Race, housing take center stage in Council candidate forum

CANDIDATE LINEUP: Asheville City Council candidates at a Sept. 18 forum at UNCA. From left: Kim Roney, Andrew Fletcher, Gwen Wisler, Dee Williams, Pratik Bhakta, Jeremy Goldstein, Cecil Bothwell, Vijay Kapoor, Adrian Vassallo, Sheneika Smith, Rich Lee and Jan (Howard) Kubiniec and moderator Tim Hussey. Photo by Carolyn Morrisroe

Who can afford to live here and how can we all live together? Those questions formed the crux of the conversation among Asheville City Council candidates at a forum where two issues garnered strong and varying viewpoints: the lack of affordable housing and persistent racial tensions in Asheville.

All 12 of the candidates for City Council participated in an event hosted by the Student Government Association and the Political Science Club at UNC Asheville on Sept. 18. The field includes Pratik Bhakta, Cecil Bothwell, Andrew Fletcher, Jeremy Goldstein, Vijay Kapoor, Jan (Howard) Kubiniec, Rich Lee, Kim Roney, Sheneika Smith, Adrian Vassallo, Dee Williams and Gwen Wisler. The Oct. 10 primary will narrow the crowd to six candidates who will go before voters in the Nov. 7 general election to fill three seats.

The three mayoral candidates also spoke at the event; that portion will be detailed in a separate story.

UNCA Student Body President Tim Hussey served as moderator, asking candidates to keep their responses short due to the number of candidates who needed a chance to speak.

Monumental race issues

Hussey broached the issue of race with a question about the “placement and existence of the Vance Monument,” one of three monuments in downtown Asheville with ties to the Confederacy. A 2015 North Carolina law prohibits municipalities from removing, relocating or altering historical monuments, but that has not stopped an outpouring of opinion on the matter. “Where do you stand on this issue and, if elected, how will you address the citizen concerns on race relations?” Hussey asked.

Roney, a piano teacher and founding member of AshevilleFM, was among those who expressed support for the removal of Confederate monuments in Asheville. She said it’s time to reconcile the hate and trauma that such statues cause and to focus on eliminating institutional racism in schools, workplaces and the criminal justice system. “Recognizing my privilege as a white person, it is my job as an ally to work with communities of color, allowing their perspectives and lived experiences to guide our work in dismantling not only the symbols of white supremacy and hate and oppression but also the systems,” she said.

Many Confederate monuments were erected as a tool of intimidation during a time when African-Americans were gaining political and economic power, said Smith, who created a social organization in Asheville to promote cultural advancement of minority communities. “So we are here again, where the tools of intimidation are now emboldening people who have hatred on their heart,” she said. “So we can look at it as just a symbol, but we know that symbols, we wear them every day and they speak to us, and they represent things in our lives that give us power and give us the spirit to do what we do.” Smith, one of two black candidates, said she doesn’t think the Vance Monument has a place in our central business community and that it should be removed to the Vance Birthplace, a state historic site near Weaverville.

ADDRESSING RACE RELATIONS: From left, City Council candidates Dee Williams, Pratik Bhakta, Jeremy Goldstein and Cecil Bothwell. Photo by Carolyn Morrisroe
ADDRESSING RACE RELATIONS: From left, City Council candidates Dee Williams, Pratik Bhakta, Jeremy Goldstein and Cecil Bothwell. Photo by Carolyn Morrisroe

Bhakta, a hotelier, spoke of his experience as a person of color coming to America when he was 6 years old, saying that when his family moved to Enka/Candler in seventh grade, “I was the only brown kid in a sea of white people.” Unlike Smith, however, he does not think the city’s Confederate monuments need to come down. “Up until about a couple months ago, it was a non-issue, and now we’re making a big issue because it’s related to something that was historical,” he said. “I think if we do that with everything that we come across, then we need to go to the Native Americans and say, ‘Look, we’re all wrong, we need to go back.’” Bhakta finds value in society being reminded of its past wrongs rather than sweeping history under the rug.

One of two incumbents in the race, Bothwell pointed out the oddity of having monuments honoring people who supported the dissolution of the Union. There’s really no country in the world that I’m aware of that allows monuments to traitors to their country to persist after wars,” he said.

In response to why such furor over Confederate monuments has recently arisen, Bothwell mentioned the violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August. “No one, I think, was really aware of what an important symbol those Confederate monuments were to the white supremacists, to the neo-Nazis, to the KKK,” he said. “It matters to them, and that’s a reason why they need to come down.” Bothwell acknowledged that the city’s hands are tied by state law, however, and he encouraged voters to elect new representation in Raleigh.

Several candidates expressed hope that a new Human Relations Commission being formed by the city will facilitate work on issues of concern to minority communities. Vassallo, a certified public accountant, said he hopes one of the commission’s first projects will be looking at whether the Vance Monument should be removed or recontextualized. “But I think if that’s all they do, then we have sorely missed an opportunity for our community to move forward,” he said, pointing out that the bigger issues are systemic racism and the need to support social programs that help to lift people out of poverty. “We can’t continue to say, ‘Just rise yourself up with your bootstrap’ when they don’t even have a boot,” he said.

Williams, an African-American business owner, said she doesn’t think monuments are the real issue. “Most black folks’ problems are economic in nature, and so I don’t focus a lot of my attention on shiny things and make-you-feel-good stuff,” she said. “What our problem is is poverty. … Let me just say that I am not much into symbolism that much anymore. You either do the thing or you don’t.”

Williams brought up the fact that Asheville City Schools have the biggest disparity between white and black students’ academic proficiency of any district in the state. “And yet we’re worried about a statue and not about that? So I am happy to have this conversation, not into symbolism but into realism and real change,” she said.

Kubiniec, a community leader, said she was a Black Panther bodyguard in the 1960s at Indiana University when it was “under attack by the KKK,” and that growing up in Indiana, being of Polish descent was marginalizing. She said no one seems to have a solution for embedded racism but she doesn’t think the Vance Monument is at fault. “To overcome this we need to do more than just take down the Vance Monument,” she said. “We need public, personal input. We need nonprofits continuing with all of their programs. I think we need the black church to continue stepping up. We need grant monies. We need commitments on a personal level from volunteer organizations.”

Kubiniec added that the city needs to work to break the cycle of poverty, starting with helping young people. “I wish I could make a high school education as cool as selling cocaine. If we could do that, we’d have something,” she said.

A home for every income

Affordable housing, and particularly the lack thereof, is a thorn in the side of city government. As Asheville blossoms, some worry that lower-income residents are not enjoying the fruits of that growth. Hussey asked the candidates how City Council can help Asheville deal with “both the severe lack of and skyrocketing cost of housing.”

FIXING THE HOUSING SHORTAGE: From left, City Council candidates Vijay Kapoor, Adrian Vassallo, Sheneika Smith and Rich Lee. Photo by Carolyn Morrisroe
FIXING THE HOUSING SHORTAGE: From left, City Council candidates Vijay Kapoor, Adrian Vassallo, Sheneika Smith and Rich Lee. Photo by Carolyn Morrisroe

If your goal is to produce housing for every income level in the city of Asheville and every neighborhood in the city of Asheville, then it’s clear the housing market in Asheville is broken,” said Lee, a financial adviser. He said when the city changes rules such as reducing lot sizes or raising the height of buildings, those actions only benefit those producing the highest-end housing. “I believe when markets fail, it is the responsibility of government to help bring them back into alignment and that’s what I’d like to do on City Council,” he said.

Lee suggested several ideas to help provide affordable housing, such as requiring commercial buildings on main corridors to include housing above them and using affordable housing funds to help finance people who want to build basement apartments or fit out garage apartments and rent them affordably.

Fletcher, a musician, said as a renter, he has seen friends getting priced out of the market and forced to move to make room for Airbnbs. Asheville currently does not allow homeowners in residentially zoned districts to rent out an entire house for short periods. “This is going to sound counterintuitive, but banning whole-house Airbnbs hasn’t worked because when government bans things, they just create a black market,” he said. Fletcher said he would like the city instead to regulate such rentals to a capped percentage of the market in each neighborhood, and then allow those neighborhoods to decide how many of their units could be short-term rentals.

Fletcher added that Asheville needs to create housing affordability for the creative class. “Culture is what drives our economy here. You think it’s the mountains or the beer, but when you talk to people who come here, they love the experience of meeting the people who make the art and make the music,” he said.

Kapoor, a municipal budget consultant, suggested that in mitigating the housing crunch, the city should work on creating more density at the urban core and facilitating better transit. He pointed out that the other side of the affordability coin is wages. “We are so heavily dependent on real estate and tourism that we need to be investing in good-paying jobs,” he said. “The more that we can either reduce the cost for folks around here or the ability that we can help people get more money, so to speak, is something that I think that will address this issue.”

As chair of Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission, Goldstein shared the perspective that City Council’s “profound power” lies in the control of its zoning laws. “I don’t think we should be trying to put affordability somewhere else. I think we should be working on encouraging that growth in our urban core and protecting our surrounding neighborhoods and protecting our surrounding mountains,” he said.

Goldstein added that the city should encourage development of a diversity of housing types. “We have a supply problem,” he said. “When I meet with affordable housing developers and I say, ‘What is the single most important thing we can do to increase affordability?’ they look at me and say, ‘Supply, Jeremy.’”

Wisler, current vice mayor and a retired corporate executive, said she doesn’t agree with pushing economically disadvantaged people out of city. “I think we need to look for solutions within city limits,” she said.

Wisler added that affordable housing is not only the price of the house — it’s also wages. She said the city has changed its rules so that if it gives any incentive to a business, every employee must be paid a living wage. “One of the things that I really am focused on now is when our developers ask for deviations from our rules, that’s when we have leverage,” she said. “That’s we can say, ‘OK, you’re asking for this? How are you going to invest in Asheville?’ I think Council needs to continue and sometimes buck up and actually ask for those investments.”

For coverage of the comments from candidates for mayor of Asheville at the UNCA event, see “Mayoral candidates take on city’s challenges.” The Mountain Xpress 2017 primary voter guide will be available online soon.


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About Carolyn Morrisroe
Carolyn Morrisroe served as news editor and reporter at Mountain Xpress. Follow me @CarolynMorrisro

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20 thoughts on “Race, housing take center stage in Council candidate forum

  1. bsummers

    Goldstein: “I don’t think we should be trying to put affordability somewhere else. “

    Wisler: “I think we need to look for solutions within city limits,”

    Are they reacting to someone suggesting the opposite? I’m not saying that I agree with either position, but the AC-T summarized Cecil’s response to the affordability question thusly: “City shouldn’t focus on building below-market-rate housing. Instead extend bus lines outside city where housing is cheaper.”

    I notice that this article doesn’t quote Cecil on the affordability issue. I understand the need to trim comments for space, but if one candidate said something that other candidates are reacting to, that should be in the piece, IMO.

    • Carolyn Morrisroe

      Thank you for your comment. In the interests of fairness and space, we only quoted each candidate on one issue. Jeremy Goldstein and Gwen Wisler were speaking generally to an argument that has been put forward by more than one candidate that better and cheaper transit would help residents of outlying neighborhoods commute into the city.

      But you are correct that Cecil Bothwell spoke on this issue at the forum. He detailed the history of middle-class residents leaving downtown areas after World War II and said that recently “wealth has rediscovered cities and it’s been bidding up the price of downtown properties. And for the city to try to spend the money to outbid the market doesn’t doesn’t make any sense to me. … What I think we need to do is divert city tax money. We can use the federal money that we get to go to affordability. We should use our city money to extend transit lines beyond city limits, because affordability has moved out to the margins. Affordable living is outside the city and we need to make transit affordable, fare-free and extensive out beyond the city limits so people can commute cheaply. That reduces their carbon footprint, it reduces their impact on parking, it makes their commuting cheaper. That’s the best way we can address affordability.”

      • bsummers

        Thanks – I’m glad I asked. I am not a fan of what Cecil is proposing there. “Divert” federal money meant to help affordable housing? Instead, use it to extend bus lines outside city limits? Yeah, much as I would love that as a person who lives just outside city limits, and who would ride the bus if service came this way… I’m not sure I’m going for that.

        • luther blissett

          ‘“Divert” federal money meant to help affordable housing?’

          I’m not Cecil, but I parse that comment to mean “we’re getting federal money tied to affordable housing, so spend that on affordable housing and refocus general city tax revenues towards transit serving communities where existing housing is more affordable.” Point being that once the city starts subsidizing a handful of “affordable” units in every new development, it’s hard to break that habit.

        • Justin Nemon

          From what I understand, Cecil is advocating that the federal money the city has received to fund affordable housing solutions should continue to be spent that way, but that any additional money the city spends on this issue should focus on expanding transit lines and making buses fare-free.

      • Lulz

        LOL, my relatives owned property at Pack Square until the late 70’s when the city used eminent domain to steal it. Just imagine all the millions they really took away from them. So now the city is saying they can’t compete with developers? Funny how that works isn’t it? Steal someone’s property, hand it over to outside money and then complain about it. Bothwell doesn’t know jack about what he’s talking about as far as the history of downtown revitalization is concerned. Most of the building were stolen out from their owners and sold to others under the guise of revamping downtown. None of the owners were even given a chance to participate, give input, or keep their holdings. The city literally swindled them out of their property. And who ended up with it? The Petersons, Byrnes, Prosser, McKibbon, etc. That’s where many made their millions in the 90’s and beyond as values and rents increased.

      • KRamshaw

        So the answer to affordable housing is to bus poor people out of the City? And then bus them back in to service tourists and more fortunate members of our community? Will we be busing them in on the back roads so they’re not impinging on our consciousness? Pushing certain groups of people into enclaves never turns out well – whether it’s Jews, or African-Americans, or recent immigrants, or people of Japanese descent, or service workers.

        We need to make room for everyone in our existing neighborhoods. There are many other arguments against the Cecil plan: obvious environmental concerns – sprawl and pollution, financial concerns – cost of transit and cost of roads and cost of traffic, and livability concerns – people spending hours of their lives commuting at the expense of their personal and family time. Frankly, if we have the money for infrastructure, roads and transit to support housing in the outer edges of the County, we have the money for affordable housing in the City center where we have the existing infrastructure and where services (hospital, clinics, health center, City and County offices, social services, etc.) and amenities (library, theatres, museums, parks, free festivals) are located.

        I understand Cecil’s frustration – there are so many things working against providing affordable housing and simply kicking the can (or in this case the service worker) down the road seems like the easiest route to getting more housing. But at what cost?

        • luther blissett

          They’re already living on the outskirts, whether it’s just inside the city limits or over in the county. More complexes are being built right now, and they’re mostly car-dependent. The city’s sprawling because the county is fine with having 200-unit complexes on a few acres in Arden or Reynolds or wherever.

          “Frankly, if we have the money for infrastructure, roads and transit to support housing in the outer edges of the County, we have the money for affordable housing in the City center…”

          The question becomes one of effectiveness and equity. The model for subsidizing affordable housing is essentially to pay private developers to offer under-market rents. What’s the cost to the city per unit per year? If that’s the model, you might as well slide envelopes filled with cash under the doors of existing renters on rent day, since it wouldn’t be as biased towards new developments, and would stop them being planned with the expectation of a handout from the city. Or maybe you run buses to where the cheap housing is. There are probably actual statistics that would tell the whole story here.

  2. NFB

    ““City shouldn’t focus on building below-market-rate housing. Instead extend bus lines outside city where housing is cheaper.””

    So, in other words, leave the city to the wealthy, and let to help live outside the city limits?

    • luther blissett

      It’s more complicated than that. Bothwell’s addressing the stone-cold reality that the power of involuntary annexation is gone and not coming back any time soon. Meanwhile, apartment complexes and subdivisions are being planned and built just outside the city limits, under the zoning auspices of the county, on parcels that aren’t generally available within the city without additional construction costs. (Look at the grading and flood mitigation needed for the new complexes on Fairview Road and Thompson Street.)

      I don’t necessarily agree with him, because I believe in social housing. But I think he’s being honest about the challenges of “the city outside the city.” It’s become unpleasant to watch City Council beg and bribe developers for a handful of “affordable” units on every new project, especially when promises get broken; expanding the housing trust fund with bond funding risks the temptation of throwing money at marginal projects, privatizing the profits and socializing the losses. I’d like to see incentives towards voluntary annexation such as a phased-in property tax. But if it’s a choice between subsidizing individual private housing projects within city limits or running a bus service to Arden or Candler every half-hour, there’s a debate worth having on whether the bus delivers a better payoff.

      In all of this, the county has to acknowledge that it now has a public service requirement for transit that goes beyond Mountain Mobility.

      • Lulz

        City taxpayers should not be funding the county at the same rates as those who love outside the city limits.

        • bsummers

          Rates for “love outside the city limits”? I believe prostitution is just as illegal in the county as it is in the city. Maybe you know something I don’t?

  3. Deplorable Infidel

    we must all realize that ‘affordable housing’ is NOT a function of our government. period.

    so, not a word at this forum about the state of the housing authority communities from whence much criminal activity emanates, right?

    WHY must the rest of us continue to endure all the criminality brought on by these NON-accountable communities via the feds ? ? ?
    WHY should we ?

    WHY is Gene Bell not brought into some compliance by city council ? Where’s the Housing POLICE FORCE that they need ?
    We have an INCOMPETENT city council already who REFUSES to HELP the Asheville taxpayers , instead allowing CRIME to multiply without check… it’s a damn shame how city council TREATS the citizens of AVL!

    • NFB

      I wanted to respond to Mr. Deplorable Infidel earlier, but I was so busy I simply did not have the time. Nevertheless, what I need to say is so important I knew I simply had to allocate a few minutes to write a brief post on the subject. One of my objectives for this post is to educate the public on a range of issues. Contrast, for example, his crotchets with those of peremptory Philistines, and observe that there is no contrast. I, by (genuine) contrast, take the view that if you study his diversivolent ruses long enough, you’ll come to the inescapable conclusion that there is a simple answer to the question of what to do about Mr. Infidel’s traducements. The difficult part is in implementing the answer. The answer is that we must explain a few facets of this confusing world around us. The important point here is that our post-truth, post-integrity world is being suffocated by Mr. Infidel’s malignant canards. Did you hear that, Mr. Infidel? I didn’t think so.

      • Deplorable Infidel

        solutions are attainable by City Council for the Asheville Housing Authority, but THEY are content not to take responsibility, hence, decades of growing CRIME from public housing.

        We have the ability but NOT the LEADERSHIP…there is NO LEADERSHIP in the city of Asheville. zip, zero, nada. THAT my friends is OUR problem…

        • luther blissett

          If only there were a way for those who bemoan the city’s leadership to become its leaders.

  4. Tim Voth

    In cities around the world, when confronted with housing challenges, they simply build upwards. Implement better transit systems. Pushing poorer people to the outskirts of town, just exasperates an already rapidly increasing travel dilemma.
    Take the money(which would equal billions) that would be spent on widening all the roads, to get people back and forth, and build up. Make a better transit system, problem solved.
    Another plus to this scenario would be, putting a value on people’s time.(travel)
    There is still PLENTY of room right near down town to implement this idea. I figured it out and I’m a nobody.

    I’ve always owned a car. I’ve lived in cities where it was quicker to take public transit, or even ride a bike from A to B. Not everyone needs a car….or can have one, contrary to popular American belief. Transit works wonderfully if implemented correctly.

  5. Alan Ditmore

    Is there a full transcript or audio or video of this forum in a link somewhere??? I want to hear what Dee Williams and Seneika Smith have to say about zoning and housing! I could have guessed their position on Vance.

  6. P. Morrison

    Too much time spent discussing a monument and not enough discussion on the existing public housing problems like the murder rate, etc. And what the high taxes being paid for every single thing in Asheville are paying for in return.

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