From The Citizen-Times, Asheville, NC


Our view: Point person for housing needed

12:05 a.m. EST November 26, 2015

What do schools in Mobile, Alabama, and housing in Asheville have in common? Both are difficult issues that illustrate the importance of having a point person in charge.

Mobile has such a person. She is Carolyn Akers. When she took charge of the campaign for better schools, Mobile had arguably the worst system in Alabama. Since then the improvement has been dramatic, especially in closing the achievement gap between white and African–American students.

What happened? Carolyn Akers happened. She wouldn’t back down, not from superintendents or from teacher unions. When she was told by community leaders to back off she merely became more determined.

She is quick to share the credit. “It’s not an individual; it’s the whole community,” she said. Nevertheless, there was no question as to who was leading the effort.

Housing in Asheville is like education in Mobile in that it is a complex and at times seemingly intractable problem despite the fact that many people are working on it. One important point came out of a recent housing summit at U.S. Cellular Center.

“When you leave here today, who is point?” asked Laura Clark. “Who’s in charge of keeping the ball moving forward?”

Clark is executive director of Renaissance West Community Initiatives, a nonprofit with a holistic approach to affordable, mixed income housing in Charlotte. The organization redeveloped a 40-acre former public-housing site, previously known as Boulevard Homes, but it did more than rehabilitate a deteriorating public-housing complex.

Clark said they looked to revitalize the community, now called The Renaissance, by coupling housing with services such as education, job training and community wellness facilities. This multipronged approach is known as the Purpose Built Communities. The idea is to revitalize low-income neighborhoods rather than simply building affordable housing.

Would all of this have happened without Laura Clark? Maybe, but we doubt it. Clark has been recognized by the Charlotte Business Journal as one of the 40 individuals under the age of 40 “who are making major strides in their careers and having a positive impact on their communities.”

Attendees at the summit heard the usual litany about housing in Asheville: the one percent vacancy rate; the inability of people of lower incomes to find affordable housing; the barriers to providing more affordable housing.

“We are at a crisis, and one 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,” said Robin Merrell, managing attorney at Pisgah Legal Services.

“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.”

The summit is only the first step, Mayor Esther Manheimer said at the close of the program. “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.

That’s good. But, at some point, Asheville needs a point person who will make affordable housing his or her primary task, someone who will persuade and cajole and encourage – and scold, if necessary – until all the people of Asheville have access to affordable housing. Someone like Carolyn Akers.