BY CHRIS JOYELL
A colleague of mine recently closed on his first house. After years of anxiously scanning listings in Asheville and Buncombe County, he realized that if he were ever to become a homeowner, it would have to happen in another county — in this case, Haywood County.
Likewise, another colleague recently graduated college and began working at MountainTrue last year. She, too, has been frustrated by the housing market, having to settle for a substandard rental unit with a negligent landlord. As rent costs in Buncombe County soar, she has grown doubtful that she will find a better living situation soon. The prospect of owning her own home here is beyond imagination.
Both their struggles reflect our growing housing crisis, where people with stable jobs and decent pay are running out of housing options in Buncombe County. People like the teachers, artists, service industry workers, small-business owners, nurses and others who make Buncombe County such a vibrant place to live.
In response to this dilemma, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners recently approved a ballot referendum that will direct $30 million toward the preservation of open space and $40 million toward the development of housing that is affordable for the county’s workforce. This November, county residents will get to vote on the bonds separately.
The open space and housing bonds can work in conjunction with one another. Buncombe County remains largely rural, and ample land is available to develop housing. The county will likely prioritize the more rural and remote areas for land conservation. On the other hand, housing that is affordable for the county’s workforce is best located in areas already developed and closer to transit services, jobs, schools and commercial centers.
As an environmental advocacy group, MountainTrue recognizes the undeniable connection between housing and the integrity of our natural environment. Our community faces two mounting crises that we must address in concert — housing affordability and climate change. We can do this by providing a wider range of housing options in and around Asheville and our other municipalities, while not contributing to sprawling development patterns that clear forested land, feed gridlock and increase auto emissions.
The housing crisis
Households that spend more than 30% of their total annual household income on rent or mortgage payments are considered cost-burdened. Today, nearly 50% of Buncombe County renters are cost-burdened. Meanwhile, county homebuyers have watched average sales prices climb by over 43% in the past five years. Our reality is inescapable — it has become harder for both renters and potential homeowners to find an affordable place to live in Buncombe County.
As our county’s workforce experiences increasing difficulty finding housing they and their families can afford, they are forced to live farther away from our municipalities’ job centers, schools and services. This results in more people driving longer distances to these destinations daily, contributing more greenhouse gases to our atmosphere while chewing up more undeveloped land in the county and beyond.
The state projects that 79,000 people will move to Buncombe County in the next 25 years, and the county acknowledges that we’ll need to build thousands of housing units to accommodate them. People will continue to move here, and if we don’t attempt to accommodate them in the areas in which we’ve invested — areas served by water and sewer — then we’ll get sprawl as a result.
We need to redirect that development to the places most well-equipped to absorb new residents — areas close to Asheville and our other municipalities. The development of modest-sized, compactly built, energy-efficient housing within walking distance of jobs and services is one of the best antidotes for climate change.
Forty-two percent of the approximately 135,000 people who work in Buncombe County live outside the county. This number has grown by 25% in the last decade, undoubtedly fueled by the county’s escalating housing prices. With no regional transit system available, these workers are often required to commute over 20 miles a day to work in Buncombe County. Additionally, 78% of our county’s workforce travel to work by driving alone.
When we think of how we typically meet a huge demand for housing, we envision sprawling subdivisions and massive apartment complexes. Those projects usually require extending new water and sewer lines into rural and undeveloped land. About one-quarter of the land in Buncombe County remains “unimproved,” meaning that unless we find ways to increase density in our existing communities, this is where most future development is likely to occur.
Transportation and household energy are the two most prominent components of household carbon footprints. In the U.S., transportation is the biggest contributor to climate change, accounting for 27% of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Suburban homes are generally larger and more expensive to heat and cool than compact urban apartments and townhouses. Yes, we should strive to switch to renewable energy sources, but we also want to reduce how much we need to drive and encourage the downsizing of our living quarters.
As development continues to move into rural areas of the county, developable land will become more scarce. Instead of expanding our infrastructure into rural landscapes, we can choose to invest in our existing communities by improving aging infrastructure to accommodate the growth that cities and towns are designed to absorb.
In the face of a growing climate crisis, we must provide a broader range of housing options near our municipal centers. Walkable, bikeable neighborhoods close to shops and services mitigate the sprawling development patterns that lead to more auto emissions.
Focusing development in existing neighborhoods protects our farmland and natural areas and represents a sound financial approach to the problem. By encouraging development in established communities, the county reduces the long-term maintenance obligation of new infrastructure. This reinvestment in existing neighborhoods is ultimately more efficient, saving the county money and strengthening its tax base.
How the bonds will help
The open space and housing bonds alone will not solve our county’s problems. But taken together, the bonds can make a significant impact.
The bonds can also get us much more bang for our buck. Because bond programs typically rely on leverage, bond funds can be used to attract additional investment in our county. Numerous federal, state, municipal and foundation grant sources support the same goals as the proposed housing and open space bonds. They all require matching funds to consider making a grant. For instance, the $40 million in bond funds for housing could attract over $80 million in outside funding, resulting in $120 million in new housing that is affordable for Buncombe County’s workforce.
The county would likely invest in rental housing development projects alongside a for-profit or nonprofit developer and other funders to improve project leverage. Subsidies and lower project costs for the developer would allow rent rates for at least some of the units to be set at affordable levels for many years through legal guarantees.
County funds could be used as a source of lending capital for homeownership projects. This would reduce the burden of large down payments and allow for favorable mortgage payments.
We must address and tackle our housing affordability and climate change crises together. Voting yes on the open space and housing bonds will provide the opportunity to do just that.
Chris Joyell directs the Healthy Communities program at MountainTrue following its merger with the Asheville Design Center, which he directed since 2008.