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.
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.”
“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.