BY 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.