Patrick Bowen has evaluated housing issues in hundreds of cities across the country. But he’s never seen the mix of extremely low apartment availability and high population growth that confronts Asheville.
The national consultant delivered a Jan. 20 report on the region’s housing situation to dozens of local officials gathered in the Banquet Hall of the U.S. Cellular Center. It was the beginning of a conversation that will continue in the months ahead, as Asheville City Council will use the information to set affordable housing goals for the next five years.
“The work we do at this table is critical as we face an affordable housing crisis in the region,” said Council member Gordon Smith, who also serves as chair of the Asheville Regional Housing Consortium.
Judging by what Bowen then had to say, officials are going to have a lot of work to do — particularly when it comes to affordable rentals. The current vacancy rate of rental housing in Asheville hovers at 0.9 percent. “That is incredibly low,” said Bowen, noting that the national rate is closer to 5 percent. He added that the vacancy rate is low at all price points and range of bedrooms, which is also unusual.
While that might be good for some property owners, who can charge more for units because of the high demand, it creates major challenges for the city as a whole.
About 20 percent of the city’s population lives in poverty, according to Bowen’s report. Nearly half of the city’s population rents — rather then owns — a home. And about 44 percent of those renters are “cost burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income just to pay rent. Even worse, about 21 percent of Asheville renters are considered “severely cost burdened,” meaning they pay more than 50 percent of their salary on rent.
Those local cost burden numbers are actually similar to state averages, said Bowen, adding that by that metric, “You’re comparable to the rest of the state. And the rest of the state has problems.”
But unlike other areas of the state, demand for rentals in Asheville is expected to far outpace development of new units, said Bowen. He projects the percentage of households needing to rent will grow by 8.5 percent by 2020. And although several new developments are scheduled to come online by then, it’s not nearly enough to meet that growth, he said. To complicate matters further, the biggest rental needs are likely to come from households making less than $15,000 a year. About 27 percent of current renters fall into that low-income category, according to the report.
Asked by Smith if he could recall any comparable examples of Asheville’s predicament in the decades he’s been a housing consultant around the country, Bowen said, “I have not seen this before.”
Alluding sarcastically to a wealth of accolades Asheville has received recently from national media outlets as a top place to visit and live, Smith responded: “It sounds like another top-10 list.”
However, Bowen speculated that Asheville’s growing pains are less worrisome than if the city was suffering from population declines. In fact, he said he’s considering moving his Ohio-based consulting firm to town. “This is my favorite part of the nation. … I’m trying to relocate my business here,” he said. “There’s a lot of communities around the country that wish they had your problems. You have growth.”
Meanwhile, Jeff Staudinger, assistant directer of the city’s Community and Economic Development Department, praised the report, despite some of its bleak findings.
The study will help “predict the affordable housing needs of the next five years so our leaders are informed,” said Staudinger. “And to establish measurable goals so our performance over the next five years can be evaluated. … We know the needs are great and many, but our funds are few.”