In the complicated landscape of affordable housing for Buncombe County, says real estate developer Kirk Booth, only one thing is sure: No project gets done without some extra help. “Unless you are using the city and county tools and financing from either the city’s housing trust fund, the county’s affordable housing fund or some kind of funds from a taxpayer project,” he told around 40 people at the Council of Independent Business Owners’ Dec. 6 breakfast meeting, “it’s not going to happen.”
Booth joined Asheville Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher and Bill Oglesby of the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency to discuss the barriers that developers face when trying to create affordable projects, as well as local government’s approaches to the problem. The diversity of tactics they shared was encouraging, Booth said, because “there’s no one solution or silver bullet.”
On the city’s end, Wisler recapped the existing Land Use Incentive Grant program, which forgives property taxes for certain projects, as well as less restrictive density regulations for affordable housing complexes. She added that developers of affordable housing “go more toward the front of the line” in the city’s permitting and approvals process.
In response to an audience question, however, Wisler admitted that getting developers to sign up for affordable projects has been a challenge. “Not many people have successfully used the LUIG; two or three projects have actually qualified for it,” she said. “We continue to tweak it to try to find the best mix for the developer and for what the city is willing to fund.”
Wisler was also asked about an affordable housing project at Asheville’s former Parks Maintenance Facility on Hilliard Avenue, which had originally planned rental units underwritten in part by LUIG but shifted to a for-sale condominium model due to the developer’s concerns over rising construction costs. She said the city would ensure 50 years of affordability through some sort of deed restriction on the condos, although the “nitty gritty” details had yet to be worked out.
“The owner won’t be able to get the entire market increase, but they will be able to share in part of it,” Wisler said. Council members had referenced equity building among low-income communities as a key reason for their support of the revamped Hilliard project.
Belcher said the county hopes to encourage equity by allowing new manufactured homes in residential zones that do not currently permit such housing. He argued that in areas such as Swannanoa, Leicester and South Asheville, lower-income community members are being robbed of the chance to build the house they can afford.
“The only thing their family has is that land, and they give the land to their child, who wants to stay here and work here,” said Belcher, who is retired from manufactured housing maker Clayton Homes. When these affordable homes are denied, he continued, “That land will be sold. … A more expensive house goes on there, and the cycle doesn’t work. You drive poor people out.”
Finally, Oglesby pointed out that helping people pay for housing can be a critical piece of the affordability puzzle. He said his organization, which works with lenders to provide fixed-rate mortgages, mortgage credit certificates and down-payment assistance, has helped approximately 2,200 Buncombe County residents.
But Oglesby also suggested that Buncombe’s government could be doing more. “I would like to see the county put up about $4 million every year for affordable housing,” he said. “We haven’t gotten to it yet, but I’m going to be lobbying for you to do that.”