown area being affordable for any artists staying here,” she says. “I lived out in Woodfin, and I was paying rent a lot cheaper. Even then, it was expensive enough that I’m not going to be paying rent anymore: I’m going to move into my bus.”

Roach, who intends to move to Wichita, Kan., in the coming months and make periodic trips back here, says she, too, knows other artists facing similar situations. “I see more and more that performers who want to move and live here can’t. They’ll even be homeless for a few months trying to find a way that they can earn an income enough to keep a roof over their heads, but it ends up they can’t.”

As Asheville becomes an evermore desirable destination, housing costs continue to rise. As of June 30, the median price of currently listed homes in the city was $359,950, according to Zillow. Local rentals tell a similar story. A 2017 report by Bowen National Research, which was commissioned by the city as a follow-up to the company’s broader 2014 regional housing needs assessment, found that in Buncombe County, the median rent for a one-bedroom unit (not including utilities) increased 12% between 2014 and 2016, from $830 to $930. In the same period, median studio apartment rents jumped 31%, from $667 to $875.

That, of course, affects everyone, not just artists. And meanwhile, the demand for affordable rentals has remained unmet. Bowen’s 2017 report found that none of the 2,348 government-subsidized units (serving households at or below 50% of the area’s median household income) and only one of the 967 tax credit units (for households with up to 60% of the median income) was vacant. A combined 1,187 households were on waitlists for those two types of housing.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think affordable housing is a top priority,” says Downtown Commission Chair Sage Turner, who’s also vice chair of the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee.

Stephanie Moore, executive director of the Center for Craft, sounded a similar note in an October 2018 press release. “We know that many artists, creatives, musicians and performers are leaving due to the rapidly increasing cost of living, putting Asheville’s culture at risk,” she said. “Collective efforts to develop affordable housing and space solutions for artists should be a key priority.”

Admittedly, the creative sector as a whole has seen significant upticks in wages and job availability, and statistically, Asheville’s creative community still looks strong. But the city’s ongoing growing pains and housing affordability crisis are increasingly threatening its long-standing identity as an arts haven.

Dueling numbers

Still, at least by some measures, the creative sector appears to be thriving.

In 2017, a half-dozen local entities — the Asheville Area Arts Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the city of Asheville, the Center for Craft, the River Arts District Artists and UNC Asheville — joined forces to purchase the Creative Vitality Suite, an analytical tool that annually assesses a community’s overall creative landscape.

And according to the June 2019 CVS report (based on 2017 data), creative jobs, wages and overall vitality remained on the rise. In 2017, there were 6,347 skilled creative jobs in the city of Asheville — up 17% from 2014. During the same period, Buncombe County saw a 16% increase. In those years, total earnings from creative jobs rose 35% in the city and 33% in the county. The report also found that Buncombe County scored 1.28 on the Creative Vitality Index, which measures the health of an area’s creative economy compared with the national index average of 1.

Many artists, however, live a bare-bones existence and work day jobs in order to support their creative endeavors — one of many factors that might skew the numbers. Accordingly, in 2017, the Center for Craft and the chamber also tackled the question from a different angle. They hired Artspace Consulting to determine the demand for affordable arts-based working and living spaces.

The Minneapolis-based Artspace, a nonprofit real estate developer that focuses on affordable housing, studio and performance space for artists, developed a pair of online surveys. Based on the responses of 1,265 individual artists and 170 creative businesses, the Arts Market Study called for building up to 168 units of affordable housing for artists/creatives and up to 81 units of affordable studio space. The hope, notes Moore, is that the survey results will persuade developers and city leaders to make the needed infrastructure investments.

City Council gets involved

To some extent, that seems to be happening. In response to the study’s findings, the city announced that, in partnership with Artspace, it would prioritize affordable living and/or workspace for artists at the ice house site (81-91 Riverside Drive). The next step is putting out a call to developers “to submit statements of qualifications and interest in the project,” says Stephanie Monson Dahl, director of the city’s Strategic Development Office. She expects that to happen later this year.

“We have a lot of research that supports this approach being beneficial to our community. However, the developers will have to show that it can be done in an economically feasible manner.”

Janelle Wienke, the arts council’s assistant director, says the Creative Vitality Suite has helped drive home their message. “When you’re talking to the city or county about development, you start to speak their language when you talk about economic impact or salary bases, industry sales, tax revenue. Once you start to talk that language, it gives credibility.”

City Council, notes Monson Dahl, recently approved more than $3 million in Housing Trust Fund loans and modifications of existing loans to support the creation of 151 affordable apartment units, at least 11 of which will be reserved for people who are currently homeless. The remaining units, she says, will be affordable for people making no more than 60% of the area’s median income. “For a two-bedroom where the tenant is paying utilities, today that means a maximum rent of $685; $900 if all utilities are included,” Monson Dahl explains.

More proposed development

Some developers are also taking note of local artists’ needs. Since the Asheville Arts Market Study results were reported last October, several proposals for arts-focused, mixed-use developments have been submitted to the city.

The 22,400square-foot, high-density Radview project, which received the city’s Planning and Design Review Committee recommendation in March, would create housing, artist studios, office and retail space on a hill behind the N.C. Glass Center on Roberts Street. According to Laura Hudson, the project’s architect, the 26 units are “affordable by design,” with rental rates to be determined upon the project’s completion. A June 7 press release notes that the project location “pays homage to the River Arts District’s history as an incubator for artists, who repurposed neglected buildings and forged the heart of the Asheville arts scene.”

The release quoted developer Jeremy Goldstein saying, “We feel it’s critical to provide additional artist studio workspace with retail frontage in this location: housing that will be occupied by people that actually work in the River Arts District, and office space for arts-related organizations. The goal is to infuse creative energy and life into the heart of the district by activating this site 24/7.”

Hudson says the project’s final step in the city approval process was expected to come on Sept. 16 at the Technical Review Committee, as this issue of Xpress goes to the printer. Assuming that approval goes Radview’s way, construction could begin next spring.

Another proposed project, Create 72 Broadway, passed muster with the Downtown Commission in July. And on Aug. 7, the Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously endorsed a modified version of the mixed-use development, which would stand at the corner of Broadway and Market streets. The current configuration calls for 137 hotel rooms (down from 150) and 37 residential units, at least six of which would be designated affordable; an additional two for-sale units would be live/work spaces allocated specifically for local artists. There would also be commercial space, an art gallery, a transit shelter and parking.

The project would be a major component of the Broadway Cultural Gateway plan commissioned by the Center for Craft and UNCA, which aims to develop the surrounding block as a more prominent cultural district and downtown point of entry.

“Provided we receive approval from the city to move forward,” says Greensboro-based developer Birju Patel, “Create 72 Broadway will include six apartments designed and reserved specifically for professional creatives earning 60% of the area’s median income” — $39,840 for a family of four, according to federal data. “We want to support creative endeavors and those whose lives are enriched by their art,” he continues.

At an April 10 presentation to local news media, Patel said the six affordable apartments would rent for “about 500 bucks. … We looked at what the average rent for Asheville was: about $2,000 a month. … We looked at what the criteria for affordable housing were, from a legality standpoint. Basically, it says that [a person] should not be spending [more than] 30% of their [area’s median income] on rent, and that breaks out to roughly $500 a month.” Patel’s company would underwrite the $1,500 a month difference, he said.

But the project stalled at a Sept. 10 public hearing before Asheville City Council after Council members Vijay Kapoor and Julie Mayfield said they wouldn’t vote for the project. Supporters of Asheville City Market, a farmers market held on Saturday mornings on North Market Street, said the hotel would imperil the market’s operations by reducing the portion of the street that could be closed for its use. After more than two hours of discussion and comments from members of the public, attorney Derek Allen asked Council to continue its consideration of the hotel’s zoning application at least until Tuesday, Sept. 24; officials voted 4-3 in favor of the request, with Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler and Council members Brian Haynes and Keith Young opposed.

At its Sept. 24 meeting, however, Council will also hold a public hearing on a proposed one-year moratorium on hotel construction throughout the city.

Beyond housing

Some local artists, though, are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Although Lars says she’s encouraged that people care enough to seek out data, “I just need more physical evidence of things changing.”

Local filmmaker Ted Kendrick, who founded the digital project hub Artificial Ink Creative, sounds a similar note. “It seems like a step in the right direction; the results of the survey seem fair.” Nonetheless, he continues, “I’m considering leaving, because my rent has been raised up a good chunk. It raises every year.”

And Bharathae-Lane, the filmmaker and audio engineer, says, “I’m not excited yet, to be honest. It really depends on how well these developments play into the community.” In the case of Create 72 Broadway, he points out, “It seems like the affordable space could just be a bargaining chip to get the hotel approved. … For the community to really thrive, artists need to look at ways to cooperate and collaborate. We need to pay artists a living wage for the work they’re doing. I think artists should form unions and have laws in place that protect them from being exploited.”

Roach agrees. “It’s more than just housing: If the wages aren’t going up, there’s no way around it, artists will have to leave,” she maintains. “A good number of our venues pay less than minimum wage. … If you love the arts and culture in Asheville, then you have to pay for it.”

According to Artspace, which has 52 properties in operation and seven more in the works in communities across the country, its developments in locations such as Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Washington, D.C., have galvanized creativity, often even persuading out-of-town artists to emigrate to those places. Hard data concerning the success of subsidized artist housing is limited, but a 2007 report by the Urban Institute cited community benefits ranging from beautification and increased pedestrian and automotive traffic to diversified development strategies and a small-scale increase in job opportunities. For artists, the upside included strengthened networks, increased feedback and mentoring, and heightened visibility.

The report, however, also noted that such arts-oriented development can boost real estate values, “leading to revitalization or gentrification.”

Institutional racism

ARTIVISTS IN ACTION: Cleaster Cotton, left, and fellow artist Tarah Singh pose in Cotton’s studio space at the Refinery on the South Slope. Through the Youth Artists Empowered program, the duo focus on creating economic opportunities for young African American artists in Asheville with art lessons, mentorship and professional development. Photo by Laura Hackett

That, in turn, can have an outsize impact on artists of color, who already face additional challenges, notes Cleaster Cotton. The Asheville-based artist, who leads the Youth Arts Empowerment workshops, says she welcomes efforts to create affordable working and living spaces here — provided that it’s done with “sensitivity to people in the community who are indigenous, who you may not see anywhere else except where black Ashevilleans have been displaced to.”

Unless there’s “proper communication and relationship between black people and those who are coming in with money to help economic and housing situations,” she continues, “you won’t have black people moving in. So a lot has to be done to repair those circumstances.”

One possible solution might be allocating some of the proposed new affordable units for Asheville natives who have historically been displaced by things like gentrification, redlining and urban renewal. At least one successful local artist voices support for that approach.

“I think it would be good if there were more affordable spots for artists to make stuff, but I also think that maybe there’s people who are in more need of support than us,” says West Asheville resident Dustin Spagnola, a muralist and painter. “From my perspective, the institutional racism of Asheville is a way more important thing to consider than thinking about whether or not transplants like us have a place to be.”

It takes a community

At the end of the day, artists aren’t exempt from the demands of economics, and depending on the nature of their work, they may have special requirements that further strain the budget.

Business sponsorships and grant programs such as those available through the arts council can give working artists an additional income stream. In many cases, though, those efforts go only so far toward underwriting the cost of residential and studio space.

In November, the Center for Craft will unveil its new National Craft Innovation Hub, a renovation and expansion of the nonprofit’s historic property at 67 Broadway. The facility will offer 7,000 additional square feet of coworking, workshop and gallery space.

In the meantime, says Kendrick, there are simple, inexpensive things individuals can do. Support an artist on social media with a like, share or subscription, the filmmaker suggests. The next time you see a work of art you admire, tag the artist on social media. Tip a street performer who brightens your day.

And if you’re able, notes Cotton, just purchasing a piece of art can have implications that go far beyond the dollars spent. “If you come and buy a painting, you’re helping at a grassroots level,” she says. “I have cried for joy from the looks on my students’ faces when they make a sale.”

The bottom line

But while those actions can certainly give artists a boost, increasing the supply of affordable housing and studio space will take time and will require a comprehensive and creative array of organizational partnerships.

“While nonprofit and mission-driven developers are always striving to build more affordable units, they can’t do it all,” stresses Monson Dahl. All private developers, she maintains, should take advantage of city programs such as the Housing Trust Fund, fee rebates, land use incentive grants and building on city-owned land.

“If all of the market rate developers over the last four years had designated 20% of their units affordable, we would have an additional 400 affordable units,” Monson Dahl points out. And community members, she continues, can help by attending Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and/or Housing and Community Development Committee meetings and learning about the obstacles to creating affordable housing.

Sage Turner, a major advocate for affordability, says that if she had three wishes for the next steps our community takes, they would be: voting yes on more affordable housing bonds; either removing all single-family zoning or making multifamily zoning more accessible; and granting county property tax rebates to projects that include affordable housing, which she believes would spur additional development.

“Much of our problem is housing supply,” she says. “We simply don’t have enough units on the ground.” And increasingly, that is true not just for artists but for anyone of modest means who’s trying to find a way to make it in Asheville.


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3 thoughts on “Is Asheville’s creative community getting priced out?

  1. Curious

    Can Asheville have a vital arts community, both makers, audiences, and consumers, without more robust arts coverage from local media? The Citizen-Times no longer has any arts reporting (except press releases from local groups or individuals), and no critics of any kind. Mountain Xpress tries to fill the gap, and does an admirable job. But no serious, knowledgeable criticism/reviews, not even of movies anymore. Blue Ridge Public Radio also fills a gap, with occasional features. Can we imagine as much coverage for the arts, say, as the Citizen-Times gives to restaurants, with almost daily stories. As much coverage for the arts as for sports?

  2. Tim Jensen

    Come to Roanoke, we’d love to have ya. Lovely creative scene here. It’s very diverse and affordable. Right in the Blue Ridge and in a state that isn’t as oppressive as NC.

  3. Seek remedies for “Affordable Housing” via the local so called “Progressive” government??? LOL!!! What a total crock of BS!!! It’s the local “Progressive” government who CASUED THE ENTIRE PROBLEM!!! The AVL City Council has been filled with hypocrites since at least as long as i’ve been here (1984). They continuously clamor for “Affordable Housing”, yet they deliberately DESTROY affordable and green housing that WORKS in old houses, while promising wealthy developers deals to build new NON-affordable housing.

    For all those new to the area, take a moment and read my story to be truly “awakened” to the total corruption and pathetic hypocrisy of your local “Progressive” government…

    How Socialism Destroyed My Livelihood

    & enjoy your local TYRANY! 8-)

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