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 email@example.com.