From The Citizen-Times, Asheville, NC


Could new approach help solve Asheville’s housing crisis?

 Caitlin Byrd,

6:56 a.m. EST November 18, 2015

ASHEVILLE – The conversation about how to tackle Asheville’s housing crisis continues.

During a three-hour event at the U.S. Cellular Center, a standing room only crowd of more than 100 people listened as panelists leaned into microphones to discuss the challenges, the opportunities and the next steps Asheville might take to face its housing hurdles, including a severe shortage of apartments and homes affordable for those making low to moderate wages.

Though no clear answers or concrete policy plans came out of the Asheville-Buncombe Housing Summit on Monday, one common theme did emerge: It’s going to take everyone working together to solve this multifaceted problem.

“Single-handedly, it is impossible to handle this tidal wave of need,” Mayor Esther Manheimer told the audience of community members, private developers, nonprofit leaders and government officials. “The city has been struggling with its affordable housing crisis, and the city cannot single-handedly attack this issue.”

That was something keynote speaker Laura Clark understands. Clark is the executive director of Renaissance West Community Initiatives, a nonprofit focused on taking a holistic approach to affordable, mixed income housing in Charlotte.

“Our organization is not a direct service provider. I don’t build the housing, I don’t run the schools, and I don’t provide the services,” Clark said. “We serve as what we call a community quarterback or backbone organization. We wake up every single day and think ‘How do we put all these pieces and parts together?’

“Part of the challenge is most often you bring together a group of nonprofits that says, ‘We need to tackle X issue,’ or even this group that says, ‘How do we tackle affordable housing?'” she said. “When you leave here today, who is point? Who’s in charge of keeping the ball moving forward?”

The organization has redeveloped a 40-acre former public-housing site, previously known as Boulevard Homes, but it did not just seek to rehabilitate a deteriorating public-housing complex. Clark said they looked to revitalize the community, now called The Renaissance, by coupling housing opportunities with wraparound services like education, job training and community wellness facilities.

This multipronged approach is known as the Purpose Built Communities model, which guides communities through projects intended to revitalize low-income neighborhoods rather than solely building affordable housing units.

At its height, Boulevard Homes had been a community where 900 residents lived. More than half those residents were children, and the median household income for its residents was $8,000 a year, Clark said. Eighty percent of the residents were unemployed; less than half had a high school diploma or a GED.

Two police officers were murdered there in 1993, and the housing site had one of the highest crime rates in the city.

Over time, she said, Boulevard Homes was forgotten by the powers that be despite “plans printed on glossy paper” and community conversations held about the city’s growing housing needs.

“We need to accept the fact that when we abandon a community for decades, it may take $100 million to revitalize them and undue that damage. We have to own that. If we walked away from a community, we then have to take responsibility for the outcome 30 or 40 years later,” she said.

“I believe these initiatives need to be comprehensive. I do not believe that housing is enough. I do not believe that a new school is a magic anything, either. I don’t believe that any particular program is enough. I think that you have to do it comprehensively. You have to look at all the critical elements that make families, and children, and communities and schools a success, and you have to start chipping away at it.”

Asheville started trying to chip away at this comprehensive approach earlier this year when it held a conversation about affordable housing in August.

Hosted by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Aug. 27 event was designed to bring members of the private sector to the table to talk about what can be done to address Asheville’s housing crisis. The housing summit Monday was a continuation of that conversation.

A January report conducted for the city of Asheville by Bowen National Research found a less than 1 percent apartment vacancy rate in Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties.

That statistic is one private developers are aware of in Asheville, but they, too, face hurdles when trying to address those issues.

Paul Szurek, chief financial officer of Biltmore Farms, distilled those challenges to a list of three obstacles: a rampant “not in my backyard” attitude in the community, evolving building codes and regulatory interpretations.

“It’s an expensive process to get approvals both at the zoning and entitlement levels and at the building level for housing. It’s like anything, the more you build up the base cost of something, the more you have to raise what you charge for it if you’re going to pay your lenders, if you’re going to give your shareholders a return and therefore keep your jobs,” Szurek said.

He suggested streamlining the zoning, permitting and entitlement process with technology “similar to the way Amazon has made it easier to order books.”

Patrick Bowen, whose Ohio-based research firm authored the study, said Monday he has never seen anything like Asheville’s housing market in his 20 years of experience doing research. Bowen also said this tight housing market could hurt business growth.

“You’ve got incredible economic growth. You’ve got incredible demographic growth. You’ve got limited availability in terms of housing, particularly for those folks that are seeking affordable housing, so that’s a major challenge,” he said. “One of the challenges is going to be for employers in this area. How can you employ people in this area as your company continues to grow if your workers, and generally we studied people that made less than $75,000 a year, where do those people live? What can they afford?”

Robin Merrell, managing attorney at Pisgah Legal Services, has written more than $10 million in grants that has funded almost 700 units of housing and she also wrote the 10-year plan to end homelessness in Asheville. She said people who are living in a lower-income bracket feel that 1 percent vacancy rate tighter than others.

“The people that we talk to at Pisgah Legal Services tell us about deplorable conditions that they live in — putting up with sexual harassment and discrimination because they can’t move,” Merrell said.

But others have paid the highest price while waiting for a place to call their own.

“We are at a crisis, and 1 percent vacancy rate is a statistic. Let me give you another one that keeps me up at night. Of the homeless people who died last year in Buncombe County, more than half of them had a housing voucher in hand,” Merrell said. “When we bring it back to the humans that are being affected by all of this, some of them lost their lives when they didn’t have to. The market may be able to do quite a bit for market-rate housing, but it really can’t for low-income housing, for affordable housing, and we can’t lose sight of that and of the people who need us the most.”

At the end of the summit, Manheimer said this event was just the start of conversations and charrettes in the months to come.

“This is the beginning of a community conversation, not the end, and we will have more to come and will let all of you know how you can be a part of the solution,” she said.