Letter: High-rises, trailers are not the answer to affordable housing

Graphic by Lori Deaton

I am writing in response to “Solving Asheville’s Affordable Housing Crisis: The Gospel According to Jerry” [July 25, Xpress]. Why does the Mountain Xpress see fit to give [Jerry Sternberg] a column called “The Gospel According to Jerry”? Being a lifetime resident of a town certainly gives you a perspective on a place, but not the one that will solve any problems like affordable housing. The opinions (or are they gospel!?) stated in this piece have many flaws.

I do think Jerry did a good job of pointing out that there is a lack of training and education, and the NIMBY problem, but is also letting developers off the hook by saying they won’t make any revenue if affordable units are included in housing developments — this is a misnomer. I have over eight years of experience in working on multifamily housing developments in the D.C. area — all of these developments in the city had to include a certain number of affordable units.

This can easily be factored in when designing a building by adding the appropriate number of units and using less costly finishes and materials there. These units were basically Section 8 housing, but in a decent new building where residents were not sequestered from the rest of society as they are here. I have never seen anything more discriminatory than the way Asheville has handled public housing — by putting developments in the hidden and isolated corners of the city, where residents have very little interaction with other income levels.

It has been proven over and over again that mixed-income housing is better for all residents. It gives the poorer, less educated a chance to see what life could be like, to mingle with people who might hire them or advise them — a chance they don’t have when they are grouped together and not exposed to anything but the same poverty cycle that so many get stuck in.

Putting people in high-rises or trailers is not the solution!  Please watch The Pruitt-Igoe Myth [documentary] about a high-rise public housing development in St. Louis and what an epic failure that was. You can also look at the high-rise on South French Broad and see that it is not working to help people in any way. … These high-rises become like storage units for poor people — they have no stake in their living place and no motivation to go anywhere else. They feel (and are) isolated from the rest of the world.

Trailers are also not the answer! Trailers do not appreciate in value and therefore are not a good solution to the housing problem. It is also discriminatory to give poor people poorly constructed places to live. Filling our neighborhoods with trailers is a terrible idea! I’m all for urban infill and increasing density in the city, but I shudder at the thought of hideous trailers in the city. Please do something that will last and will actually increase in value as time goes by. This is a throwaway solution!

I think if we look hard enough and get creative, there is plenty of land in and around Asheville that can be used for housing. The NIMBY problem also arises because these developments are only meant for people who would otherwise only live in public housing. If there were other, more appealing offerings with these developments, the neighbors would be much more accepting.

If I had the $25 million to use for public housing, I would use it to completely revamp and rebuild in some of the existing areas such as Livingston Heights and Walton Street to include more dense development, not high-rises, and create a mixed-use environment that would have people of varying income levels as well as those who need public assistance in the same complex, along with businesses that they could shop at and work in. The public housing in Southside is also in very close proximity to A-B Tech, so it seems natural that there could be some job training and placement to help these folks.

Bottom line is we are shooting ourselves in the foot on this problem — using the same solution over and over to no different conclusion. We are creating pockets of undesirable development when we could be creating something that could benefit us all. Creating multi-income, multiuse developments and requiring affordable units in new multifamily developments is a much better way of solving this problem and maybe actually helping some folks along the way.

— Emily Richter

Editor’s note: Columnist Jerry Sternberg’s expertise on the subject stems from his years of work in development and his active involvement in local politics, along with his decades-long view of the community’s efforts to construct affordable housing.


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26 thoughts on “Letter: High-rises, trailers are not the answer to affordable housing

  1. Lulz

    Can we put one in Montford? Kimberly? The solution is to reduce incentives that create single teen mothers, Cause when the cheese stops, baby daddy might have to actually get up and go to work to support his actions. And baby momma might think twice about sleeping around. Odda are most in section 8 are kids of single parents. You can’t give people anything free. The incentives to get out of poverty instead of remaining in it should be a priority. You won’t get mixed use here. Even the low income housing on Merrimon is secluded in a way. And has the fire department directly across from it. Coincidence? I think not.

  2. cecil bothwell

    Some historical perspective.
    First off, Jerry Sternberg’s column has been so-titled for about two decades. The title is slightly self-mocking and reflects Jerry’s clear-eyed view of the fact that he is offering one opinion—albeit a well-informed one.
    Secondly, criticizing Asheville Housing Authority choices made decades ago, when they were following what was a national model ignores what AHA is trying to do today. The revamp of Lee Walker Heights which has been in the planning stages for at least a few years, will be a mixed income development with (if all goes as planned) easy access to shopping and amenities. The City of Asheville has facilitated that goal by working with Duke Energy to obtain the former Matthews Ford property on Biltmore Ave. for redevelopment.
    Thirdly, the idea that there is “plenty of land” available flies in the face of real estate reality. In a hot market like Asheville the “plenty of land” is priced so high that creation of affordable housing is a real stretch. Given the price of land, high rise development makes sense—and yes, mixed income units create a social benefit. From my eight years on City Council I have drawn the conclusion that most of the City’s efforts toward affordability were a waste of money. While Mountain Housing Opportunities and Habitat for Humanity made worthwhile use of City help, most of the development projects by private firms that received public funds were little more than golden parachutes for the developers. They promise a small portion of affordable units for a short period of years and are then free to jack up rents as they please.
    The only substantial solution to affordable housing that I can envision after two disappointing terms on Council is to push the state and/or national minimum wage to $15 (and then peg it to inflation). The City has tried desperately hard to create affordability and it just hasn’t worked.

    • Enlightened Enigma

      It’s not the city’s responsibility to ‘create’ ‘affordable’ housing at all, Cecil…when you learn that, you have progressed!

      • Lulz

        Government doesn’t create anything. It’s value is relative to the prosperity of the taxpayer. That’s what they don’t understand.

      • cecil bothwell

        Governments have facilitated affordable housing in one way or another for a long time. As Luther asks downthread: “Are you against the mortgage interest deduction, or government-underwritten USDA and VA loans? Are you against Medicaid funding care homes and managed accommodation for seniors?”

        I’d add, that while I’ve been critical of City efforts, a very large portion of the money apportioned by the City for affordability is Federal money that MUST be used for such efforts. Much of that spending is simply a pass-thru.

        Also, and for the record, I voted against the Affordable Housing Bond issue on the 2016 ballot. I don’t think anything good will come of it.

        • Lulz

          Of course the bond is a waste of money. But the problem is the city is having to juggle money around now. Again, no real explanation to why a city that has seen tremendous growth has to pass a bond. Unless of course the money is mismanaged, the people making the money aren’t paying for the costs of doing business, and the city is running a corporate welfare scheme for mainly alcohol and tourism. Why are home owners being tasked with paying for the low paying jobs that the city attracts while developers, corporations, and stooges make bank?

          • luther blissett

            “no real explanation to why a city that has seen tremendous growth has to pass a bond.”

            It’s been explained. Bond issuance for long-lifespan capital projects is as normal as getting a home equity loan for a remodel. Whether you choose to listen or not is your own concern.

        • luther blissett

          It will take a substantial rethink of policy for the Affordable Housing bond issue to be anything other than a self-inflicted wound. It offers too much temptation to make marginal bets on marginal development projects.

          For what it’s worth, I tend to disagree with Cecil on the banlieue model of putting affordable housing on the periphery of the city and offsetting the location with transit, but that’s mostly due to jurisdictional issues. Makes you wonder what might happen if Biltmore (aka “the plantation”) set aside a few acres to accommodate its lower-wage employees.

  3. Robin Canuck

    I agree with Cecil that most of the City of Asheville’s affordable housing initiatives were huge wastes of money. As soon as they could, developers abolished the affordable units and jacked up the rent to whatever the market would bear.
    Another problem for affordable housing in Asheville is the affordable housing apartments don’t turn over. The original intent behind the federally subsidized housing was to be a stepping stone. Folks were supposed to live in the “projects”, and pay very low rents based on how much they made, until they made enough to move out. The problem is that third (and sometimes fourth) generations are now living in the same projects (grandma handed down to daughter, who handed down to son, etc., and so on). Not many move out once they get acclimated to the super low rents. I once had a coworker who would often turn down overtime (and even a promotion once) because he didn’t want to make too much money. He specifically said that “they would go up on his rent if he made too much”.

    • Enlightened Enigma

      yes, that’s how they ‘think’ …government dependence…

      • luther blissett

        It’s one of those irregular verbs: I take careful advantage of tax incentives, you skim profit, they are dependent upon government.

    • Lulz

      How many people had to struggle to pay those taxea so that people like Bothwell could waste it? Remember during the recession that values went down but taxea disnt. A tax increase that Bothwell refused to acknowledge.

      That’s the problem, no one is looking out for the prayers. Only how much more of their money can be stolen for nothing of value.

  4. Bright

    Great article by Richter! Her suggestions have heart coupled with pragmatism. “ I have never seen anything more discriminatory than the way Asheville has handled public housing — by putting developments in the hidden and isolated corners of the city, where residents have very little interaction with other income levels.” It seems Aville’s minimally advanced squad loves to purport their “love” of equality and betterment for all, but there is no love for the victims. As intimated in Bothwell’s comment…one sees fear of “those poor people” living in my neighborhood. Fear of the poor people can’t be in the picture if you want to help. Minimally helping those who can’t afford housing, and then living high off those profits is usury AND too obvious. It ain’t working anymore. When you’ve tried everything else, see if you can do what is humanly right and decent, and let go of the ego problem. As in other intellectually superior city governments…it can work.

    • Lulz

      And yet employers making millions aren’t the issue? How can it be when we allow open borders to undercut wages. You don’t suppose all those living in section 8 are competing for wages with illegals do ya? Let’s not forget unchecked welfare for those that entered illegally as well.

  5. Enlightened Enigma

    Non effective elected city NON leaders since 1940 have NEVER called for accountability from the ‘autonomous Housing Authority of AVL , therefore ALL of them including Cecil and the current Administration can be held totally accountable and GUILTY of what ‘public housing’ in Asheville has become. Unless they are working to streamline and downsize the most public housing in NC right here then they will ALL BE THE ENEMY of the city property owners and taxpayers! ENOUGH of the madness! NO other resort city in America suffers the blight of public housing like we do.

    Maybe Housing Authority Board member Jennifer Pickering could help relocate some of the projects over to her family’s vast acreage on the Biltmore Estate…right ? ;)

  6. luther blissett

    “These high-rises become like storage units for poor people”

    And yet rich people love to live in penthouses. Replacing functioning but poor communities with high-rises under the auspices of urban renewal was a mistake because high-rises need a higher threshold of maintenance to avoid a spiral of disrepair, and typically didn’t get it, but nobody seems to consider the Vanderbilt and Battery Park apartments “storage units”.

    At some point you have to come to terms with the notion that the single-family home is not an efficient way to provide 1000 square feet of affordable living space in a city.

    ‘The original intent behind the federally subsidized housing was to be a stepping stone. Folks were supposed to live in the “projects”, and pay very low rents based on how much they made, until they made enough to move out.’

    Weird what 40 years of wage stagnation can do. Maybe the problem is that the federal government has been pretty good at making home ownership cheap for certain people — often cheaper than renting — and not so good for others?

    The “affordable units” model helps nobody except private developers.

    • SpareChange

      An interesting and thoughtful comment provoking more thought and analysis. A refreshing change of pace from too many of the posts which pass for discussion on these and other pages.

      • luther blissett

        Thanks. One way of thinking about it: the modest single family home on a quarter-acre lot was in many ways optimized for the mortgage lender embarking upon a long-term relationship with a household. It’s a self-contained asset that could be paid for over a normal working life or sold on without much hassle. That has led to it becoming a repository of wealth in an era when wages don’t grow over time. But that function of housing is not the same function as providing a modest affordable roof over your head.

  7. Enlightened Enigma

    The directors of public housing in AVL, Gene Bell and David Nash plus the staff and board members NEVER call for LESS public housing to set the people free from their government plantations because the numbers of units administered in AVL is directly related to their outrageous pay checks! They have NO incentive to downsize and streamline anything!

  8. Joe Norris

    Single family homes require extensive continuing maintainance and lots of bucks to pay for it. Very poor people can’t even pay their rent with handouts from government, how are they going to pay and maintain a home and a yard? they can’t. Drive around a poor single family home area, not pretty, rundown homes, no yards, no care at all. No matter what type of housing it always ends up rundown and trashed out by the people who live there. The mixed use is not a great answer either, they are having lots of problems with the mixed use in Chicago, lots of the section 8 people bringing in drugs and thugs hanging out. I don’t know what the answer is but thinking a new house or apartment will solve the poors issues is just foolishness. It has never worked.

  9. tom

    I am against government mandated affordable housing. When a developer is forced to lower rates for some, he will raise it for others. The rich are not hurt. The middle class are. We pay more in rent to subsidize them.

    • luther blissett

      “I am against government mandated affordable housing.”

      Are you against the mortgage interest deduction, or government-underwritten USDA and VA loans? Are you against Medicaid funding care homes and managed accommodation for seniors?

      • luther blissett

        To be clear: I think that the specific carrot-and-stick approach of providing loans or tax incentives to private developers in exchange for a certain number of “affordable” units is a failed policy. I think the MHO model works but is a drop in the ocean, and I cautiously approve of the policy of long-term management contracts for properties on city-owned land.

        Ultimately, developers don’t care about long-term rent rates as a source of income: they only care about them when setting the sale price when they flip the property to a management company and move on to the next project.

      • Lulz

        But those seniora paid into the system. Andthe government takes their cut after they pass if they have assets. Aging is a given. Government created housing so people don’t have to do anything except buy lottery tickets is another.

      • jason

        I’m definitely against mortgage interest deductions. Tell me why somebody should receive a deduction for paying their mortgage?

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