I’ll go out on a limb and make a prediction: Asheville’s next big political battle will pit advocates of sustainability and affordability against neighborhood activists.
Now, granted, ask members of either of these groups and they’ll each tell you that they support both sustainability and affordability in housing, as well as the character of Asheville’s neighborhoods.
And, indeed, historically the two groups have been allied in Asheville politics; both tend to be on the progressive end of the political spectrum, have voted for the same candidates and allied on a number of political issues.
The fight over the controversial Larchmont affordable housing development, located just off Merrimon Avenue, was perhaps an indicator of things to come. Affordable housing advocates and nonprofits (including the developer Mountain Housing Opportunities) saw a unique opportunity to put much-needed affordable housing near a major corridor. Neighborhood advocates, many of whom emphasized they generally supported affordable housing, said the project would be out of scale with the neighborhood and increase traffic too much in the area.
Both groups do support sustainable, affordable housing and neighborhoods in principle, but how those principles translate into actual policies — and where they place their particular priorities — differs greatly. Both groups are being honest, but the devil, as with any matter of politics, is in the details.
Previously, they often allied because they had a common enemy: the more conservative, generally pro-developer faction. Think back: Most of the time, sustainability advocates and neighborhood activists were allied was against high-end projects (like Parkside) that were perceived by both to be out of keeping with the area — unsustainable and unaffordable.
Now, however, the results of several City Council elections have given more clout to the progressive politicians that both groups have supported. That shift — combined with the end of the housing bubble — has diminished the number of developments disliked by both groups, so there’s less common cause for them to rally around. That means the attention starts turning to where the groups disagree: namely, in exactly how those principles should be enacted.
Which brings us to the second major sign that this dispute will probably turn out to be Asheville’s next big political fracas, the recent fight over the proposed sustainability ordinance. This is the first skirmish that’s seen the two groups directly battling over a larger issue. To its proponents, the ordinance is a necessary step in making better, cheaper housing more available in larger areas of the city. To its detractors, the new rules endanger the democratic process and threaten to swamp Asheville in inappropriate development.
So why such fighting between groups that were once allies? In short, here’s the mindsets behind each, and why they’re in conflict with the other. I’ll try to be fair to each in my summary, and take it with a grain of salt because there’s a lot of generalizing here.
To advocates of sustainable and affordable housing, Asheville’s current rules make such development more costly and difficult than is practical — requiring a lengthy review process before multiple governing bodies — along with adherence to what they see as an often overly complex and outdated set of rules. Moves like the sustainability ordinance make the process, in their minds, far easier, thus meaning that more people will be able to live energy-efficient lives close to downtown. The advocates see the cost of housing as a major crisis and one that needs to be addressed through redoing how Asheville handles development — a new norm that is best enshrined getting affordable projects as far away from potentially costly political battles as possible.
If this requires an alliance with some developers, so be it. Sustainability advocates generally haven’t seen affordable housing developers (like MHO) of a piece with the corporate developers that attracted their ire.
What they’re not saying — but what’s at the heart of the conflict — is that making Asheville’s housing fit their vision of sustainability will require changes to existing neighborhoods, sometimes drastic ones, because many of those areas weren’t configured to meet those goals. It will mean denser structures and hundreds — if not thousands — of new residents in neighborhoods around the city.
To the advocates, that’s a necessary sacrifice to rein in drastically unaffordable housing while creating a more sustainable city, and they generally see community as more flexible than their opponents.
By way of example, City Council member Gordon Smith, a supporter of the sustainability ordinance, asserts that Ashevilleans will “have to look beyond the old objections” in favor of more sustainable and affordable housing, noting that many older neighborhoods mix denser development with single-family homes.
To the neighborhood advocates, the character is the point: they see it as what makes Asheville vital and contributes to its quality of life. In many cases (if they’re not natives), it’s why they moved here. That character is, in their mind, closely tied with community action of the town meeting/public hearing variety, something they revere. Thus there tends to be a distrust among this faction of planners, city staff and appointed boards. Neighborhood activists, in my experience, might be more positively inclined towards groups like MHO, but still see them as a developer, like other developers.
What they’re not saying — but what emerges as a major point of conflict — is that neighborhood advocates prefer the development process to be longer and entrenched in complex rules. It helps their political power to have multiple potential veto points and many points on which to raise legal complaints. The way they perceive it, money and appointed boards already tilt the process in favor of the developer. It evens the score to have more developments come before Council, and to have extensive checklists of rules a project must meet.
While sustainability advocates focus on numbers (housing costs, distance from transit), neighborhood activists tend to focus on factors such as views, conformity of new development with existing architecture and scale. While sustainability fans want a streamlined process, the neighborhood defenders prefer development to be slower, project-by-project — the better to preserve what they see as their area’s character.
Elaine Lite, an activist whom Smith endorsed in her 2007 run for City Council, provided an example of this viewpoint when she said that the rules removing much affordable development from a Council hearing would “bastardize” the process and that the measure is “too sweeping.” Neighborhood activists give examples of long-running zoning disputes (such as Greenlife’s loading dock) as little reason to trust city government unless they have say in the final approval, backed by rules that strictly constrain neighborhood intrusion.
But past both mindsets is the simple fact that it is often not possible to do two things at once. Asheville can have communities that change their character slowly, with each new development carefully tweaked to fit what’s already there. Asheville can have large amounts of new housing of the kind that sustainability advocates believe is sorely needed. It cannot have both.
That’s why this fight won’t end anytime soon.