NIMBY Town: Conservative progressives hold Asheville back

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.


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25 thoughts on “NIMBY Town: Conservative progressives hold Asheville back

  1. kirbyguy

    Bravo! I am constantly amazed how the same progressives who (in my opinion correctly) oppose building a wall on the US/Mexican border are so quick to make newcomers to our city feel so unwelcome, building what I see as a virtual wall. Asheville will continue to grow, and while we can and should be creative in how we manage that growth we should be equally accepting of those that choose to move here.
    I am equally amazed at those who see Asheville of the 1980s through Rose Colored Glasses, imagining how “great” it was when a third of downtown was boarded up and after sundown there was almost nothing to do.

    • Lulz

      LOL because it was better. Cruising on Patton, the mall, movies, football Friday, etc. If you mean that there is a downtown nightlife where no locals actually go then you and I agree. If you think downtown is the end all to be all, and you need it to pass time, I feel sorry for you. Downtown was a business district then. Everything from plumbing to cars could be bought there. Now you can’t buy anything but a hangover. If you can afford it.

  2. Enlightened Enigma

    Great article, but why is it time to abandon making AVL ‘great’ (how about good?) again ? Slight mixed message, but we should ALL be thankful at the great strides in real property valuations in the city in spite of all of its major problems ! Thanks to all the wealthy out of town buyers coming in ! Without them, we’d be struggling … I remember visiting AVL in the 1980s when it was very bleak.

    • Lulz

      Well OK values went up but what did that accomplish? Got rid of people who couldn’t afford the taxes. OK so you have a higher tax base now but the problem is the city can’t even find the money to finance basic services. With all that extra money they waste it on special interests and worthless causes. Back in the 80’s the city did the opposite. Now it finances art. But the roads are crumbling. City didn’t have to use bogus fees to maintain its budgets like they do now.

      If you merely visited in the 1980’s then you can’t possibly fathom how much better it was here. 80’s and 90’s were the heyday of the place. Now it’s nothing more than a scam.

      • luther blissett

        “Got rid of people who couldn’t afford the taxes.”

        [citation needed]

        The idea that property owners are the true victims, the ones being taxed out of Asheville, as opposed to those whose rent tracks property values and wages do not, is self-centered nonsense.

        • Lulz

          LOL so we should turn the city into a rental area except your home? The idea that you can tax homeowners to pay for everything while everyone is getting rich is egregious. Nice try though but as.longbasbtaxes remain high, so do rents.

          • luther blissett

            “as long as taxes remain high, so do rents.”

            [citation needed]

            The self-proclaimed champion of the working stiff has a message for those on working-stiff wages: you should have been around in the 80s when real estate was cheap and you could breathe in all the lead from exhaust fumes on Patton. What’s that? You weren’t even born then? Tough.

      • Yawn

        I lived here in the 80’s and 90’s and will take new Asheville over old Asheville every time. Cruising Patton, Friday football and the mall were great when we were teenagers, but adult me loves the Food, drink, art, music and outdoor options that weren’t available back then. From one native to another, please stop telling people that we all hide out in the burbs and hate 2018 Asheville….it’s simply not true lululzzzz

        • kirbyguy

          Right there with you. There is a much greater variety of things to do, many of them free. And the artist in me loves going downtown and sketching the variety of people who are walking around .

          James C.

      • Jason W

        Dude, the only thing you could buy downtown in the 80’s was a prostitute on Ashland Ave.

        • Phillip Williams

          Well – not really. If you were looking for a swinging good time or stuff to go “ooh” and “ahh” over, I suppose you are right….but there were a lot of good places that didn’t cater or appeal to tourists or hipsters, but to antique hunters/ragpickers like myself. Found a fortune in neat old stuff nearly every time I went looking.

          And the watering holes and eateries were geared more to the working stiffs and those who made a living around town. I started coming downtown regularly in the late 70’s – When I was a small kid in the late 60’s-early 70’s I thought New York City couldn’t be any bigger than Asheville…started working a regular downtown job in 1986 and it had got pretty sad by then.

          It is all a matter of perspective of course – it had got pretty rundown by the 80’s and you definitely didn’t want to hang around downtown alone after 5pm. I am glad to see the buildings in use and people able to walk around after dark in relative safety, but the tradeoff is the crowds and the money-making set on this hotel jag….

  3. luther blissett

    1. The city limits impose their own constraints. As does the large private estate to its southwest.
    2. Developers push the externalities of their projects onto everybody else, especially the current practice of buying up random parcels of land in the county for apartment complexes.
    3. Sunbelt cities are flat.

  4. SpareChange

    Really pleased to see someone who self-identifies as “progressive,” provide some critical analysis of at least one of the downsides of some of the soft-left, lifestyle liberalism that can sometimes run amok in Asheville. Politically, I consider myself quite left of center, but that is in a context of a progressivism that is much more focused on core economic issues that are of greatest concern to working people who are often struggling at the margins. Good to see some commentary that may at least give some people pause when they find themselves decrying the high cost of housing for working class folks one day, and then opposing measures which promise to increase its supply the next. Hope we’ll be hearing more from Mr. Rosen.

  5. C-Law

    Appreciate Mr. Rosen taking the time to write in, but absurdity, hypocrisy, and self-indulgent yet cost-free moralizing are basic hallmarks of the liberal-progressive mind…kind of “dog bites man.”
    Where Rosen fails in his analysis is in trying to project basic liberal hypocritical “values” onto conservatives. Just be honest-“Do as I say, not as I do” (oh, and at the point of a gun, if I have the power, btw), is the purest essence of the lib-prof way.

  6. Grant Millin

    Just about everyone commenting here is an anonymous avatar. Shame on MX.

    Asheville is a case study in limits to growth. Paving deserts and Asheville are apples/oranges false equivalencies. This writer doesn’t know our sustainability issues or the past significant work on understanding Metro Asheville land use limitations.

    • kirbyguy

      I’ll gladly use my own name but Mtn. XPress does not allow for Usernames to be changed. No idea why. Kirbyguy is James Cassara

    • TimothyG

      So do you think the city should artificially try to limit population growth by refusing enough housing to be built

  7. BlueRidgeBoiler

    Housing and especially affordable housing is complicated stuff. This is a good article to start the conversation. “Affordable” housing all starts with land prices. If you can convince a land owner to sell to the lowest bidder, than affordable housing becomes more attainable, but still hard when you become more land-constrained. I know of very few if any land owners not willing to make a good profit or sell at the best price…it’s human nature and everyone should be entitled to make money. As someone who used to work for a market rate and affordable housing developer, I can tell you that developers aren’t the “greedy” stereotype all the times that the public and media can portray them to be. There are some bad apples, but real estate development is a very difficult, complex, long, bureaucratic, expensive, and risky process. The reason most developers are compensated well (if their development succeeds, which is never guaranteed) is because of the high risk involved. I promise you that most people wouldn’t have the constitution to do it. Developers are the key to increasing supply and there is a balance between enticing them with fewer regulatory hurdles and also keeping the integrity of the local zoning, land use laws in good order. Too few regulations creates disgusting urban sprawl which makes commuting and quality of life pretty awful – hello Atlanta and LA. There’s a balance in between.

    Most of the public complains to the local government that they want more affordable housing, like it’s the government’s job. Newsflash, it is not, and hasn’t been in the government’s control since the 80’s when the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) was created by the Reagan administration. It’s been one of the few lauded bi-partisan pieces of legislation that has succeeded and is really the only approach that is working to create affordable housing today. It took real estate out of the control of the government, which was doing a poor job of creating and managing ghettos (gov’t is good at some things, but not real estate), and turned development and management of affordable housing over to the private sector – private developers, property managers, etc. This has worked well, but the problem is that there are not nearly enough tax credits awarded to each state to keep up with the demand for affordable housing. We’ll never catch up unless the Federal Gov’t allocates more credits to each state, which is a budget issue is usually opposed. Market rate developers have no incentive to create more “affordable” properties unless they find cheap land and their lower rents can cover the debt service on the property while still giving them comfortable returns to pay their investors back. There aren’t charitable investors looking to invest in something risky for only a 5-10% return. You can do that in the stock market all day w/out risk if you’re holding period is 5 years or more usually.

    I was raised a Republican, then turned into a Democrat in my early 30’s, but am now an independent, as both sides tend to either be too far right, or too far left. Both sides lose their minds to the extreme with some of these issues. NIMBYism is a big problem I faced as a developer, and nobody wants anything built next to them, even if it’s the most sustainable property in the world. Everyone is concerned about disrupting their little niche in the land, which is understandable. But something have to give and sometimes the gov’t and local council/planners need to stand up to the people at these public meetings and say, “Hey, this is a responsible development and our community needs it. We hear your concerns and will try to include what we can, but this is getting built.”

    • Lulz

      Nice letter. A lot of the land here is off limits because of regs. Many older homes have accessable back yards that sit empty and unused. And I don’t mean small yards but full sized lots. No way the overlords allow these parcels to be developed. In fact I know of a level lot near UNCA that could be subdivided into 2 if not 3 parcels but is only allowed one structure. Wasted space in the era of smaller footprint homes. Of course they wouldn’t fit in with the neighborhood but those houses are in reality all obsolete.

  8. John Rhodes Penley

    It us now a town where 12 year old black children can be shot and killed and very few care about it. Only $2000 was raised for a reward to catch the killers who did it.

    • Enlightened Enigma

      Yes, Penley…. WHO was RESPONSIBLE for the 12 year old out in the streets at 3 am ? Not one person has EVER claimed responsibility, but city council throws honor to the family. WHERE is the segregationist Gene Bell ? Isn’t HE responsible ? Yes he is.

      • Lulz

        Exactly. When you live a life of subsidized reckless abandonment, you blame others when bad things happen.

        You say only 2 grand was raised? How much money has really been given? Tens if not hundreds of thousands. Cold truth is especially in an economy that has a worker shortage is time for people to get real and stop being lazy. But they have to have had their fill of section 8 first. Lee Walker is gone. And it ain’t coming back. That vibrancy doesn’t correspond well with million dollar condos.

        • Enlightened Enigma

          Lulz, has the Lee Walker project been stopped ? Hope so but have not heard it… but all of them need to know that if they are not working to DOWNSIZE public housing in Asheville
          then they are NOT friends of this city. Enough of the killing fields of the government plantations in Asheville. Mainstream and assimilate and close them down except for the disabled and elderly. BTW, you know that the Buncombe Co Commissioners were shamed into matching AVL City Council’s donation of $4.2 MILLION x2 = $8.4 MILLION of local taxpayer dollars for the Lee Walker redevelopment…gratis from the taxpayers WITHOUT a vote. Another reason WHY the Housing Authority of Asheville is our single BIGGEST ENEMY with NO accountability to the city that must host their heinous operation.

          • Lulz

            No. Overheard some residents at the Citgo on Biltmore complaining about where they might possibly be relocated.

    • jason

      Culture needs to change in those communities where kids are wandering the streets at 2 am. Also, people living in those communities know exactly who the bad apples are. They choose not to cooperate and clean up their neighborhoods. Change can only happen if you want it. Sometimes it’s just easier to blame somebody else.

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