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.