The Asheville Urban Renewal project began Thursday, June 4, 1964, when City Council voted to adopt a revised housing code modeled on the state’s code, with its far stricter requirements for occupied dwellings.
The new code imposed stronger rules for heat and hot water in rented homes, but in a way that would impact owners of older houses rented to low-income residents for as little as $14 per month. Among the rules established on the first reading—the adoption of the code required two more readings and votes in the weeks ahead—was that hot water should be provided to all tenants. That requirement raised an objection from the past president of the Asheville Board of Realtors, as did the question of whether landlords would have to furnish heat as well.
According to the Asheville Citizen, then-City Manager J. Weldon Weir responded that “where the owner contracts to provide heat, the equipment must be up to code standards, but that otherwise the tenant must provide heating units.” In other words, as long as the building had a fireplace, it was up to the tenant to buy coal and keep warm, and the owner merely had to make sure the chimney was safe.
A Century of Discrimination
Asheville, at the time, relied on the “wise-old-men” concept of a Citizens Advisory Committee, which had investigated what they called “substandard housing” and found “shocking conditions.” The code, said Weir, was designed to eradicate such housing—yet somehow do so “without evicting anybody” while protecting new tenants.
To no one’s surprise, the “substandard housing” would almost all later appear in the areas marked with red lines on banking and realtors’ maps indicating that loans to purchase property there were too risky. Hence the name “redlining.” It included an area first known as Southside, then called Mountain View—until that name was found to conflict with another residential project being built—and finally “East Riverside.”
That area of town had, for the most part, been painstakingly held by African American families over decades during which Whites-only covenants kept them from owning property elsewhere. Deliberately excluded from better neighborhoods, and refused bank loans or financing to buy in older residential areas without covenants, several thousand Black families had gradually acquired property in areas near downtown. They had, by sheer force of will as well as hard work, created communities for themselves.
But because incomes were low, the cost of maintenance was high, and rent, for those who did not own their homes, for the most part went out of the neighborhood to White landlords—and because Black residents had no political influence or power—their properties were easily dismissed as “slums” and “blighted areas,” to be redeveloped as much for the benefit of the White majority as for those who were able to remain in place.
Redlining Goes Full Circle
Four weeks after adopting the new building code, on July 1, 1964, the “blue-ribbon” Citizens Advisory Council recommended the properties that should be removed, demolished, “fixed up,” replaced, or simply urban-renewed out of existence. As described by the Asheville Citizen:
“The proposed project area is bounded by Hilliard Avenue on the north; Coxe Avenue, Southside Avenue and McDowell Street on the east; Victoria Road … Oakland Avenue and Walton Street Park on the south; and Clingman Avenue, property fronting on Depot Street, and the tracks of the Southern Railway on the west.
“The area is now largely occupied by Negro residences, and could be expected to continue in that category after redevelopment.”
It is impossible to know, almost sixty years later, whether those involved were truly interested in improving the homes and lives of the low-income residents, or cared primarily about the financial benefit to the city. In one meeting the director of the Asheville Redevelopment Commission, James Greer, discussed the fact that the proposed development area held the highest rate of infant mortality in the city, 11% of cases of tuberculosis, 8% of all fire department calls … “and 10% of major crimes.” Those statistics, he said, showed that “for every dollar per person spent in the remainder of the city, approximately $1.75 was spent [in the indicated area for] health, fire, and police regulations.”
He then noted that two better-quality dwellings could be erected on most of the properties where only one stood, so that the city’s tax receipts “following redevelopment would increase three-fold.”
Interestingly, the Citizen, even then considered a “progressive” paper, pointed out the hypocrisy of the landlords and property owners contesting the new code. In an editorial on June 16 of that year, the editors wrote:
“But you know what some of these substandard property owners are protesting? …the fact that … they might have to ‘fix up’ one unit of a four-to-eight-family ‘apartment’ building if one family moved out. And that wouldn’t be fair to the other three-to-seven families who still have to live in unspeakable squalor, now would it?”
The editors continue:
“Of course, some of us don’t own any low-income rental property. We don’t understand how these tenants abuse their ‘privileges.’ You give ’em window panes and the next thing you know, they want screens. Can you imagine? Screens!”
There were, in fact, mixed motives among those who wanted to clean up the “slums.” Advocates of adopting elements of the state housing code supported requiring landlords to rehabilitate buildings that were structurally sound; prohibiting evictions from those properties; demanding improvements and a certificate of occupancy only when a rented property was vacant, before it could be rented to a new tenant; and some other changes designed to improve lives, health, and safety of residents.
But there were numerous others—landlords, “blue-ribbon” (read “wealthy and White”) Citizens Advisory Councils and urban “redevelopment commissions,” determined to clean up and tear down what they considered blighted areas of the city in order to promote its image as a tourist destination.
Asheville’s first Urban Redevelopment plan, adopted using federal funds, was the area north of City-County Plaza, now occupied by the Renaissance Hotel, the County Health Department building, the central YMCA, and other municipal structures between College and Woodfin Streets. It was to become the heart of the city, where visitors and residents alike would feel safe and comfortable and enjoy all the amenities of a clean, redeveloped center of town.
The second plan, however, was the redlined, 425-acre area from Depot to Coxe and from Hilliard to Southside and McDowell—that “unsightly” region “largely occupied by Negro residences” that could be turned into a far more profitable property tax generator for the city’s coffers.
Profit for a Few, Dislocation for Thousands
There were, further, profiteers who looked at the possibility of buying condemned properties for a fraction of their value, razing them (sometimes using public funds), and then, rather than erecting two habitable new dwellings to rent or sell to previous residents, holding on to them until such time as they could sell them to the highest bidder. That new owner could then build impressive new office space, medical practices, brokerage offices for well-heeled investors, or any of the other edifices dating to the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s that line Coxe, Ashland, and McDowell Street from Hilliard Avenue all the way to Choctaw Street.
Those who surveyed the Southside-to-Depot area counted approximately 1,200 houses, of which, they said, 700, or 60%, were in good enough condition—though still “blighted” or “slumlike”—to be rehabilitated. The other 500, or 40%, were so deteriorated as to be uninhabitable or, at best, dangerous, and therefore would be razed.
What do to with the former residents of those rented (or owned) homes in the so-called “blighted” area? Build new slums, in the form of public housing projects, legally segregated by race, in difficult-to-reach areas where “they” would no longer be a burden on the rest of the town and its tourism industry.
By December of 1964 the estimated cost of rehab and removal for “East Riverside” had risen from the original $3.3 million to $5.1 million, based on the slopes and difficult terrain. The federal government would pay 2/3 of that cost, while the city would pay 1/3, less credits for the $1.4 million it had already spent on the then-new South French Broad High School “and other improvements.” (The school, which served as Asheville Middle School for nearly 50 years after desegregation went into effect, was replaced at a cost of $41 million in 2014-16.)
However, that increase in cost did not translate into better prices paid to homeowners for the properties they lost. Some individuals were forced to sell for a fraction of their properties’ value, as little as hundreds of dollars for a house worth several thousand. A few owners were able to negotiate better prices than originally offered, but many residents, long accustomed to unfair treatment, simply took what they were offered, accepted an apartment in the new public housing being built, and lost whatever equity they had managed to acquire over the years.
Price-Gouging from the Get-Go
Contractors, on the other hand, benefited quickly from the federal grant money. In December of 1964, the city received its first $150,000 grant to pay surveyors and contractors to begin evaluating, appraising, and planning the project. $39,000 was quickly awarded to an Atlanta-based firm, Eric Hill Associates, for overall planning. But by April 1965, scarcely ten months after the city adopted its new housing code, the federal Urban Redevelopment Administration suspended contracts that the Asheville Redevelopment Commission had awarded to six local appraisers. The URA pointed out that those contracts, totaling $46,210 for the first series of appraisals, were 25% higher than those charged in other state urban renewal projects. The individual contracts ranged from $750 to $13,925, and Greer, the director of the Redevelopment Commission, told the commissioners that the local appraisers were unwilling to do the work for any less. The URA instructed the commission to bring in appraisers from out of town to do the work for less.
So, clearly, the local network of realtors, attorneys, appraisers, and power-structure vultures was already at work.
Coming next month, Urban Redevelopment
The East Riverside Project would include approximately 400 new public housing apartments, although at least 500 homes were expected to be destroyed, and at least that many families displaced. Meanwhile, the destruction of entire neighborhoods began, while properties were appraised at what many considered far below market value.