An unvarnished look at affordable housing: The Gospel According to Jerry

Jerry Sternberg

Let’s talk about affordable housing. Wait! Wait! We can’t even mention those forbidden words.

I found that out through my work with Pisgah Legal Services committees that are trying to relieve our housing problems and through my interactions with elected officials and staffers at the city and county. This 17-letter phrase, it seems, immediately conjures up images of people with pigmented skin who are unemployed, on food stamps and welfare, sitting on their lazy asses in front of their big-screen TVs drinking beer and eating Twinkies while their children run around outside the decrepit projects they’re living in operating unregulated drugstores or worse in an effort to support their respective families.

So we’ve had to substitute such terms as “workforce housing” and “subsidized housing” to keep the politicians from racing for the door as soon as the subject is mentioned, to avoid putting their imprimatur on building more so-called “housing projects.”

I think I’ve told the story before about the time I was asked to serve on one of the many mayor’s affordable housing task forces, which supposedly included a cross section of interested citizens. First shot out of the barrel, the person who represented the various neighborhood groups said that while they were all for “affordable housing,” it was going to happen in their neighborhoods only over their dead bodies. Since I didn’t want to see the city strewn with corpses, I resigned.

That dog whistle, so shrill it was ear-piercing, highlighted the No. 1 impediment to finding a rational solution to the housing problem for low- and even middle-income people. Hey, I understand tribalism: I grew up in the South, where it was very clear that those “other” people would fare better if they stayed with their own kind. It’s a difficult human syndrome that’s hard to overcome, as it has been operative in this country ever since we took the land away from the Indians. And this is particularly hard when the largest tribe makes most of the rules: i.e., slavery , Jim Crow, immigrant naturalization laws, etc.

To help you understand the real impacts of the tribalism syndrome, however, let me bore you with a few statistics concerning our community:

  • 46 percent of our citizens who live in public housing projects are unpigmented people, yet they suffer from the same stigma as their pigmented neighbors. Hey, these folks are part of your tribe: Don’t you want to stand up for them to have a decent place to live?
  • 39 percent are single females with children. I just can’t imagine any reason why they might have financial or housing issues, can you?
  • 44 percent are disabled and probably living large on those extravagant disability benefits.
  • 81 percent of these families live on incomes of less than $14,000 per year. I would say these wastrels just don’t manage their money well — particularly the 19 percent who are elderly and have to live on Social Security, though I’m sure they also secretly own beach houses on Pawleys Island.

In all fairness, I would point out that the most liberal members of the un- or only slightly pigmented tribe tend to reside in neighborhoods that are predominantly or exclusively inhabited by members of their own tribe. I doubt that more than 10 percent of the unpigmented community has ever visited the projects, a slim majority of whose residents are pigmented folks. On the other hand, I would hazard a guess that less than 10 percent of the pigmented people have ever set foot in communities such as Beaver Lake, Biltmore Forest or Biltmore Park — unless it was work-connected.

The second issue, of course, is that wages in the area have fallen way behind the rising cost of houses. The wage structure that supports this predominantly tourism- and retirement-based culture is well below what is projected as a living wage. There seems to be no way to enforce a higher wage structure, so we end up subsidizing the low-wage industries (including big-box stores) by providing government services for their employees. And that, in turn, generates resounding resentment among a large segment of the unpigmented population — many of whom are also living paycheck to paycheck — toward subsidizing housing for the least among us.

The third issue is the lack of buildable land with accessible infrastructure, including public transportation. County and city zoning and municipal cowardice have contributed mightily to the problem, especially for private investors who attempt to build new housing. As soon as outraged neighbors show up at municipal meetings screaming and shouting about traffic, quality of life and property values, our elected officials quietly slide down in their chairs and hide their faces behind their computer screens, concealing their shame about discouraging developers, both public and private, from increasing our woefully inadequate housing inventory. These scarcities of new product seriously impact the market while also driving up the cost of the existing housing.

So much for the problems. In Part II, I’ll discuss what might be done to address them.

Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at


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18 thoughts on “An unvarnished look at affordable housing: The Gospel According to Jerry

  1. boatrocker

    Hell yeah.
    Intelligent, cogent, factually
    based writing with a conscience.

    Cue the hate in ….

  2. Lulz

    Ah but at the same time they want unchecked immigration for people that will work harder and for less wages than the people born here. This deflates wages. You can’t have it both ways.

    You can’t have a culture of single mothers that are poor to begin with. Why does anyone think having a kid will improve the situation of someone already in poverty? And even worse, why would you even financially incentivize it?

    You can’t continually raise taxes to subsidize businesses and tourist districts that pay sub par wages. Why are you building up the RAD to the tune of 50+ million? Is that area going to provide affordable housing and high paying jobs anytime soon? The houses going up there are priced in the 300’s. They should say thanks taxpayer suckers but they’re too busy counting their money.

    • luther blissett

      — Everything is terrible.
      — What should be done instead?
      — Everything is terrible.

  3. luther blissett

    “The second issue, of course, is that wages in the area have fallen way behind the rising cost of houses. ”

    Or to put it another way, the cost of houses has ballooned precisely because wages have stagnated since the 1980s: the income from property ownership (rental and equity) is a surer path to financial security and then affluence than any job. That in turn benefits those who already own property, especially those who have inherited it free and clear.

    That creates an argument for property taxes to be a lot higher, or at least for property taxation to be bracketed so owners of multiple properties and million-dollar houses chip in more and wage slaves who rent or own modest homes pay less.

    • Lulz

      LOL any tax increases are passed on. Simple. Owners of less modest homes already pay more. Maybe the loons should triple tax them. Wanda Green needs the money.

      LOL taxes, taxes, taxes lulz. That’s the solution LOL.

      • luther blissett

        Your schtick of railing against elites apparently doesn’t extend to hitting them in the pocketbook. Weird.

        Jerry’s piece ably describes the situation as it stands and his Part II should be worth reading: he’s especially on the mark about stagnant wages forcing government to fill the gaps and generating resentment when it does so.

        How do you make real money in Asheville and Buncombe? Mostly it’s from property, not wage income. A lot of the city and county’s political spats are about property owners trying to maximize their returns, whether it’s tourist rentals in residential areas or cashing out inherited acreage in the county by selling to builders of apartment complexes.

        Finally, it remains impossible to deduce any actual positive principles from “everything is terrible” but you’re clearly not a libertarian who thinks people should repair their own potholes or the fire department should be funded by monthly subscription. You just want taxes to pay for all the things you don’t want to handle yourself and expect to be done for you, but none of the things that affect other people.

    • Lulz

      LOL when all else fails and the only policy a loonycrat can come up with is more taxes, you know ain’t nothing affordable happening anytime soon.

  4. boatrocker

    This thread progressed and then regressed exactly as I had forseen
    with my crystal ball.

    -Well written article with complimentary comments,
    -TAXES TAXES TAXES! response
    -Responses pointing out fallacies for taxes guy

    Man, that taxes guy must pay more taxes than anyone else ever in the
    history of taxes.

    The salient points about lack of affordable housing by Jerry?

    Rock on!

    Turning any point on its head to obsess about taxes is a
    tired one trick pony that needs to be put to pasture.

    • luther blissett

      I’ll wave in the general direction of continental Europe, where law and regulation that’s friendlier to long-term tenants makes property speculation and semi-professional landlordism much less lucrative than in the US. Property owners can make a decent return, but renting somewhere like Berlin remains easier, cheaper and more stable than doing so in Asheville.

      Nor is it just about developers and landlords. When residents show up to complain about the effect of development on their property values, they’re tacitly admitting that they rely upon annualized increases of 5% per year for financial security, because pay raises or 401(k)s aren’t going to do it. As a result, the price of housing isn’t simply the price of shelter: it includes a surcharge to cover future costs for its owners (medical bills, long-term care) and its inheritors. As long as those future costs continue to increase at inflation-busting rates while wages remain stagnant, today’s renters will be paying the college tuition of their landlords’ as-yet-unborn grandchildren.

      • luther blissett

        As a point of reference, the News-Observer just ran a piece about how the constrained supply of affordable houses in the Triangle is driving buyers out to Burlington and Sanford, and new build under $200,000 has been nonexistent for 5-10 years:

        And that’s in an affluent area with not so many mountains to get in the way of development.

  5. Enlightened Enigma

    AVL has MORE public housing per capita than any other NC city, yet only the sixth largest city. HOW did that happen? Segregationist democrackkks who destroyed peoples homes and enticed
    them into public housing since 1940 when AVL was first infected with too much government housing. Gene Bell, the ‘director’ of the housing authority is the biggest and most evil segregationist
    in Asheville nowadays…he should be ashamed to show his face in this city.

    • luther blissett

      Public housing is good. Tightly-regulated private rental housing is good. It is housing meant to house people, not priced to pay the future bills of owners and inheritors. There should be more of it.

      • Enlightened Enigma

        when you have too many people living off the other people , the dependents become a bigger problem…

        the haves and the have nots…(that’s a TV show too!)

        • luther blissett

          What is landlordism and property speculation other than living off other people?

  6. cecil bothwell

    Jerry’s point about providing housing as a benefit to low wage companies is cogent.
    Back in the day large corporations built housing for their workers and offered affordable rents.
    Now Ingles and Walmart and the other low wage employers expect taxpayers to subsidize rent and by ginning up the idea of a housing crisis, big money gets governments to comply.
    If there’s one thing I learned in my two terms on City Council it is that the city’s approach to affordable housing wasn’t working. It mostly came down to creating golden parachutes for developers who’d get subsidies for a promise of several years of more or less affordable rents, who could then jack them up and cash out. The nonnprofits were the only operators actually moving things in a better direction (MHO and Habitat for example).

  7. John Ager

    I consider myself pigment challenged, not un-pigmented. I am also a true believer in the Jerry Sternberg approach to journalism, and have enjoyed 40 years of friendship with him and his children. Growing up Jewish in Asheville adds another discussion to his tribalism understanding.

    • John Ager

      Mickey Michaux just gave his farewell address after 39 years in the NC House, and he read a great statement about skin color that I may not remember just right. He said black folks like him were black under every circumstance, but white folks were: pink when they were born, green when they were sick, blue when they were cold, red when they were in the sun and yellow when they were dead. He then said, tell me who the colored people are?

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