Rich Lee

Rich Lee

  • Website: richleeforasheville.com
  • Employment: Financial adviser at Edward Jones
  • Party affiliation: Democrat
  • NEW! Notable endorsements: State representative Susan Fisher, former mayor Ken Michalove, architect Michael McDonough, business owners Tim Schaller (Wedge Brewery), Lynn Foster (Buffalo Nickel), Tonico Vanalli, Chiquie Estrada (Casa Bambini), Franzi Charen (Hip Replacements), Jenna Yarosh, Cathy Cleary, Mike Moore, Rebecca Hecht, Rosetta Star, Natalie Pollard, Matt Christie, Casey McKissick, Vickie Santner, Ira Friedrichs, Cynthia Alleman, Lynn Foster, Jason Smith, Andrew Dahm, Jeff and Stephanie Barcelona, and Rebecca Hall.
  • NEW! Campaign contributions: $17,064.46
  • NEW! Campaign expenditures: $15,276.91

NEW! You’re running for office in the midst of a growth spurt in Asheville. What infrastructure needs will you prioritize if elected?

The sheer number of roads in the city controlled by the state DOT has prevented us from addressing some of the worst problems. We need to advocate better to the people in Raleigh and take more control of our own streets if we’re going to get long-standing problems on Merrimon, Tunnel, Patton, Leicester Highway, Interstate 240 and many others taken care of.

Next, the city needs to tackle access to functional parks, walking places and transit as a matter of social justice. When someone can’t get to a grocery store without owning a car, can’t work second shift because the bus line doesn’t run late in his neighborhood or can’t play outdoors with his kids because of unsafe streets, that’s an economic burden adding to our existing affordability crisis, and part of the separation of the city into prospering and struggling people as well, with real racial and class implications.

NEW! How do you think City Council should proceed in regard to short-term rentals and homestays?

With cool-headed discussion. The prohibition isn’t working: There’s a real chance of a lawsuit making any regulation impossible. I personally think a conditional zoning-type process where a landlord answers for traffic and parking, the number of nearby rentals, affordability, etc., is the best chance of getting on top of this.

NEW! What can and will you do to address inequality in Asheville?

1. Shore up the rental market. Unlike other candidates, I favor doing this by helping the small-time landlords, who make up almost half our available rental stock, keep their rents low, and encouraging other homeowners to follow suit, with incentives and fee waivers.

2. Spread out jobs. As with rentals, I support using the city’s incentives and other tools to grow a diverse mix of jobs locally, rather than paying corporations to relocate here.

3. Make sure infrastructure is fair and increasing mobility.

4. Have a serious citywide conversation about social justice, especially racial equality. Asheville is a stratified, almost segregated city. We need to recognize we’re not providing jobs, homes or economic opportunity for any but a small number of white professionals. As a people, I feel we’re committed to diversity in principle. We know it makes healthier, more resilient communities. We need to keep that on our radar.

NEW! What can you bring to City Council that other candidates can’t or don’t?

I’m a financial adviser who manages 250 local families’ and businesses’ budgets and savings. Budgets like Asheville’s are huge and complicated, involving thousands of competing priorities but never enough money to pay for them. Few others have similar experience managing long-term finances on a large scale.

But besides that, I’m also a parent with two kids in city schools. I’m a returned Peace Corps volunteer who spent years building community in the developing world. Before that I taught adult high school. I got involved in city policy years ago working on small-scale local issues — New Belgium’s trucks using my street, a very unsafe road in West Asheville — and after initial success advancing our needs through Asheville’s very particular bureaucracy, my scope of work has gotten progressively bigger. I’m on the Greenway Committee, where I oversee citywide capital projects. It’s grinding work that takes a specific set of skills.

What are three achievable goals that you would champion in the next two years?

We should direct city incentives to small local companies with the desire and capacity to expand. Next, we should provide incentives for homeowners and small landlords who want to provide lower-than-market-rate rent to ease the housing shortage. Finally, we need to push to begin expanding the city’s greenway system with community-led trails similar to the Hominy Creek trail.

What are the best strategies for increasing affordable housing in Asheville?

The usual approach of paying a developer of a large-footprint project to carve out a small number of “affordable” units (that really aren’t affordable for a lot of working people) isn’t working well enough. We need to encourage our small landlords … to be fair and do the right things for tenants. I favor small-scale infill projects scattered throughout the city. We can waive some fees (like box fees for electrical and tap fees for connecting to city water) and provide a tax rebate or discount for landlords who make rental housing available under a certain price level.

What is one recent City Council decision you don’t agree with, and how would you have handled it differently?lee2

I would have voted against the Biltmore Apartments on Fairview Road. This complex has two-story retaining walls on both ends. It was supposed to include some lower-rent apartments, but it did not include a sidewalk to Biltmore Avenue and the bus line. The city had to spend several hundred thousand dollars on a sidewalk extension. The developer put some money toward it, but it was still a big expense for the city.

What makes Asheville home for you?

I’ve lived in this area for 18 years — longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else. My wife is from here, and we’ve chosen to raise our kids here. We were lucky that we were able to buy our house in an area where we can walk to schools, the grocery store and restaurants. As I’ve become involved in neighborhood advocacy work, it’s been great to join with wonderful people all striving toward the same things.

Do you support expanding the tourism industry, or should we focus on other areas of economic development? Or do you think government shouldn’t play a role?

Asheville has natural advantages, and there’s no shame in making those advantages pay for things we need through tourism. But we need to focus on other areas of economic development. Asheville has a lot of really bright and committed people. We’re known for having some of the best artists and entrepreneurs anywhere, but so many of them struggle to make it here. There are quick and cheap ways for the city to incentivize small businesses that are already here.

A recent study showed that Buncombe County had lower growth in middle-class jobs than other areas. What can the city do to address this?

We should direct incentives to small local businesses that want to expand and pay a living wage. Those businesses should have access to grants and incentives as significant as those offered to out-of-state corporations.

With Asheville growing so fast and several new hotels being built downtown, how do you plan to address the inevitable traffic problems on city streets and I-240?

It’s not clear that more hotels equals more traffic. A study done by Aloft Hotel showed that many of the guests who park there at the beginning of a weekend don’t move their cars again until they check out. Encouraging walking downtown reduces the traffic burden. Our first concern should be providing safe crosswalks and sidewalks. On I-240, I’ve been part of an advocacy group that supports a better crossing than the Jeff Bowen Bridge, but we don’t believe that projected traffic loads justify a widening of I-240 through West Asheville.

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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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