Part 3 of a 3-Part Series by Moe White –
What are the next steps for improving the affordable housing situation in Asheville and Buncombe County?
Among the issues we looked at in October and November are the general financing of houses—either buying or renting—and the severe shortage of available housing stock. We’ve also addressed some of the solutions being offered by local nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities (MHO) and the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville (HACA), which also operates public housing in surrounding communities.
But the problem remains: there are not enough houses, condos, and apartments available for residents at prices they can afford to pay. And there’s little land that developers can afford to buy and develop without charging through-the-roof prices. So the question is, where do we go from here?
Several types of property do exist that could be reimagined and recaptured for housing.
Reclaiming/reimagining existing buildings
First are empty, older, and unused or underused properties like the forlorn Innsbruck Mall, the former K-Mart on Patton Avenue, and numerous empty strip malls and derelict buildings. Some are in various stages of planning for redevelopment, like the old Sears store at the Asheville Mall; others are still in the envisioning stage.
One benefit of such properties is that they have infrastructure in place: utilities (water, sewer, gas, electric power), access (street entry, sidewalks, already-paved parking areas); zoning appropriate for multi-unit dwellings. And even in the case of commercial buildings, rezoning can often be accomplished without many of the hurdles needed to change from single-family to multi-family or low- to high-density designation.
Second, many of these sites also have relatively easy access to shopping and public transit, as they are located on major routes like Tunnel Road and Patton Avenue. But those are among the drawbacks as well: who wants to live right on Tunnel Road with its constant traffic, resulting noise, and the difficulty and danger of crossing except at stop lights? Yet several former motels—on Tunnel Road, Merrimon Avenue, Smoky Park Highway, and elsewhere—have been converted to affordable housing that way. For those who need just a studio-type space, that option can make the difference between being housed and being homeless.
Commercial to residential conversions exist
Just as former family houses on Merrimon Avenue, Charlotte Street, Brevard Road, and elsewhere are now businesses, we also have numerous examples of former industrial or commercial buildings, such as along Coxe Avenue, that have been converted from long-ago car dealerships (in the 1920s) to commercial businesses (in the 1950s and ’60s) to artist lofts (1990s) and finally, today, to astronomically expensive luxury condominiums.
Such conversions are anything but affordable, except to a narrow segment of the population, but the basic path to reimagining a building’s use is there. Purchase loans through the affordable housing fund, subsidies for rent, down payment assistance, and perhaps even limits on prices—whether imposed or through incentives—might make it possible to replicate the process for less expensive housing.
What’s needed, it seems, is a vision developed in partnership by city, county, and regional planners, private nonprofits, and for-profit developers, which would find ways to make use of such sites. Such bodies as the Buncombe County Commission, Asheville City Council (and other township leaders), Planning and Zoning departments, HACA; the Affordable Housing Coalition, MHO, advocacy groups for bus riders and the homeless; and builders who are willing to expand their vision of success beyond that of building profits to encompass building the community as a whole.
The Asheville Tree Commission should also be part of these discussions: given the recently documented loss of trees, there’s no need to hew hundreds more to clear a virgin lot for new building, when the Sears property is already fully paved over. In fact, designs for renovation or rebuilding could—and sometimes do—incorporate the “regreening” of such concrete-and-tarmac sites.
Infill and zoning
Another way to grow housing stock in Asheville is through infill and rezoning. Small, older subdivisions that set a minimum size for homes, or limit the types of families that can live there, should be rethought. For example, in one older subdivision the author considered a number of years ago, HOA rules required minimum house size of 1,500 square feet, with a minimum of 900 sq. ft. on the ground floor, 600 ft. upstairs, for a two-story house. The rules also prohibited adding a mother-in-law or rental apartment, either on the lower level of a sloped lot or above the garage. Similarly, there are city rules in place that allow or disallow various combinations of housing, like subsidiary apartments or two or more smaller homes where only one larger one is permitted. Many people today would much rather have only 1,000 square feet or less, but are prohibited by such rules—or city zoning law.
One resident in Kenilworth (who wished to remain anonymous), whose home sits on a very deep lot, has sold the rear part of the property to a family member. That person is building a three-story, small-footprint house behind the existing 1950s bungalow. They will share a driveway, and both the existing house and the new one will have finished basements that could in future be rented out as a mother-in-law apartment or as an income-producing unit. Thus four family units—divorcee, married adults, an in-law, and a “stranger,” could realistically be housed on what was, 65 years ago, a typical one-family property.
Demographics determine destiny
Changes to city rules might require either rezoning under existing laws, or revising the zoning law to allow for more flexibility. Especially as family size and structures change in the modern era, a vision of “appropriate” housing and family units dating to the previous century. While there is still a need for the three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath idealized by the nuclear family, an ever-diminishing proportion of residents fit that demographic today. Single parent-families, multi-generation families, extended families, non-cohabiting “chosen families,” and individuals (whether single, divorced, or widowed) are all among the demographics that are in search of places to live—and little is available for any of them.
Recently Asheville City Councilman Keith Young floated the idea of selling surplus city-owned property for $1 per lot. This was done in the 1970s under a Federal Housing program—in part to rebuild neighborhoods after Urban Renewal caused millions to lose their homes. While the prospect is just in the trial-balloon stage at the moment, costs and logistics will need to be thoroughly analyzed before it can move forward. Also, there must be guarantees that any such program is not plagued by favoritism, insider trading, or self-dealing (such as selling a city property for $1 to a developer who builds a half-million-dollar home on it to flip for a huge profit).
Blending the options
Another concept that has taken hold in recent years is “tiny houses” of less than 500 square feet (some as small as 200 sq. ft.). These can be ideal for currently homeless individuals, who would be glad of little more than a roof over their heads, a lockable front door, and space to sit, sleep, cook, and wash that is safe and secure—and even homey! But they are also often prized by younger, ecologically conscious professionals, and even by empty-nesters glad to radically downsize and simplify their lives. Again, zoning regulations are prohibitive, but could be easily adjusted to allow for communities of tiny homes to be built (or placed, as many are delivered on wheels) in a cohesive, structured neighborhood.
Such tiny-house neighborhoods could be placed in existing city neighborhoods or on reclaimed commercial properties—think of the empty strip malls on Tunnel Road between Asheville and Black Mountain, which are along the bus line and within walkable distance of groceries and other shopping. Either building new tiny homes, or converting some of these mini-malls to affordable apartments—or reasonably priced condos for those who wish to buy them—could go far in providing accessible, affordable, convenient housing for the thousands who need it.
Vision wanted, ideas welcomed
Asheville has grown exponentially since the 1970s and ’80s, and all signs point to its continued expansion. While the legislature has restricted its right to expand its boundaries through annexation, people are not impacted by those state laws: the thousands who continue to want to move here will move here anyway, whether within the city limits or in surrounding communities of Enka, Candler, Swannanoa, Oteen, Woodfin, Arden, etc. A comprehensive view of where to channel that influx will be needed—not just twenty years from now, but tomorrow—so as to plan for the many needs adjacent to housing that are often addressed in a vacuum: accessible public transit, access to jobs, walkability, shopping (especially for groceries), schools and day care, etc.
Commercial entities like grocery chains follow the people; when new subdivisions spring up, grocery stores will follow. Now it’s time to think about it the other way around: if there’s an grocery store (or other stores and bus lines and shopping options) already there, that’s where to build new housing.
Part I: Affordable Housing – the ABCs (published October 2019)
Part II: Affordable Housing – the Tourism Industry; wages, housing, quality of life (published November 2019)
Part III: Affordable Housing – the Economic Consequences; withholding wealth, opportunity, and the American Dream (this article, published December 2019)