Poor and poorer

I agree with most of Robin Merrell’s recent commentary on affordable housing [see “Priced Out,” July 14 Xpress]. But she told only half the story. I couldn’t help but notice that since she doesn’t live in Asheville, what she advocates wouldn’t affect her own neighborhood.

What Merrell doesn’t describe is the reality that many homeowners in middle-class, single-family-residence neighborhoods now face: the nuisance nature of much of the affordable housing we already live with, and the prospect of worse problems in light of the proposed changes to the Unified Development Ordinance that Merrell endorses.

In my neighborhood, there are at least five investment properties that were once single-family residences and are now rented or leased to several unrelated occupants. I know this because, in some way, each has become a disruption to the neighborhood.

One has an abandoned car in the backyard. A resident of another house abandoned his car on Gracelyn Road — and though such vehicles are supposed to be towed after a week, this one sat in the same spot at least twice that long, becoming the target of graffiti before finally being hauled off.

Then there are the loud parties, trash, parking problems and what sounded like a screening of Debbie Does Dallas or Deep Throat early one morning back in June. I don’t have a problem with people having a good time, but there are certain things you just don’t share with the neighbors.

The UDO revisions Merrell advocates would allow duplexes, triplexes and quadruplexes in virtually all Asheville neighborhoods, combined to produce a minimum of five units per site. Under certain conditions, that density could be significantly increased.

But the most outrageous change would be shifting sole authority for approving such developments to the planning staff — with no public hearing or other notification. The first the neighbors heard about a project might be the day the work crews and portable toilets arrived.

We currently have a fine planning staff, but that hasn’t always been so. And good or bad, I don’t remember casting a vote for any of them. (I did vote for some City Council members, however.) While the staff is subject to political pressure from within City Hall, I have no say in whether or not they work for the city. Under the proposed amendments, I wouldn’t have much say about how my neighborhood is developed either.

There’s also the question of enforcement. Even now, the city doesn’t exactly cover itself with glory enforcing anything. Why should I believe these new rules would be treated any differently? Every once in a while, you’ll see a letter to the editor from some tourist repulsed by Asheville’s litter. There is an anti-littering ordinance, but I’ve never heard of anybody getting fined for violating it.

The last city-sponsored citizen survey I read ranked streets and sidewalks as the top concern. We spend thousands of dollars each year laying down new sidewalks which, as often as not, are covered with leaves, debris and overgrowth within a year. Another city ordinance charges adjacent property owners with responsibility for maintaining sidewalks, yet I sometimes see people veering into the street to avoid getting swiped by overhanging branches or walking through piles of debris.

And then there’s the issue of simple good-neighborliness and landlord responsibility. This spring, the grass in front of one of the rentals down the street was knee-high before it was finally cut. That doesn’t add to anybody’s curb appeal. But I’ll bet the property owner kept collecting full rents while the grass grew tall and the whole neighborhood was diminished.

These represent relatively minor enforcement failures. But about five years ago, Council revised the housing code, requiring inspections of rented or leased dwellings only on receipt of a complaint or the sale of the property rather than every five years. So the affordable housing Merrell advocates could become an eyesore if not an outright hazard before the city took any action. Meanwhile, the values of surrounding single-family homes would suffer. This isn’t fearmongering: I’m seeing this same trend manifest itself around me.

At this writing, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission is poised to consider a revised version of the amendment that would exempt single-family neighborhoods, restrict the changes to areas along major transit routes and perhaps include some process for notifying neighboring residents. I would support affordable housing in these areas; what I don’t support is imposing big concentrations of multifamily housing on single-family neighborhoods.

For most middle-class Americans, their home is their most valuable asset. Few dispute that the American middle class is under great pressure, yet the proposed amendment would largely reward the have-nots at the expense of folks who’ve worked hard for what they have and feel it slipping through their fingers day by day. Asheville’s single-family homeowners should not be made into unwilling players in a zero-sum game.

Affordable housing is just one aspect of Asheville’s economic conundrum. The other part is jobs. If more people could earn a living wage here, affordable housing would be less of an issue.

Asheville is continually ranked among the most desirable places to live in the United States. We have good schools; our medical community is top-notch; our environment is wonderful. Maybe we need to put additional effort and funding into attracting jobs that would enable more residents to afford decent housing. In the meantime, let’s not beat up on the middle class.

— Asheville resident Mike Lewis is a financial planner and neighborhood advocate.

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30 thoughts on “Poor and poorer

  1. UnaffiliatedVoter

    Sidewalks, the BIG Conundrum! HOW can City Council execute their GREEN AGENDA by building ANY
    concrete sidewalks which, by nature, are environmentally UNfriendly? The natural, and WAY LESS COST alternative would be self draining gravel paths. Maybe the Mayor could score some ‘stimilus’ $$$ for a city jobs program to replace all existing sidewalks with gravel paths…Sounds like a model GREEN project funded with Obama money, right? Yay. Will we EVER be GREEN enough? How will we know?

  2. Andy Bishop

    While I agree with Mike Lewis’s assertion that single family neighborhoods should be protected, I was troubled by his rather callous attitude towards others he perceives as not being in the middle class strata. Mr. Lewis’s statement, “. . . the proposed ammendment would largely reward the have-nots at the expense of folks who’ve worked hard for what they have and feel it slipping through their fingers day by day.” belies an arrogance and a sense of entitlement that is distressing. While it is terrible that he has had problems with his neighbors in affordable housing , Mr. Lewis would do well to realize that many of those who would benefit from affordable housing are hard-working people who desire to live in these mountains like he does but, through lack of opportunities, economic downturns, or sheer hard luck, cannot find a decent place to live. Couldn’t you temper your concern, Mr. Lewis, with some compassion?

  3. hauntedheadnc

    Gravel paths don’t strike me as being especially handicap-friendly, plus eventually the gravel gets ground down into the mud.

    Meanwhile, I wonder if all these fancy people who tend to coalesce in Asheville neighborhoods ever notice the historic apartment buildings that pepper areas like Montford, Chestnut Hill, and West Asheville… Density in a “single-family” neighborhood is nothing new in Asheville.

  4. artart

    These sort of outcomes are precisely what happens when self-proclaimed “Progressives” take control of government. Their agendas do not give weight to balance of interests of the people they serve (NOTE TO PROGRESSIVE POLITICIANS…YOU ARE ELECTED TO SERVE, NOT RULE) and typically examples abound of how the working tax-paying middle class is made to suffer under Progressive policies. The rich can move away or hire attorneys to deal with their concerns. One day the taxpaying middle class will realize that under the guise of Progressive Government, they are being continually abused. This in no way is an endorsement of conservatives. They have their own sets of issues, but do not seem so willing to mess up our lives and what we have worked for in the pursuit of some nebulous, subjective concept of fairness, as the Progressives. Wonder what impact BOthwell’s dream of making Asheville a Sanctuary City for persons illegally in this country will have on the working middle class?

  5. Nancy

    “Meanwhile, I wonder if all these fancy people who tend to coalesce in Asheville neighborhoods ever notice the historic apartment buildings that pepper areas like Montford, Chestnut Hill, and West Asheville… Density in a “single-family” neighborhood is nothing new in Asheville.”

    Being one of the ‘fancy people’ in Mr. Lewis’ neighborhood, I count seven high density complexes within three blocks in every direction, with number eight – The Larchmont – on the way.

    Fancy that.

  6. Lindsey Simerly

    Those “poorer” “nuisance” neighbors you talk about are people like me. I work full time at an environmental non-profit. I vote in every single election. I am a volunteer bicycle mechanic. I am an actively engaged community citizen. I don’t have loud parties. I don’t have broken down cars. I keep my grass short. Unfortunately there is such a lack of affordable housing that many of us have to live on the outskirts of town just to make our rent.
    So I am sorry you don’t want people like me in your neighborhood. I hope you take the time to meet more people like me. There are a lot of us in Asheville, and we would still like to be your neighbor.

  7. Paul -V-

    The interests of affordable housing advocates, neighborhood groups, and sustainability activists overlap tremendously. They are each others best allies.

    Using scare tactics that increased density will hurt the middle-class is unproductive – and not supported by evidence.

    Besides, forcing the poor away from where they work is more expensive for everyone. More expensive for cities who have to spread their resources farther. More expensive for taxpayers, who have to foot the bill for aforementioned services. More expensive for the poor, who have to travel farther to get to their jobs.

    Housing isn’t a zero sum game. Increased density will improve everyone living standard, and make sustainable, vibrant communities.

    – pvh

  8. ashkat

    My experience was the opposite of Mr Lewis. The yuppies’ loud parties etc. were keeping awake the early-rising hardworking folks in the affordable housing.

  9. Vinnie Lasanga

    Yo, dense neighborhoods? Try NYC. Asheville is like Central Pahrk in comparison. I think working people need affordable housing. And the middleclass can help pay for it.

  10. hauntedheadnc

    [i]I think working people need affordable housing. And the middleclass can help pay for it.[/i]

    The middle class [i]are[/i] the working people.

  11. UnaffiliatedVoter

    How many neighborhoods are adversely affected by
    Section 8 rentals? Landlords who accept Section 8 TAXPAYER PAID SUBSIDIES from the Government are THIEVES of America! (unless tenant is disabled)
    We have 2-3 nearby, constant turnover, one bunch NEVER turned the water on for 6 months living there! TRASH strewn everywhere, loud noise, no telling how many living there…sorry, but SECTION 8 housing is UNAmerican! STOP the MADNESS! Good, competent landlords will NOT accept Section 8 vouchers! TAXPAYERS are NOT here to subsidize a landlords real estate fortune!

  12. if we AVL locals are seriously concerned about jobs here, how about lowering the outrageous amount of taxes by getting our local government to STOP wasting money?

    over a million buck wasted on signs (that peel) which are simply unnecessary to being with — great plan there! how many million$ on “traffic calming” curbs, etc., where a stop sign would have sufficed?

    worse, spending how many millions on City County Plaza, which took how many years, and by what “local”(?) construction company, who hires non-illegal locals? my contractor was excessively upset to hear the bloated costs of a project that should have only taken about a year to complete, and cost no more than 2-3 million at union rates.

    and now, because a rich ex-banker moves next door to me and complains to the City about my having “a lot” of people living at my house, i’m having to deal with a bunch of crap, defending myself against un-Constitutional ordinances, which not only violate my individual property & privacy rights, but also those of everyone living at my house… which by the way is an 8 bedroom house with 8 people living in it.

    simultaneously, some local developers are apparently making a bid to our City Council to borrow PUBLIC money to build “affordable housing” in Montford while the City works toward throwing good people out on the street and forcing me to go bankrupt for not being able to pay my mortgage & bills through selectively enforcing crackpot ordinances through this ridiculous UDO enacted about a decade AFTER i purchased my house.

    (the UDO should be entirely scrapped — it’s caused more harm than good since its inception!)

    … yet people are going to complain about some grass growing too high, or supposed “junk” cars. tell me something, have those people who complain about high grass ever offered to help their neighbor with cutting it?

    and junk cars? give me a break! tell me, if one decides to place their “junk car” on their front lawn and put barbie dolls or other “junk” items on it and call it “art”, is THAT ok? after all, there is PLENTY of “junk” on people’s front lawns which some consider “art”. it doesn’t bother me nor many other neighbors, so why should a “junk” car bother anyone?

    and all the time, crime increases in Montford. a friend of mine’s 15 year old son was mugged at gunpoint by 3 hoodlums a few weeks ago. perhaps if we were all LESS concerned about stupid petty crap and rather focused on REAL FREAKIN’ CRIME for a change, our neighborhood would continue to improve.

    i’ve been in Montford since 1988. i take offense when busy bodies who have too much time on their hands move here and demand their neighbors change to fit their own selfish likings. if one doesn’t want to live next to a household of several good people, then don’t freakin’ move there… DUH!

    try this for a change people…

    1. MIND YOUR OWN FREAKING BUSINESS!!! if you feel someone’s grass needs mowing, consider offering to help them out, perhaps they need help with it. if someone is having loud sex, turn up your stereo for a while and be happy that someone is able to enjoy themselves in this crazy world.

    2. STOP demanding others (be they “middle class” or “rich”) pay your way in life. contrary to the actions of government officials in Neo-Amerika, nobody owes you ANYTHING — GO WORK AND PROVIDE FOR YOURSELF!

    3. STOP electing local officials that will SPEND our tax money without using their brains.

    this is not about “progressives/liberals/conservatives/etc.”… it’s about individual liberty and how it’s being trampled upon at every level of government by tyrants who merely desire control over — and it’s OUR fault for allowing it to happen!

  13. JWTJr

    “Yo, dense neighborhoods? Try NYC. Asheville is like Central Pahrk in comparison. I think working people need affordable housing. And the middleclass can help pay for it.”

    Comparing Central Park to Asheville is ludicrous in any comparison.

    NYCity is a broke mess with massive social ills. Don’t want any of that either.

    The NYCity mentality is the handout mentality. Calling out the middle class to pay for the working class housing illustrates that perfectly.

  14. Jimbo

    What’s really sad is the self proclaimed progressives who mask their self involvement in a cloak of service to others while they fantasize about some low cost downtown apartment or new park or bike route or monorail or whatever they can get for themselves. All their talk about increased density and fairness just feeds right into the corporate and political money machine hurting everyone in the middle and below rather than helping anyone but the rich. The increased density just gives the politicians a larger tax base while pleasing their campaign and kickback contributing developers who always see a profit benefit from the increased density they are allowed to build where it was not zoned for it.

    The homeowners in these areas, in houses, condos, duplexes and apartments bought or built in the city and agreed to pay city taxes. One of the things they paid for was zoning protection, but once they’re on the hook for taxes, the city and ignorant wannabe do-gooders want to come in and change the rules on them. There are zoning districts for a reason. A large part of all those taxes being paid to the city is to zone areas and have a planning department to regulate development precisely so taxpayers can have some certainty in what they will live next to. If all zoning is being thrown out the window on a regular basis as it was in my back yard, what the hell exactly am I paying thoose taxes to the city for. I could live in the county and not pay city taxes if I didn’t care what was built on top of my home.

    The city wants more density despite the zoning they pledged to enforce, and the self involved do-gooders want to penalize those of us who live in the city because they don’t want to pay what we had to to live here. There are areas approved for dense development, but those areas will not get developed as long as anyone thinks they can sccore a pay day by abusing the zoning system the actual resident taxpayers have paid for. Even as the abuses continue, the undefinable dream of “affordable housing” does not materialize, only more profit to builders and home flippers and more taxes being collected and wasted by local government. The real problem is having nothing but amatuer self appointed planners ruining this area at almost every level.
    In the areas zoned for increased density, use them. In the areas zoned for less density, maintain it. I don’t believe anyone choses to live in Asheville because they want it to grow into a major metropolis. They all like it the way it is, but can’t help trying to change it at the same time to fit their desires. If you want to live in Asheville so much, find a way to pay market rates or get lost. I had to do it by actually working for a living, why should anyone else get a free ride just because they think they’re so special or entitled?

  15. JWJTR, I wouldn’t say New Yorkers have a handout mentality, its the most productive city in the country!

  16. luther blissett

    Shorter Mike Lewis: “Screw you, I got mine.”

    If you want to live in a suburban bubble, free of sidewalks and “undesirables” and ruled by HOA regulation, then go right ahead: you’ll probably be able to look after your prime concern, which is your precious property valuation. Candler eagerly awaits you.

    If you want to live in a city, then deal with the fact that cities are rough at the edges, that people walk places, that not everybody wants a single-family house, or can afford one. Plenty of those people do the jobs that make Lewis’s city life run smoothly, even while he sneers at them.

  17. kim nelson

    @ BLEW BY YOU.

    I work 35 hrs a week, I volunteer 10 hrs a month, I pay me bills, I don’t get food stamps or any other help. And because my husband of 10 years abandoned my with 3 kids to raise in 2000, I a thief. Please, help me get the $35,000 in back child support my kids are owned. I don’t want to need help but my kids deserve to have at least one parent. There are women all over this town raising kids without the help of their significant other.

    So for y’all out there adverse to a government that supports it citizenry, until you take in young teen mom, a homeless vet or recovered addict (or mow the freaking yard of a neighbor that may just need some help)…..kindly, shut up.

  18. JWTJr

    “JWJTR, I wouldn’t say New Yorkers have a handout mentality, its the most productive city in the country!”

    If it weren’t for wall street coughing up all those tax dollars, NYCity would be broke. It is a house of cards.

  19. dhalgren

    “If it weren’t for wall street coughing up all those tax dollars, NYCity would be broke. It is a house of cards.”

    Jr., you are demonstrating a typical hick town mentality concerning NYC. NYC is much more than wall street. It is arguably the nerve center of the world and home to many, many important endeavors too numerous to mention. Your ignorance is appalling and unfortunately exceeded by the letter writer who thinks because he “worked hard”, he is entitled to make judgements about people who also work hard and make less! Although I can assess your intellectual status, it’s hard for me to guess your economic status, although I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you’re probably one of those people who vote against their own financial interests. (typical for southerners)

  20. JWTJr

    dh – my point is that without the super rich that the left hates, the town the left loves could not exist. Interesting paradox.

  21. dhalgren

    “dh – my point is that without the super rich that the left hates, the town the left loves could not exist. Interesting paradox.”

    This is untrue, and only a paradox to you! All you’ve done is spout a bunch of prejudices and false assumptions. As per usual.

  22. Kay

    From dhalgren to JWTJr:

    “you are demonstrating a typical hick town mentality”

    “Your ignorance is appalling”

    “you’re probably one of those people who vote against their own financial interests. (typical for southerners)”

    and, in summary,

    “All you’ve done is spout a bunch of prejudices and false assumptions.”

    Not taking sides on the issue of NYC but the hypocrisy is truly stunning.

  23. JWTJr

    dh likes it angry and personal. He could be an Etopticon sock puppet.

  24. dhalgren

    “Not taking sides on the issue of NYC but the hypocrisy is truly stunning”

    And how would you know that I’m not correct about jr.?

    “dh likes it angry and personal. He could be an Etopticon sock puppet”

    Yes, I’m passionate about my beliefs and everything is personal! And no, I’m not Entop, but I like the style. I’m really a lot more bitchy than Entop and less formal. Trav has a win at any cost, lying when necessary style. Jr. has the breezy, no it all Sah Pailin style. Reminds me of namvet, but just a little smoother.

  25. maggie1

    Awwwww… poor middle class. You are disappearing fast- I guess being elitist is your last gasp?

  26. musicrx

    While all this debate and conversation is stimulating, it seems the point was missed. This is not about socioeconomic differences (if there really are any). This is about developers being allowed to buy up a lot and build a minimum of 5 units (in duplexes, triplexes, and quads) without the established neighborhood having a chance to vote it out. We all know that violations of the law are more difficult to challenge after construction.

    The “established neighbor” in this case has been there for 30 years, serving the neighborhood, often living poorer than those now looking for affordable housing. Doesn’t that neighbor deserve to have a voice about what goes on the lot next door?

    Think about street parking and the inevitable increase in noise and pet nuisance due to the density of 5 or more different units. Property values will plummet further. Somebody’s got to fight to preserve the neighborhoods. There is plenty of opportunity to increase density and decrease cost without destroying what neighborhoods we have left.

  27. mule

    Aww…the middle class; la petite bourgeoisie. Finally reality catches up to you poor bitches.

  28. dhalgren

    ‘Aww…the middle class; la petite bourgeoisie. Finally reality catches up to you poor bitches.’

    hee hee

  29. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Underneath the croissants, we’re all just cornbread.

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