The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners made its largest round of awards from federal COVID-19 recovery funds to date Nov. 16: over $11 million, divided among 17 local nonprofits and county government projects. The biggest single award, nearly $2.55 million, went to Mountain Housing Opportunities to finance affordable rental units; Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity got $1.6 million to install roads and other infrastructure at new affordable housing developments.
Not on the list was a controversial low-barrier homeless shelter proposed by the city of Asheville for a Ramada Inn in East Asheville. The city went under contract to purchase the property earlier this year, although Asheville City Council delayed a vote, initially planned for Aug. 24, to allocate $9.75 million for the project.
Emily Ball, the city’s homeless services systems lead, had requested roughly $9.2 million in Buncombe support for the shelter. In her application to the county, Ball said that about $4.88 million of those funds would go toward acquisition of the hotel, with the remainder supporting renovations and the first five years of operating costs.
While board members did not speak to their decision to omit the shelter during the meeting, nearly 20 residents of nearby neighborhoods and business owners at the adjacent River Ridge Marketplace shopping center shared their opposition during public comment. Echoing concerns raised during an Aug. 12 community meeting, many gave personal stories about impacts from the city’s current temporary shelter at the location.
Tony Morris, owner of Asheville Sun Soo Martial Arts, said he regularly has to clean up drug needles in a field used by children in his after-school programs. On three occasions, he added, a Ramada resident entered the building and physically threatened his staff. “I was able to negotiate an exit, but it was pretty precarious for a bit,” noted the eighth-degree taekwondo black belt.
And Judith Kaufman, a resident of River Ridge Apartments, said she’s found human feces and trash in the complex’s parking areas, seen people overdosing and witnessed public indecency since the shelter opened. She pushed back against reports that police activity hasn’t increased in the area, pointing out that for many quality-of-life concerns, it would be useless to call law enforcement.
“By the time you report somebody who’s having sexual intercourse on your lawn, it’s over. 911 isn’t going to be there,” Kaufman said.
According to Nikki Reid, Asheville’s community and economic development director, the city remains under contract to buy the Ramada Inn, with a closing date in December. She said City Council “is expected to make decisions about the future of the property” Tuesday, Dec. 14.
Law enforcement group calls for equity head’s resignation
Just over two weeks from her first day with the county, Rachel Edens, Buncombe’s first chief equity and human rights officer, is facing demands to resign. Rondell Lance, who leads Asheville’s chapter of the N.C. Fraternal Order of Police, said during public comment that Eden had expressed negative views about police officers on social media.
“If I had on my Facebook page, Twitter page, that I thought most teachers were sexual predators, and it’s inherent in their job because they’re around kids all the time … you wouldn’t hire me and you shouldn’t hire me if I had that view out on the internet,” Lance argued. “But you have hired someone who’s just as biased against law enforcement.”
He said deputies with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office had approached him with concerns and proceeded to read several tweets from Edens’ profile, for which he said she should immediately resign or be terminated. In emails to Xpress after the meeting, Lance shared screenshots of the now-private messages and said his demands were supported by the local FOP’s roughly 250 members across 12 different Western North Carolina law enforcement agencies.
“The police continue to murder us, with what seems an uptick since the [white police officer Derek] Chauvin conviction [for the murder of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd]. We will not accept these terrorist reprisals for the carriage of actual justice,” ran one of Edens’ tweets, which she had posted in April.
The commissioners did not respond to Lance’s claims during the meeting. Aaron Sarver, spokesperson for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, said Nov. 17 that Sheriff Quentin Miller was unavailable for immediate comment.
In response to an Xpress request for comment from Edens, county spokesperson Lillian Govus sent the following statement via email: “Comments like those shared last night only further demonstrate why it’s so critical that as an organization, as a service provider and as a community we authentically engage in racial equity work. Even before a pandemic heightened disparate health outcomes for our BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] community, racism was identified as a public health and safety crisis. Buncombe County is committed to making progress toward real racial equity, and with Rachel Edens as our chief equity and human rights officer, we can do that work.”
Updated at 10:05 a.m. Nov. 18 to reflect new information from Rondell Lance