BY ADAM ROSEN
“I want to keep things the way they are. I don’t like all these newcomers and changes. I want to preserve my way of life. All these people need to go back where they came from.” The talking points of a closed-minded conservative? Actually, the refrain of many a self-styled “progressive” in Asheville and other proudly liberal cities and towns across the country.
When it comes to housing, your average Subaru-driving, craft-beer swilling, buy-local enthusiast can sound as dogmatic as a wild-eyed Tea Partier. Just consider the recent hullabaloo over a proposed development that would replace the Fuddruckers’ property on Charlotte Street in North Asheville with a 180-unit, four-story apartment complex. One thread about it on my local Nextdoor site has over 100 comments, most of them loudly denouncing the move.
With each announcement of a proposed new multifamily housing development, the same old clichés are pulled out and dusted off: “We need more housing, just not here. This won’t fit with the neighborhood character. Think of all the traffic. We need more time. Not in my backyard.” There’s always a better place or a better time. Meanwhile, rents and house prices continue to rise, driving more and more people out of the city.
This attitude, of course, isn’t unique to Asheville. Berkeley, Calif. — that mecca of all things artisanal and liberal — offers an extreme but illuminating example. In 2017, a proposal to build a two-story house was put before the Berkeley City Council. One resident complained that the new building “would cast shadows on her zucchini plants,” according to a reporter at the hearing. The City Council sided with the zucchini.
Ironically, when it comes to housing, Republican areas are often much more successful at achieving the goals progressives say they want. The Sunbelt is one of the fastest-growing regions of the country, and yet housing in Republican strongholds such as Arizona and Texas has largely remained affordable, despite huge population growth (much of it driven by people fleeing sky-high rents in California and New York). A big part of this is because of relaxed height restrictions and zoning requirements, which have effectively thwarted NIMBYism and its guise of “preserving neighborhood character.”
Accidentally or not, this hands-off approach has brought real benefits to middle- and working-class people, who aren’t forced to hand over an ever-larger chunk of their paycheck to housing. Not so in San Francisco, Boulder, Asheville and other progressive strongholds which, in large part, have come to restrict entry to the affluent and very affluent.
Two things can be true at the same time. Yes, some — maybe even many — developers are “greedy,” in that they want to make a hefty return on their investments. But in our current economic system, they are the ones who can increase the supply of desperately needed housing. They may be greedy, but they’re also one of the keys to increasing a city’s affordability and density.
Another way of looking at the situation, though, is that it’s development-opposing homeowners who are greedy. After all, they seek to keep the city and its amenities all to themselves by effectively shutting others out, not to mention benefiting from the rise of their property values as the city’s profile has exploded over the past decade. Since 2003, the median sales price of a home in the Asheville city limits has risen from $148,000 to $315,000 in the first half of this year — an appreciation of 113 percent. Not too shabby.
I’m a homeowner myself. And a Subaru-driving, craft-beer swilling, buy-local-enthusiast to boot. But I see a dynamic city that’s adaptable and welcoming to young families, recent graduates, newcomers, and the middle and working class as much more important to my quality of life than the rise of my property’s value or the current configuration of my neighborhood. I love my neighbors more than I love their dwellings.
Liberal commentators have increasingly been coming around to the gap between expressed liberal values and the reality in progressive cities. In a 2016 post on the (now-defunct) housing policy blog Better Institutions, the author pleads with his fellow liberals “to stop acting as though the subjective value of ‘neighborhood character’ (which has always been and will always be a moving target) is of equal importance to the hard economic realities of unaffordable housing, inequity of opportunity and homelessness.”
Just building more housing isn’t enough to solve the housing crisis. But if this obstructionism continues, the results will be predictable. Asheville can become a gilded city, where locals drink from gold-plated reusable straws and feel good about themselves, or it can strive toward a more inclusive vision.
Change is hard. But I thought that’s what progressivism was all about: looking ahead to a different but better future, not back to some mythical past. Conservative progressives: It’s time to abandon your campaign to Make Asheville Great Again.
Hotels, though — enough already!
Adam Rosen is a freelance writer and book editor who lives in Asheville.