BY JERRY STERNBERG
Editor’s note: Part I of this commentary ran last month (see “An Unvarnished Look,” June 20, Xpress).
When it comes to addressing Asheville’s affordable housing problem, the wage issue is a particularly sticky wicket. A meaningful minimum wage increase would have to come from the federal or state governments, which don’t seem disposed to attack this issue anytime soon.
The serious labor shortage during our current boom has produced some wage improvement. Unfortunately, those at the lowest level in the job market haven’t benefited, because they lack the education and skills most of those jobs require.
I have no problem with the city and county mandating a living wage for municipal employees, but I’m totally against using zoning and permitting laws to force new businesses to pay a higher minimum wage, as the city’s done with some hotels. If Asheville can find a way to impose a citywide minimum wage, that’s fine, but using zoning and permitting laws to accomplish this is discriminatory and could drive away potential newcomers and the jobs they might provide.
I also have a problem with local governments using their awesome zoning power to force a builder to provide so-called “affordable rents” for all or part of a housing development. Developers normally don’t build with cash, so they’re at the mercy of lenders: Without a satisfactory revenue stream, they don’t get the financing. If the municipal authority provides tax or financial incentives, that’s a legitimate business deal, but property rights aren’t a bargaining chip governments can use to coerce developers.
The city and county themselves have created many of the obstacles to solving the housing problem.
The political cowardice shown by city zoning boards and City Council has cost us thousands of units of affordable housing. A few years ago, a large proposed affordable housing project on Hendersonville Road was killed because the NIMBYs were afraid it might increase the number of pigmented residents in the neighborhood. Another project off East Chestnut Street met the same fate, despite satisfying all of the city’s criteria for workforce housing.
One bright spot has been Mountain Housing Opportunities’ affordable apartments off Merrimon Avenue. This project triggered a neighborhood firestorm; the real issue, however, wasn’t traffic or property values but bringing in more minority residents.
Another bright spot is the Campus Crest student housing near UNCA, which I helped develop. It’s provided 350 residential units while freeing up hundreds of low-rent spaces that were previously occupied by students. Despite outrageous opposition by Montford neighbors and punitive acts by City Council, this project has been an invaluable asset to both UNCA and our city. I have yet to hear any valid complaints from neighbors since either project was completed.
The next fiasco
In 2016, however, city voters approved three bond issues, one of which allocated $25 million for affordable housing. Some of that money was supposed to pay for tearing down and relocating the current city garage and replacing it with affordable housing. This is one of the worst-conceived schemes City Council has ever proposed, ranking right up with locating the “Taj Ma-Garage” there to begin with.
This bond issue reeks of political motivation. Many Council members, rightfully feeling guilty about their failure to solve the housing problem, saw this as a way to ingratiate themselves with the black community by creating housing next to The Block. But they’re comfortable locating the project here because there are no nonpigmented neighbors there to raise hell.
They obviously haven’t thought this through, however. As responsible members of the pigmented community have pointed out to me, it will simply create another ghetto.
Meanwhile, the economics don’t add up either. In the first place, the site, on a main thoroughfare near McCormick Field and adjacent to the city center, is extremely valuable, with many potential uses. I’m sure many developers would pay big bucks for the property as is.
And just as it did in the River Arts District, the city will find out the hard way that the money that was earmarked for this project is a fraction of what it will cost. It has all the makings of a full-blown financial disaster.
Much cheaper and better locations are available, if the city has the political will to stand fast against tribal opposition.
The county, meanwhile, has been much more politically adroit at avoiding affordable housing. Its current zoning ordinance allows only 12 housing units per acre in all zoned areas, which covers most of the properties that have infrastructure, are on major thoroughfares and are served by public transit. This, of course, has discouraged any development that might bring more pigmented students into the county schools.
As long as they can keep this ridiculous restriction in place, they’ll be able to keep affordable and, to a large extent, workforce housing out of Buncombe County. According to Pisgah Legal Services, a shocking 42 percent of all workers in the county live outside the county. That is disgraceful!
With buildable land so scarce and expensive, why aren’t we looking at innovations? If rich people can enjoy high-rise condos and apartments, why don’t we build these for working and disadvantaged people?
We once briefly experimented with providing condos for poor people out in Oakley. The Eastview Homes Condominiums failed because the project was poorly conceived, poorly administered and, more importantly, nobody really wanted it to work.
For that matter, why not create more opportunities to site mobile homes, many of which are well-built, energy-efficient and offer great ownership opportunities. They’re every bit as practical as tiny homes, which are all the rage now.
During several decades after World War II, the state of Israel absorbed huge numbers of indigent immigrants. These refugees were provided with apartments — and with every rent payment, the residents acquired a tiny economic interest in their home. After the newcomers found work and their economic situation improved, they were able to trade up to a better unit.
You can bet that these occupants took an interest in “their” property and that there was no malicious damage.
A city in crisis
It’s inconceivable to me that the business community is sitting on its hands and watching this housing Kabuki dance continue: After all, they have a very big dog in this hunt. They’re all lamenting that they can’t attract and keep enough qualified employees. Surely they understand that one of the biggest issues for city and county workers is finding an economical place to live.
Why don’t the Chamber of Commerce, the Council of Independent Business Owners, the manufacturing plant managers and human resource people, the Economic Development Coalition and the Tourism Development Authority set up a task force to find new solutions? This issue is just as important as energy sources, clean air, transportation and education, yet the bureaucrats and politicians have failed to find viable solutions. It’s time to bring in top management, bankers, developers and just plain ol’ smart business folks to brainstorm the problem and then march down to City/County Plaza and demand action.
Although some view subsidized housing as some kind of socialist handout to children of a lesser god, they’d better realize that letting this problem fester is definitely against their own financial best interest. When local workers can’t find housing they can afford and our less fortunate population — including families with children — is one rent check away from living on the street, this predicament has reached critical mass.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.