Elitism and scapegoating won’t solve Asheville’s congestion, affordable housing and sprawl

Karen Ramshaw

BY KAREN RAMSHAW

“We have met the enemy and he is us” was the slogan on an Earth Day poster back in 1970, compliments of Pogo. Nothing has changed since then.

Asheville is growing, Asheville is changing, and many of us are worried that we’re losing the soul of our city. Too many long-term locals are being left behind. Housing is in short supply and unaffordable. Rather than take an honest and comprehensive look at the issues, barriers and contributors to the problems, however, we in Asheville have smugly chosen the easy way out. It’s the evil hotels! It’s the greedy developers! It’s the luxury condos! It’s the tourists! It’s not us — it’s them!

But while raising our fists and screaming about hotels or tourism can be very satisfying, it isn’t actually going to change things. The true barriers to affordable housing can be found a bit closer to home. Asheville is growing, we need more homes, and our codes and our zoning have not kept pace with changing practices and needs. You can build a 3,000-square-foot house with a three-car garage and get no pushback, but you can’t build a 3,000-square-foot triplex unless you first get conditional zoning for the property.

Development costs in the area are high and even higher within the city limits, where additional regulations and the overall process are more burdensome. Yet it makes sense — socially, environmentally and financially — to encourage development in the city center, where we already have infrastructure, rather than subsidizing sprawl and clearing acres of our mountain forests.

Neighborhood after neighborhood fights denser infill development because they’re “protecting the character of the neighborhood” or “concerned about traffic” or “want to protect the special experience,” etc. A proposed 214-unit development in East Asheville becomes a 24-unit enclave with prices starting at $675,000. Plans for 200 apartments — 20% of them affordable — on the Fuddrucker’s site in North Asheville had the neighborhood in an uproar, and the project never got off the ground. This despite the fact that the site is within walking distance of two grocery stores and downtown’s jobs and cultural amenities.

Don’t endorse sprawl

Traffic congestion is a big and increasing problem here, but growing numbers of people can’t find a place to live in Asheville. Pushing development farther out into the county will only exacerbate the traffic problem, even as we make our civic contribution to global warming.

The last city budget didn’t fully fund transit needs, and spreading already inadequate resources to cover a larger area further burdens vulnerable families. Folks who might have been able to walk, ride a bike or take a bus at least sometimes if they lived close in must now make all trips by car. That means these families must shoulder those additional costs, not to mention the time they now spend in traffic. In the “right” neighborhood, privileged homeowners’ concerns about congestion may be enough to kill a proposed development. Meanwhile, giant apartment complexes go up in South Asheville, and those residents are simply expected to put up with it.

Scapegoating development

The Montford neighborhood is the latest entrant in the “we’ve got ours” development wars. Developers are proposing two 11-unit brick apartment buildings, two stories on the street side and falling to three at the rear. Five neighborhood property owners hired an attorney to file objections to the project, and at least two of them are investors who don’t live in Montford. There’s also a website that’s drumming up opposition because there will be disruptions, and “When the construction is over, our neighbors will look out on not one but two apartment buildings.” The horror!

Historical guidelines are being weaponized to fight inclusion and provide cover for homeowners whose real message is that their property value and right to a quick commute and protection from the inconveniences of growth trump the community’s need for housing, smart growth development and social equity. Asheville is growing, but it seems that some areas of town are to be protected while others are asked to absorb all the growth and construction and traffic. South Asheville, anyone?

I believe a number of neighbors have signed up to man the barricades without first doing their own research. We all feel overwhelmed these days, but let’s not automatically jump on the anti-development bandwagon. The Montford neighborhood has historically included small apartment buildings, and the proposed design is based on existing multifamily structures. At 37 units per acre, the proposed project is less dense than many existing Montford multifamily developments, such as 60 Flint St. (48 units per acre), 73 Cherry St. (72), 136 Chestnut St. and 28 Elizabeth St. (both 100). The proposed units would be on transit lines and within walking distance of downtown, enabling those residents to easily participate in the civic and cultural life of our city.

Put up or shut up

The issue of affordability is playing out nationwide, and the problems won’t go away on their own. We need to have honest, grounded conversations, understanding that we all need to contribute and we’re all going to have to give a little. How are we going to facilitate smart growth that protects our neighborhoods while welcoming new neighbors and new housing? How do we make our neighborhoods more equitable with a mix of housing types and prices? Nicely designed apartments won’t drive down home prices: Check out Montford and Kimberly Avenue. The Larchmont did not destroy North Asheville, and the Longchamps didn’t wreck property values in the Grove Park neighborhood. Should we allow triplexes or fourplexes by right, as they do in Oregon, or do away with single-family-only zoning entirely, as they have in Minneapolis?

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that we need to start asking the questions, educating ourselves and listening to one another. Let’s work together to live out the values of respect and inclusion that we so love to put on our bumper stickers — and demonstrate that all are truly welcome here.

Karen Ramshaw moved to Asheville in the back of the family station wagon in 1966 and has seen a lot of changes over the decades. She began working for Public Interest Projects, a local investment/development company focused on downtown, in 1992.

 

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25 thoughts on “Elitism and scapegoating won’t solve Asheville’s congestion, affordable housing and sprawl

  1. Joe Archibald

    Kudos Karen! A well reasoned and stated response to the continuing debate over the “I’m here no close the gate” mentality that is plaguing out city right now. To everyone who thinks otherwise – unless you are actively working to solve the problems of affordable housing, rising rents, sprawl, income inequality and gentrification, the statement at the top of the last paragraph is for you.

  2. Lulz

    LOL and yet there’s overwhelming support for not only heavy handed government regulations for housing , but also high taxes and fees. You get the government you deserve. You people need to get your hands out of the sand. Those with money, influence, and the promises of giving more tax money to the city get their way. Show me one example where a hotel was turned down recently.

    The people moving here are doing so because it’s cheaper for them but not for others.

    Rising rents? Let’s say that the average rent is 1500 a month. That’s 18000 a year. Let’s say the rental needs a new roof and the furnace goes out. You’re probably looking at a year’s rent to pay just for that. Toss in your property taxes. In theory the property owner just lost money for that year. Rents are going up because of many factors. But no owner is renting their houses out to lose money. On the opposite spectrum you have many rentals out there that are complete dumps because the owners neglect to upkeep them. Those people are the one’s that give the others bad names. And need to outed for what they are. And that’s slum lords.

  3. Mike R.

    The cited example of the apartment on Charlotte Street fails to acknowledge the true reason for neighborhood outrage. The project was a montrous full block monolith and totally out of character for that street, surrounding neighborhoods or any part of Asheville for that matter.

    These types apartments have been built around the country because they use cheaper wood construction and their size/shape allows the developer to cram as many possible units in as possible. They essentially look and feel like a large hotel, both on the outside and inside.
    A lot of work had gone into the Charlotte St. overlay district regarding acceptable housing designs. But the developer along with certain people in city government that should have known better pushed forward with this project. The neighborhoods and informed citizens had every right to be incensed by this approach.

    The high cost of housing in Asheville is not unique here. This problem is everywhere across any desirable place to live (and then some) in our country. The problem is devastating for our younger generation but it is caused solely by the inflationary and economic policies of our federal government. That is why it cannot be solved substantially at the local level. I’m not suggesting some effort shouldn’t be attempted, just don’t think the City of Asheville or any city for that matter, can put a dent in this problem, because it has its roots in federal policies and practices, all of which will not end well down the road.

    • SpareChange

      This seems a reasoned objection to that initial proposal. However, having followed the issue quite closely, I personally did not see or hear that kind of nuanced argument as being representative of the mainstream of opposition to the Charlotte Street / Fuddrucker’s project. Perhaps some of the opposition would be muted if the plan had been for a somewhat smaller, more high end development. I strongly suspect though that, just as we are seeing in Montford now, the activist core of neighborhood opponents would object to most any multi-family housing project at that location.

      Let’s also be clear about the tradeoffs involved in these smaller projects. The fewer the units, the more expensive they will be, and it kills any prospect of there being a significant percentage of affordable units. This is one of Ms. Ramshaw’s core points.

      I do agree that housing and the cost of housing is not an issue that local government can directly address or resolve (they simply lack both the resources and authority to make much of a dent). Also, government in general also does not have a particularly good track record in designing, constructing or maintaining housing. However, through their zoning authority and local building codes, they can broadly shape and help direct private investment, and it is this authority which is the focus of the author’s analysis. In that area, much can be done — but it does sometimes require some leadership and political courage to be willing to face the neighborhood activist NIMBY backlash which so often accompanies such decisions. Sadly these are qualities few on the city council or county commission seem to possess.

      I am particularly unclear about how local development issues are so singularly shaped, “by the inflationary and economic policies of our federal government.” For the past 12 years (a period roughly coinciding with the housing crunch in Asheville), the rate of inflation has generally been near or at historic lows – usually remaining under 3%, and often under 2 or even 1% annually. In other words, and to just further reinforce the author’s point, blaming the federal government’s policies as being primarily responsible for the state of the local housing market is just another manifestation of the “scapegoating” she is arguing against.

      • Mike R.

        “I am particularly unclear about how local development issues are so singularly shaped, “by the inflationary and economic policies of our federal government.” For the past 12 years (a period roughly coinciding with the housing crunch in Asheville), the rate of inflation has generally been near or at historic lows – usually remaining under 3%, and often under 2 or even 1% annually. In other words, and to just further reinforce the author’s point, blaming the federal government’s policies as being primarily responsible for the state of the local housing market is just another manifestation of the “scapegoating” she is arguing against.”

        To help you understand:
        1) General price inflation has not been around 2%/year in spite of what the Fed “says”. It has been more like 5% +/-. That said, the big inflation has been in real estate, medical, college, the stock and bond markets. Inflated money supplies do not necessarily end up in inflated prices of everything and equally. Thus there has been huge price inflation in housing but little price inflation in the price of lawn mowers, for example. It is a very complex topic, one that the average American is not clear on. The government likes it that way.
        Other things contribute to inflated prices such as tax policy. When Clinton “finacialized” housing by giving the 250/500K exemption from taxes, this fed the fire into housing. Before, housing was a necessity and the government treated it as such. Clinton (too smart by half) decided to make it an “industry”. Well he succeeded majorly but the downsides of this are evident everywhere.

        These are the things I’m talking about with respect to our federal government’s policies that feed this housing bubble. If you have further questions, I will try and answer them as clearly as I can, but rest assured, my statement on Federal policy causing this problem is 100% correct. I’ve done alot of homework on this issue.

        Thank you.l

        • SpareChange

          I can appreciate that you have read up on a subject and have a particular perspective. The haughty, superior tone, however, adds little to the conversation. If doing “homework” is going to be part of an argument, or cited as a credential among otherwise anonymous commenters, then I’ll just mention that I researched, published on and taught urban policy and political economy for 40 years, up through the doctoral level – however, in a forum of this type maybe it would be better to just let the substance of one’s comments stand or fall on their own merits, rather than trying to shroud those opinions in smug superiority.

          For clarity’s sake, it was the comment, “the high cost of housing… is caused solely by the inflationary and economic policies of our federal government,” that I was responding to. You know that is overly simplistic and a gross overstatement. And to suggest otherwise simply scapegoats the federal government, while diminishing the power and tools state and local government and the private sector possess to make a difference in the local housing issue.

          • Mike R.

            I”m sorry to have offended you.
            I would be interested in what you think is the cause/root cause of the crazy high housing prices all over the country?

    • design nazi

      Nice conversation. I’m going to agree with both. But I will add that even though folks objections to some developments might sound shallow and NIMBY, it is only that way because the objections have to be articulated in terms that are measurable and relate to review standards. Such as traffic, scale, parking. Saying something is buttugly will not stop it. I think good context-sensitive design pushes through local resistance much better than soul-less building boxes that seem unworthy of earning a place in our rich architectural fabric. Design matters.

  4. NFB

    There are some good points made here. At the same time if density was the answer to the affordable housing problem then downtown Asheville would be the most affordable pace in WNC.

    • Froscari

      There are only about 1400 housing units in downtown Asheville. It is probably one of the lowest density areas in all of the city. It’s also some of the most expensive land in the city and that’s one reason there aren’t more housing being built downtown. So NFB, your comment makes no sense.

        • dyfed

          He didn’t miss anything. Density and additional supply is the solution—downtown is not dense enough.

  5. Andrew Weatherly

    I’ve been saying for years that city rules regs need to change. As a homeowner I cannot develop my 15,000 sqft lot to accommodate infill because of rules about street frontage for lots. However, if a developer wanted to do something, somehow they seem to get to do so. Also, the objections to the proposed new apartments between Coxe Av and Ashland Av are a great example of the problems. No, I don’t want more development here at all ever, and …. more apartments and infill are the best compromise we are likely to get over another beastly hotel.

  6. JeffC828

    So hard to hear these conversations of affordability and over development. Every town /City I have lived in you hear the locals explaining how they are being pushed out of their home towns. Why are these local populations not buying homes and entering the economy as a stakeholder? If you want a voice and a vote you have to take the leap and own property.
    Whether its Asheville or anywhere else – I hear people say I should have bought 5, 10, 20 years ago – Yes you should have but its still cheaper today than it will be in the future.
    Get in the game or deal with what others decide for you….
    There are houses in every price range on Realtor.com and there are down payment assistance programs to help you get in…..make a positive move for this city in 2019/2020.

    • Sam

      Yes go into debt for a building that needs regular upkeep in order to have a “voice.” Not everyone can or wants to own a piece of property and this not mean they aren’t entitled to a vote and voice dude. Classist much??

  7. John Funicelli

    Fair…what a great word, defined as what is fair for me or my viewpoint and to heck with anyone else. If someone disagrees with my version of fair it must be because of their “privilege” or they are greedy, racist etc. The fact is that not a single person living in Asheville was brought here in chains and forced to live here, they chose to live here or they have chosen to stay.
    I would love to live in Vail or Maui, but the reality is that I cannot afford it (I know because I Googled it) so I made the adult decision not to move there and instead move to a place where I can afford to live.
    Is it fair for the people that live there(Maui or Vail etc etc), because they can afford it to live there, they then should have to pay for me to live there because, gosh darn it life isn’t fair and I want them to pay for my lifestyle. Of course not, I am a grown up and I realize life isn’t fair, it simply is. So, if I cannot afford to live somewhere, then I don’t move there or if I do I don’t whine and complain about someone being greedy because they have achieved more in life than I have. By the way, I am not in the top percentile of earners, but what I have, I have earned on my own because I learned early in life that wherever I find myself I am there because of the choices I have made and if I want things to change I must change. It is always easier to blame someone else, or their privilege etc.

    • Lou

      John, it IS easy to blame others sometimes…if you have any grasp on the history of this country. Some are born with far more opportunities in life and won’t give up anything for others who weren’t. It’s SO easy for the white male majority to look down on others but that same majority takes for granted the leg up they have enjoyed. Have some compassion for women, people with disabilities, and people of color, who never had the same advantages. Then, get over yourself.

    • Sam

      But what about when you move to a place you CAN afford but wages stay stagnant while rents go up??? Does one simply move again (responsibly so, to another place they can afford) only for the same thing to happen again?

      • dyfed

        Rent is always going up. Mortgage payments, however, are fixed.

        The advantage to renting is flexibility—the ability to move on a whim. The disadvantage is that you might be forced to move at somebody else’s whim. If you don’t want to move… buy.

        • mtndancer

          How many people who work in the service industry (servicing the tourists and occupants of luxury hotels) do you suppose can afford or be approved for mortgages? Rent prices have far outpaced earnings here and most people who rent do so because they can’t afford the luxury of buying, not because it provides “flexibility”.

  8. Jay m reese

    If we reduce the inhuman levels of income and wealth inequality every thing becomes affordable

  9. Vanderbilt Agrarian

    The Assumption in the commentary is that Asheville will keep increasing in population. We don’t have to. We can zone away population increases. We need to have a referendum on how many people we want in Asheville and then abide by it with zoning and other incentives to move or not to move here.

    Secondly, we need rent control in some areas to make housing affordable. Some areas we can allow laissez faire. Others rent control. This will involve an effort to get free of North Carolina’s regressive laws whose only goal is to get more and more people, and create more and profit. But it can be done.

    Thirdly the bugaboo that if we don’t build densely in town then we’ll have lots of sprawl has proven false in my experience. We have always had both, heavy infill density and lots of sprawl. It comes back to population control locally and worldwide. The same goes for fighting climate change. The ultimate climate change factor is increasing human population.

    Settled neighborhoods in Asheville should control development within themselves and have substantial control around their borders. Yes, it’s time we people occupying Asheville, and the Earth, pulled up the rug behind us. Enough is enough.

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