Letter writer: How can local government help with affordable housing? Transportation

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Having served six years on Asheville’s City Council and two years on the Housing and Community Development Committee, my conclusion is that the principal way local government can help with affordable housing involves transportation. Efforts to build affordable housing in the city immediately run into the realities of the real estate market.

After World War II, as our industries reverted from military manufacture to autos, and incomes were rising, those who could afford to fled the city. Due to racial disparities in income, this became known as “white flight.” Cities became darker and poorer and ran down until they were as vacant as Asheville in the 1970s, with boarded-up storefronts and tumbleweeds in the streets. Around the turn of the century, the wealthy rediscovered cities: Living downtown was convenient and suddenly classy. The bidding-up of downtown began. Affordable housing was pushed to the margins. Meanwhile, the cost of commuting, which was negligible when gas cost 17 cents a gallon, rose to as much as 25 percent of median income.

There are two ways I see that local government can effectively address affordability. The first is to drop parking-space requirements for city apartment developments. Parking requirements cost developers plenty, and many renters would be happy to pay less for a place without a space. The second is to develop countywide transit, with park-and-ride lots on major corridors and with late-night collector routes for food-service employees who work past midnight. This would make transportation more affordable, which translates into making housing at the city margins even more affordable, and it would relieve parking pressure downtown.

We can no more suppress the downtown boom than another generation could have stanched migration to the suburbs. Let’s adopt policies that can actually work.

— Cecil Bothwell
City Council member

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16 thoughts on “Letter writer: How can local government help with affordable housing? Transportation

  1. Cecil is Telling Half The Story

    Hey Cecil, the best way to make housing affordable it to remove the government from the real estate market all together. Want to know what makes housing expensive? Zoning laws do. You seem to understand that the rules add cost by acknowledging that the parking requirement is bad for affordability, why not take that argument to its logical conclusion and get rid of zoning laws completely? Want to know the cheapest city in America to build in? It’s Houston with no zoning laws at all. The most expensive? San Francisco with the most onerous. Houston is much much larger than San Francisco and therefore a more desirable place for people that are looking for jobs, but the average cost of an apartment is San Francisco is 3 times as expensive as Houston. Want to look at average prices to buy a home? The average price per square foot is 6 times higher in San Francisco. The average salary in these two cities is only about 10% apart, so why is housing 300%-600% more expensive? The answer is that the government made it that way by enacting zoning laws.

    • Peter Robbins

      O, Houston,
      City of Headlights, City of Magic,
      How I long to see you smoggin’ up my dreams.
      Sprawl on, Big City, sprawl on.

    • I would venture that there are other variables as well. Just as Asheville is a more popular destination than Atlanta or Columbia, San Francisco has a lot different level of attraction than Houston. Also, the terrain in San Franciso and Asheville is a lot more challenging than that in Houston or Atlanta, sprawl is simpler in flatland. Meanwhile Houston may be a more attractive place for people looking for jobs, but not for people looking for a nice place to live, which is a big problem for Asheville and San Francisco which are very cool places to live, but not particularly good places to look for jobs.

      • Cecil is Now Lying

        Asheville is more popular than Atlanta? Nonsense! 900,000 people have moved to Atlanta in the last 6 years alone, how many have move to Asheville? There are only half that number in the entire Asheville SMSA covering 4 counties. Houston is the fastest growing city in the U.S. San Francisco is not even in the top 10.

    • bsummers

      Sure, leave out things like density. San Francisco is the second-most densely populated city in America, whereas Houston didn’t even make the top 50.


      Add to that the steep terrain, like Cecil said, and housing gets more costly More and more and more people competing for homes within a city that can’t grow because of natural limitations (it’s surrounded by water on three sides!) will drive housing costs up faster than pesky red tape from city hall. Houston can grow and grow and grow, keeping housing costs lower.


      • Jaded Local

        “Sure, leave out things like density. San Francisco is the second-most densely populated city in America, whereas Houston didn’t even make the top 50.”

        And yet those who advocate for more density is the way to solve Asheville’s affordable housing crisis. On a similar note if density were the answer downtown would have the most affordable housing in Asheville.

        • hauntedheadnc

          Density is a way to pack in some more housing in areas that are being underutilized. Adding any housing to the pool is going to help, at this point.

          One thing you’re also disregarding in your disdain of density is the fact that dense development downtown subsidizes the suburbs. Density generates tax money. Sprawl consumes it, and needs density to prop it up.

          • Jaded Local

            I have no “disdain” for density. There may be compelling arguments in its favor for it but given that downtown is the densest part of Asheville and has the most expensive housing in town affordability is not one of them. Flooding the city, as developers have been doing in recent years, with $800,000 houses and condos has been adding to the pool but just gives those who ca n afford an $800,000 house or condo more choices and does nothing for those who can only afford a $100,000 house or condo.

            Dense development downtown generating tax money is a good case for density, but as downtown shows density does not translate into affordability even though there are those who champion density as a solution.

  2. Gordon Smith

    While we’re in the midst of a severe housing shortage and an affordable housing crisis, Asheville is doing better than any city of our size in the creation and support of affordable housing, according to the Affordable Housing Scorecard report. We’ve also recently increased density on our commercial corridors to make it worth developers’ while to build denser housing there. We’re going to transform city-owned properties into affordable housing. We recently made it easier for people to build Accessory Dwelling Units on their properties with the aim that these will become long term rentals. Our Affordable Housing Trust Fund has more to lend. We’re undergoing a broad regulatory review to examine our processes and jettison whatever doesn’t make sense (which could certainly include parking requirements). You can read more about Asheville’s Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy here: http://www.slideshare.net/gordonsmithasheville/comprehensive-affordable-housing-strategy-and-framework-10-1414

    Socioeconomic diversity makes Asheville strong, and pushing lower-income people to the margins is antithetical to that. Improving transit is a good idea. Each bus costs about $500,000. Each route costs about $900,000/year. Paying for transit service is and has been an enormous challenge, and the best we’ve managed to do is expand to Sunday service on limited routes and make our existing routes more efficient and effective. While we fight for every penny against a hostile legislature in Raleigh, you’ll find me (Asheville City Council Member, Chair of the Housing and Community Development Committee and Chair of the four-county Asheville Regional Housing Consortium) continuing to use the tools and resources we have to build more partnerships and stand up for the people of Asheville who deserve the opportunity to have a decent, affordable place to live. The idea that our city government would choose a policy that relegates working people to the “margins” goes against the values of the Asheville I know and love.

    • Jaded Local

      “We’re going to transform city-owned properties into affordable housing.”

      Is that a certainty? Can you give specific examples? Because all we seem to hear about is the highest profile piece of city owned property which is the lot downtown across from the basilica and all we ever hear is from those who want another park. I sure wish “progressives” in Asheville cared as much about affordable housing as they do another park downtown. Maybe we’d even have a yard sign campaign in support of that like the one going on for another park.

      • Gordon Smith

        Great question – the answer is yes. The first property will be the current Parks Maintenance Facility. It’s being prepped as we speak. An RFP ought to be issued this year. The Parks Maintenance folks will relocate to another building.

        • Jaded Local

          How much housing will this result in and how “affordable” will it be?

  3. Gordon Smith

    The details will get hammered out when we construct the RFP (Request For Proposals). I need to learn more about how much of the lot is buildable (we’re doing that assessment now). I can tell you my hope, which is at least 60 units of housing affordable to people at 60% and 80% of Area Median Income. Translated that means 1 BRs for $489/month and $661/month.

  4. City policy cannot choose “a policy that relegates working people to the ‘margins’” – it is economic reality. City policy cannot possibly defeat the market (as was the point of my letter at the top of this thread.) We have made a little progress – but the fact that Asheville rents are broadly unaffordable for workers after 10 years of effort that is called the best in NC might suggest to a reasonable person that the effort is failing.

    Meanwhile the affordability of transit is about to take a sharp turn. Driverless buses are headed our way and cities that plan now for that reality will be ready to do more good for their citizens faster than those who stick to failed past policies. Virginia just joined the ranks of states permitting driverless vehicles and the U.S. Dept. of Transportation is advising states to take no steps that might restrain the advent of that technology. The $900,000 per year per route is heavily determined by driver cost. England is preparing to use driverless buses for rural routes that heretofore were too expensive due to driver cost. Shanghai is running them already. This is the path to the future and to getting people to affordable housing.

    My bet is that whatever happens on the City Parks Maintenance property is going to look a lot like the Workforce housing slated behind the Aloft Hotel. Building new housing that’s affordable at 60 percent of median income is a very nice idea. But good luck with that.

  5. Grant Milin

    The Great Asheville Hotel Glut is one red alert signal the downtown boom is a bust. The news stories to the effect just haven’t been written yet. Hardly an example of general equilibrium theory.

    If driverless buses are the last step in justifying a national basic income guarantee as part of a massive omnibus anti-poverty act of congress to compensate for these ‘Any Rand gladiator pit’ microeconomics in cities like Asheville and such strategy effecting our national macroeconomics—exampled by full blast Silicon Valley automation and automated Wall Street trading—I guess that’s where we are headed as part of a responsible innovation reset.

    Sensemaking includes cutting off disaster at the start of the risk curve… as in now. America’s Next New Deal can start being discussed right here in Asheville. Those on the wrong side of opportunity now have nothing to lose by questioning these scary assumptions and risk avoiders.

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