Want affordable housing? Get real

Jerry Sternberg


It’s no news that Asheville’s lack of affordable housing is only getting worse, and meanwhile, the mayor and City Council are teaming up with Buncombe County to hire another consultant to study Asheville’s homelessness crisis. Although these are separate issues, they’re related — and both have already been studied to death with no real solutions in sight.

Mayor Esther, if you reach down into that big left-hand drawer of your desk you’ll find a stack of housing studies going back 50 years — a stack so tall that a show dog couldn’t jump over them. You don’t have to worry that the print will be faded, because they’ve never seen the light of day since they were completed.

I’ve been a part of some of those studies, which never result in anything useful because they don’t include the right mix of people, and they shy away from the essential messy questions whose forthright answers always end with BUTS.

Been there, done that

This new consultant will help the group compose a “mission statement” that he’ll write on a whiteboard. Along with the group’s comments, it will be distilled into a scholarly treatise and fed back to us in a beautiful leather-bound book.

Don’t worry, folks: “Breakout groups” will give you a break from the stench of mendacity and hypocrisy permeating the room.

And now for those essential messy questions: If you ask the assembled citizens, “How many people want to build more affordable housing in Asheville and Buncombe County?” almost every hand in the room will go up, including mine. Then ask how many people want affordable housing built in their neighborhood, and we’ll have trouble getting our hands up because we’re busy scratching our BUTS. Don’t even think of asking who wants a homeless shelter for a neighbor.

The only group that will be honest is the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, which will say they’re all for affordable housing — BUT not where their members live. Given the scarcity of buildable land, it could be “Game Over!” right there.

Thumb on the scale

Let’s start with the various city agencies whose nitpicking regulatory delays and demands drive up prices or kill projects outright. “It’s out of scale with the neighborhood; the structure is too white; the lines are too straight; the awnings are the wrong color; it just doesn’t have the right feel, etc.”

I wonder how they’d explain their behavior to Homeward Bound and the other groups that say, “We’ve got people sleeping in tents on the riverbank in 20-degree weather waiting for shelter while you dither over subjective details.”

Let’s have past and present City Council members try to explain why, over the last 10 years, they’ve denied permitting for hundreds, if not thousands, of housing units because they didn’t have the courage to confront the hordes of neighborhood advocates shouting about traffic, property values and tree removal.

Meanwhile, the city strong-arms developers to make 10% or 20% of their apartment units “affordable” — in effect, forcing builders to pay for local governments’ failure to solve our housing woes.

Let city government explain to our hardworking police officers, teachers and nurses why they should pay higher rents to offset the subsidized units the city mandates.

Reality check

Let’s bring in a few of those greedy developers — the folks who are willing to take great financial risks to grow our housing stock despite ever-increasing land and construction costs and continuing governmental obstruction.

I’m confident that many of them support affordable housing, but they have to show a profit to make a living and pay their employees.

Then, there are the banks and other lenders to which you’ve entrusted your money. I’m sure they, too, favor affordable housing, but in order to make loans and protect their depositors, they have to see evidence that the rent will be sufficient to cover the debt service.

Meanwhile, assorted other groups will weigh in. “We must have affordable housing BUT we mustn’t cut trees. High-rises will block our view of Mount Pisgah, etc.” And the No Growthers (most of whom came from someplace else) will simply say, “Don’t come here: We’re full up!”

Of course, we mustn’t forget to include lawmakers and judges, who can explain to Helpmate why abusers are allowed to stay in the house while the victims, including children, become unsheltered. They can also tell Pisgah Legal why we have so many unnecessary evictions. I’m sure they’re in favor of affordable housing BUT we have to observe the law while doing nothing to improve the laws.

Perhaps these notables can advise our dedicated and caring police officers on how they’re supposed to manage the “unhoused” people — somehow this new term for “homeless” is going to put a roof over their heads — who vandalize property, break into stores and office buildings, and camp on private property while trashing everything in sight.

Let’s also ask some homeless folks, many of whom are educated and articulate, what they actually need in order to get off the street — and why some among them simply refuse to comply with societal rules.

Don’t hold your breath

How do the county commissioners, while declaring their unqualified support for housing the homeless and low-income residents, justify maintaining a fairly restrictive cap on the number of residential units per acre? I am sure they would never admit their true motive, which is to keep Black people out of white neighborhoods — and Black students out of the county schools.

Folks, we don’t need a highly paid Captain Obvious to tell us what the real problems are. I will spell them out for free: drug and alcohol abuse, mental health concerns, unwanted pregnancies, excessive governmental regulation, economic disparity caused by low wages — and, most of all, rampant tribalism.

Until the professed advocates of affordable housing and assistance for the homeless get off their BUTS and honestly attack these issues, nothing significant will happen. In the meantime, hiring this high-dollar expert for yet another study is just an exercise in municipal masturbation that won’t produce a “happy ending.”

Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at gospeljerry@aol.com.


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19 thoughts on “Want affordable housing? Get real

  1. kw

    But ‘affordable’ housing at any cost? What about when it is truly monstrously ‘out of scale’ with the existing neighborhood? What if it increases traffic by 2000 percent on a narrow residential street and makes some neighborhoods unlivable? Until the people of Grove Park and Biltmore Forest and Lakeview Park (or wherever you live, Jerry) are willing to have their large homes knocked down and replaced with 16-unit structures, how can you expect some of the mixed neighborhoods of owner-occupied moderate/affordable homes occupied by nurses and caregivers to say, Yes, Please, Bring Us More Neighbors and Their Cars And Barking Dogs At Any Cost to The Forest And Our Quality Of Life! (And by the way, the developers are truly laughing their way to the bank as they steamroll locals and offer their measly 5-10% ‘affordable’ units and take their corporate welfare tax incentives. They’re playing Asheville leaders for rubes.)

    But I do agree with you about the consultants…they’re also playing local groups and politicians for the inept fools that they are…tourism and people working remotely are adding to this mess, and local landlords (such as myself) who supply long-term housing options and would sell their home to a first-time buyer should be rewarded in some way for their commitment to building community. So get off your high horse and challenge every property owner with an Airbnb to step up to add to the housing stock or at least admit it…

    • ashevillain7

      Why should an “existing neighborhood” be the benchmark for defining acceptable future development? At some point before the “existing neighborhood” ever existed in the first place, wouldn’t the neighborhood itself have been “out of scale” compared to whatever preceded it?

  2. Robert

    It would be enlightening to know if the city is working with Ingle’s to put housing on top of the proposed store on Patton and all other such buildings going forward…infrastructure, jobs and food all there on a bus-line! Until we get those sorts of projects (Patton, Merrimon), I encourage all members of residential neighborhoods to stand up for their rights against anything that’s out of scale or would threaten their quality of life. Resist!

    • Enlightened Enigma

      No, probably not and it’s a shame as that is a prime location for long term affordable housing.

      the writer’s claim about county control of lot density to keep out blacks is absurd, but now we DO have school system consolidation on the table, FINALLY!

  3. North Asheville

    ” . . . Until the people of Grove Park and Biltmore Forest and Lakeview Park (or wherever you live, Jerry) . . ” Mr. Sternberg lives in a multi-family condominium.
    A heartfelt and informed rant from Mr. Sternberg, whose knowledge of this city, its history, and its problems, is much appreciated, as is his public-spirited support for the common good.

    • NFB

      It is a pretty safe guarantee that if Grove Park Inn sold or donated the portion of its golf course adjacent to said condominium complex for affordable housing, the bulk of the residents there would fiercely oppose it every step of the way.

  4. MV

    Jerry, for someone who remembers stats from the past 50 years, I think some other facts should be highlighted as well…

    1982: Recession. You could buy a house in Montford for $40K. 1992: Recession. You could buy a swell place on 10 acres for a song. 2008 Financial Crisis: Government Tax Incentives for first-time homeowners as well as investors offered great opportunities while prices were absurdly low. (Rebates of $8,000 and $6,500)

    What was once affordable to all here in Asheville no longer is to a great many simply because Tourism is bringing greater numbers of humans far more quickly than anyone anticipated and yet we continue to Advertise. Building a bunch of apartments to house tourism-industry workers and wrecking what we have isn’t going to fix the problem. Given our shortage of teachers, bus drivers, and law enforcement personnel, inviting more holiday-making humans into a city on the brink is just begging for trouble. Homes here are *wildly affordable* to those coming from other places (CA, NY, etc.) to buy 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th homes to rent out on Airbnb to other tourists we continually advertise to visit our ‘unique and wonderful’ town. Tourism and Beer dollars could be better allocated to save some urban forests and help first-time home owners with down payments. Instead, politicians continue to give millions in incentives to developers and large wealthy corporations.

  5. kw2

    And add the part where well-compensated consultants contact a myriad of locals for input on this community they then use as feedback. Consultant after consultant.

  6. NFB

    The affordable housing crisis in Asheville will not be solved by one side screaming “greedy developers” and another side screaming “NIMBY!”

    • NFB

      That should be “The affordable housing crisis in Asheville will not be solved by one side screaming “greedy developers” and another side screaming “NIMBYs!”

  7. Grant Millin

    I’m running for Asheville city council. There’s a slate of Ultra Conservatives who also want to take the brakes off development and let BAU developers manage urban planning… and tell the rest of us the way ‘growth math’ has to work.

    I am recommending we figure out how City of Asheville and the whole of Asheville compares to the Top 25 high performance municipalities across the nation and free world. If we think a turbo charged laissez-faire Charles Taylor designed real estate model is what we need 100-200 percent more of, well maybe that’s what we’ll end up with.

    I suggested to the Asheville Chamber of Commerce that when we see the Asheville Housing Strategy and most people see some really awesome outcomes for folks like those living in Housing Authority of the City of Asheville units at present and trying to make Housing Choice Vouchers work, going at this new Asheville Housing Strategy from the base of the economic pyramid with an understanding the majority of voters are renters here in Asheville now, we may have something.

    BUT I learned almost nothing new from Jerry in the above commentary. So I’m willing to read the Homeless Services Consultant report and participate in those engagements… because we can state we need to build a new approach to economic development here and across the nation.

    I believe in entrepreneurship; but markets break and just praying for the ‘growth math’ to come through and tossing out sustainability ethics seems like more failure to be honest.

  8. Mike R.

    It cant be fixed. Plain and simple. Unaffordable housing is the result of “structural” issues in our economy set in place in the 1990’s. Likewise, the huge wealth disparity in America is structural and will not be fixed by taxing a few billionaires. All of this won’t be fixed (because it can’t be) until that entire structural edifice comes crashing down. Then the playing field will be leveled.

    • Robert

      Yes, agreed…and also, in this town, exacerbated by the fact that local geniuses continue to advertise for more tourists who come and buy vacation homes (as is their right to do) and/or people from wealthier areas who then come take up space (as is their right to do) while working remotely or retiring early and not always contributing to community and certainly not likely to be bagging groceries at Ingle’s, which is double-edged (or more)…housing taken by someone not providing local services and also someone who needs work and a business who needs a worker who cannot find housing…meanwhile we have some people running for Mayor who still erroneously believe that we can build our way out of this. I urge everyone to read up on the candidates and learn of their voting records. Which current council members are actively listening to the Community? It’s not hard to tell when you watch City Council Meetings. (Wistler and Kilgore look sleepy!)

      Also, now that we’re going down this political rabbit hole, I notice that the current Mayor is supported by the Asheville Firefighters. Why hasn’t there been a statement about the Grove Park overdoses in February that involved firefighting tourists from Florida? Our firefighters were first on the scene. I realize that it’s an ongoing investigation, but I believe the Mayor and the TDA and the Firefighters and the Police should come out and say, ‘Asheville does not condone felony drug use from tourists, and they will be held to the same standards as our citizens, whether property owners, renters, or the unhoused.” We must not allow Asheville to become a Drug Party Palace for visitors, no matter their profession or alliances. Which candidate is going to be brave enough to step up, go against the grain and be a true leader?

  9. Robert McGee

    Mr. Sternberg,

    I appreciate your passion, but I’d like to see some of those studies you reference from 50 years ago. As a former business intelligence professional, I’d be interested to study what recommendations were made, what projections of demographics, traffic impacts, economic trends, forecasts of population growth/future housing demands, tourism numbers, and what else we might learn from half-century hindsight.

    That is, were some great opportunities missed, or did we avoid making even massive blunders, considering the above-referenced recessions and financial crisis and housing giveaways of just a dozen years ago? I feel it’s important to note that 40 years ago, many local ‘leaders’ wanted to raze 11 blocks of downtown and build a massive mall to bring in more revenue. 25 years ago, an asphalt plant was proposed for Riverside/the RAD. A dozen years ago, Progress Energy wanted to build an oil-burning backup power plant near our crown jewel: the French Broad River. Many who wisely opposed those plans were said to oppose Progress and Economic Development. Were you part of any of those plans or studies? Can you shed some light?

    I don’t think the word NIMBY was around back then, but I feel it’s important to remind everyone that anyone who is ‘Not For’ a potentially irreversible destructive change or development generally does so because they are ‘For’ something they believe will be much better in the long run–such as protecting quality of life, health and safety of their Community, and/or simply maintaining the peaceful enjoyment of their Home. Asheville of today owes a lot to its past visionaries (Cragnolin, Dykeman, Sitnick, to name a few) just as Asheville’s future is being shaped by groups of committed caring activists who are (in certain instances) wisely saying, Enough is Enough! and No! or simply, Let’s Slow Down And Cherish/Protect What We Have.

    I appreciate diverse perspectives and always seek them out when making big decisions. It’s my hope that more local elected officials (present and future) will listen more closely and do the same.

  10. rwd

    Hmmm…I have lived in two tourist’s towns in my lifetime and visited a third one. Identifying a tourist town and trying to find affordable housing within a two mile radius of the center of downtown is not possible. Don’t try, you’ll get extremely frustrated ! Talking about affordable housing is just “Lip Service” tossed out there to make you get a warm fuzzy feeling and saying what you want to hear. In the Asheville area, it doesn’t matter if 1 or even up to 5 local officials want any type of tourist money reform…the State Legislature controls this…so all of the Bulls_ _ _ you hear from all of the local candidates is just “Lip Service” designed to give you the warm fuzzy ! !

  11. R.G.

    One could also say: “Want affordable housing? Get out”
    That is, there are lots of similar areas in TN, Vermont, WV, Georgia, Virginia and Wichita Falls, TX, where homes are ‘affordable’ and wages are comparable to Asheville (or better) and where you don’t have to hear about tourism and housing issues 24/7.
    It may sound abrupt, but it’s the same sort of tough love principle that people suggest to combat other challenges/life decisions.
    If you can’t afford a home here now and you’re not expecting to win the lottery or sell a screenplay to Spielberg, it’s at least worth considering a move someplace where you can invest, build equity, put down some roots, and follow your dreams. Who knows? Maybe you’ll finally have time to write that screenplay for Spielberg!

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