The high cost of housing

You’re looking for a home you can afford — but where do you start? Cruising the streets looking for “For Sale” or “For Rent” signs? Searching the Web? Calling a real-estate agent? Meeting with a mortgage specialist? Checking your credit score?

You can do all that and more at the second annual Asheville Affordable Housing Fair (say “AAHF!” — it feels good) on Saturday, Aug. 13 at the First Baptist Church in downtown Asheville. The primary sponsors are the city of Asheville and the Affordable Housing Coalition of Asheville & Buncombe County.

It isn’t easy to find affordable housing in our area. It’s no secret that this is a great place to live, and many retirees, second-home owners and people with portable jobs choose to move here. God isn’t making any more land, and a lot of what there is around here is too steep to build on, is in a floodplain or is protected forest. On top of that, low interest rates have fueled demand, creating a real-estate boom throughout the United States. House prices in Asheville are higher, both relative to incomes and in absolute terms, than in any other metropolitan area in North Carolina. Compared to cities nationwide, however, housing affordability here is about average.

I’m often asked if we have a housing crisis in Asheville; I think the answer depends on your income. Housing is generally regarded as affordable if it costs no more than 30 percent of household income. To afford a modest one-bedroom rental apartment in Asheville, you need to be earning more than $10 an hour (and more than $11.50 for a two-bedroom unit). But the minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, and workers at the low end of the pay scale simply can’t afford to rent a decent apartment on the open market in Asheville — or anywhere else in the United States, for that matter — for even one person, let alone a family. For these people, there is indeed a nationwide housing crisis.

Most low-paid workers survive by living in subsidized housing, by working two jobs, by spending half (or more) of their income on housing, or by tolerating overcrowded or substandard conditions. Some go in and out of homelessness; all of them live from paycheck to paycheck. And for people such as janitors, laborers, fast-food workers, cashiers, child-care staff and nursing aides, homeownership mostly remains a distant dream.

These days, even a very modest condominium or manufactured home costs about $100,000. To afford one without outside help, you need to make about $34,000 a year (about $16 an hour for a full-time worker). And even if you do, there’s little available at this price in Asheville. Half of all the homes sold in our area in 2004 cost more than $170,000 — and even at that price, you’d need an annual income of at least $54,000 to be able to afford one.

The good news for people with sufficient income to realistically consider buying is there’s a fairly wide range of rental housing available. And if this brief survey of the housing market seems grim, don’t despair. Help is available, and you can find it at the Housing Fair.

For renters in all income groups, we’ll have apartment managers, rental-housing counselors, online access to the best Web sites for finding apartments, and workshops on how to find and keep rental housing.

For homebuyers, there’ll be developers, real-estate agents, mortgage lenders, homeownership counselors, workshops on home-buying, and even a tour of affordable homes (seats are limited, so come early to sign up).

And for everyone who comes, there’ll be free credit reports (with counselors on hand to explain your report to you) and workshops on how to mend your credit.

Everything at the fair is free (including refreshments) thanks to generous sponsorship from private companies concerned about affordable housing in our area. That’s because they know that housing is key — to survival, to family stability, to economic development, to wealth creation and to the future of our children.

[Charlotte Caplan is the city’s community-development director. She has lived in Asheville since 1998.]

Tell me more…

The second annual Asheville Affordable Housing Fair happens Saturday, Aug. 13 at the First Baptist Church in downtown Asheville. For more information, call Mark Brown at 232-4568. For general information about affordable-housing issues, consult these sources:

• City of Asheville housing information (www.ashevillenc.gov/planning/housing.htm)

• City of Asheville 2005 Housing Needs Assessment and Strategic Five-Year Plan (www.ashevillenc.gov/planning/strategic.htm)

• Affordable Housing Coalition of Asheville & Buncombe County (www.ahcabc.org)

• North Carolina Housing Coalition (http://www.nchousing.org/)

• “Out of Reach” wages and rent comparison, National Low-Income Housing Coalition (www.nlihc.org/oor2004)

• Housing Opportunity Index — affordability survey for homebuyers (www.nahb.org)

• Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001)

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