Where we live affects our lives and our health. When our neighborhoods are safe and connected, we lay a foundation for a more equitable and thriving city, where families can live, work and play. Investments in infrastructure — such as sidewalks, bus shelters, greenways, parks and streets — can improve our health and support our families’ success by keeping us connected to resources and amenities.
This election, Asheville city residents have a chance to vote on a bond referendum to fund projects around sidewalks and streets, parks and greenways, and housing affordability. Local nonprofit Children First/Communities In Schools is endorsing all three bonds to boost housing affordability, but in the context of a city with amenities and safe routes for pedestrians, bikers, buses and cars.
When we live in homes that can access parks and greenways, exercise is easier. When we have access to healthy foods, it’s easier to eat healthy. If our homes have toxins, we can become sick. And when housing is really expensive, it makes it hard to find a safe place to live and afford food and health care. This can increase our stress and harm our children’s health.
It is no secret that Asheville has an expensive and tight housing market. This tight market creates a situation in which many of our teachers, nurses, social workers, and hospitality, retail and restaurant workers can’t afford to live in the city where they work. This can lead to increased stress as families confront financial insecurity and even homelessness.
Of the top 20 occupations in the Asheville metro area (Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties), only six offer average wages sufficient to afford all of the categories of fair market rent apartments (based on the numbers of bedrooms), and five are insufficient to afford any of them.
In the accompanying graphic, Table 1 shows which occupations can and cannot afford rents based on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of fair market rent for one-, two- and three-bedroom units. But fair market rent does not always reflect what the market will bear based on supply and availability of units. According to Apartment List’s Rent Report, which covers rental pricing data in major cities, their suburbs and their neighborhoods, the median rent for a two-bedroom unit in Asheville has reached $1,190 a month.
Approximately 47,940 of our local workers — enough to fill the U.S. Cellular Center six times over — cannot afford the cost of renting even an efficiency apartment. These people are employed primarily in our restaurant and building maintenance fields. In addition, 58,620 of our local childcare workers, nursing aides, retail workers, and office and administration staff cannot afford anything more than a one-bedroom apartment. This lack of affordability can lead to doubling up (overcrowding), living in unsafe conditions and even homelessness.
New partnerships and innovative thinking are being formed to address this critical issue. For example, Buncombe County Schools, Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County, the SECU Foundation, Eblen Charities and the Asheville Buncombe Educational Housing LLC, which falls under the Eblen umbrella, have partnered to create a 36-unit apartment complex built specifically for our local teachers. Here, our teachers will be paying $915 a month for a two-bedroom unit, which is about $275 less than the median rent at the current market rate. Teachers are expected to be able to move in by the 2017-18 school year.
Another example of a public/private partnership is with Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, which recently completed Hudson Hills, a community made up of 25 single-family Arts and Crafts-style homes off Johnston Boulevard in West Asheville. This newly completed neighborhood reflects a wide variety of our local workforce — including those in the healthcare, banking, transportation, manufacturing, education, childcare, nonprofit and service industries. The cost to a homebuyer of a two-bedroom Habitat house is $136,000 (with no interest) compared to the median price of $205,000 for a market-rate two-bedroom house in Asheville. Many of these individuals purchasing a home through Asheville Area Habitat end up paying less for their mortgage and escrow than they paid in rent.
“In order to qualify for one of our homes, you have to show a need, such as you are living in overcrowded or substandard conditions, or are paying more than 30 percent of your gross income on rent,” says Greta Bush, Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity’s communications coordinator. “We have seen that in the last five years, the primary reason our homebuyers qualify is because they are paying more than they can afford in rent. This lack of affordability can lead to living in overcrowded or substandard places.”
But we are still way behind the curve in being able to provide the number of units needed to fulfill the demand. The current need outstrips the current availability.
But the good news is that we can increase our supply of housing that is affordable by voting “yes” via early voting or on Nov. 8 for the Asheville city bond referendum. If you are an Asheville city resident, you will see on the back of your ballot three separate bond questions — one for parks and recreation, one for transportation and one for housing that is affordable. All three are important in creating a connected community with access to resources. These bonds will provide funding to build new homes and apartments all around the city that families can afford, as well as the infrastructure to connect neighborhoods to schools, work, grocery stores and parks — all at minimum risk for city residents.
Bonds are considered one of the safest municipal funding mechanisms, especially when a city has an excellent credit rating, such as the city of Asheville. When we have enough housing for everyone, we create safe, stable and diverse neighborhoods where our children can thrive, and all of our teachers, caregivers, protectors and service providers have a safe and secure place to call home.
Take action: Pledge to vote yes to the Asheville city bonds by going to www.childrenfirstcisbc.org and clicking on the bond pledge button and make sure you vote yes on Nov. 8! Together we can create a city that works for all its residents that we are proud to call home.
Jodi Ford is the outreach and engagement coordinator for Children First/ Communities In Schools of Buncombe County, a local nonprofit that believes all children deserve to reach their full potential. The organization helps achieve this by surrounding children and their families with supports that help them succeed in their schools, communities and homes. Whether that’s providing a food box, tutoring in school and after school, getting school supplies, teaching parenting skills or helping families meet basic needs, the nonprofit is there. Along with direct services, the organization advocates for policies that support families with local and state policymakers. To find out more, go to www.childrenfirstcisbc.org.