Desperately Seeking Affordable Housing

Nearly all of the historically Black communities have been changed and challenged.

Bithia Palmer, Director of Equitable Housing Solutions, and Jerah Smith (left), project director for Asheville.
Bithia Palmer, Director of Equitable Housing Solutions, and Jerah Smith (left), project director for Asheville.

The City of Asheville has taken a step forward in its long, often-delayed Affordable Housing Plan journey by contracting with Enterprise Community Partners, a Florida-based nonprofit. The contract is partially funded by Dogwood Health Trust, the nonprofit organization set up using part of the HCA purchase of Mission Health Care five years ago.

Equitable Housing Solutions, the part of Enterprise Community Partners that focuses on analyzing and developing affordable housing options, held a public “community feedback” session on March 27, 2024 to determine which of many ideas had the strongest community support. The presenters were Bithia Palmer, Director of EHS, and Jerah Smith, the project director for the Asheville project.

Some major questions have to be addressed before goals can be set and solutions designed to meet those goals; without such preliminary information a mismatch between goals and solutions can hamper success.

Who lives here today?

A far lower percentage, around 11%, of Asheville’s and Buncombe County’s population is African American than its historic norm of 18% to 20%. In part, that diminishing number results from the rapid growth of the population through in-migration—especially since Covid broadened the use of offsite work options—comprising retirees, artists, and young entrepreneurs, almost all of whom are white. Additionally, long-time programs of Urban Renewal (“urban removal”), gentrification of formerly mixed or primarily Black neighborhoods, and lack of affordable housing have driven numbers of Black residents away from the metropolitan region.

The coming decades are expected to see continued growth. According to population forecasts, 75% of all new residents will be over 50, with 1/3 of them 70 or above; only 6% are projected to be younger families and individuals ages 20-49. Therefore, homes that are accessible to older people, that have no stairs for access, and are smaller than the typical four-bedroom, 2-1/2-bath houses of modern suburban life, will be needed, as will amenities that support seniors’ health and wellbeing.

54% of the homes in Asheville were built before 1980.

Where do people live?

Identifying neighborhoods, communities, urban and suburban population centers, and other factors helps determine how housing is changing, especially how, where, and for whom new housing is developed.

What factors determine the location and type of new housing?

Numerous factors impact such choices, including, and underlying many others, structural racism and the limited pathways to home ownership for low- and lower-income people. Also, as the popularity of Asheville explodes, property values do as well, offering a boon to some homeowners who can profit from rising home prices and placing a burden on others who face higher taxes and living costs—often to the extent that families can no longer afford to keep homes that, in some cases, have been in their families for generations.

Among the worst outcomes of such “gentrification” of stable neighborhoods is that, as long-term residents are forced to leave, they lose their connections to the community, both the physical, geographic neighborhood—trails, amenities, stores, familiar streets—and to all the people who have built community there over the long term.

What housing do we have?

In analyzing the existing local housing stock, the following facts were determined. In Asheville, 54% of housing was built before 1980, compared to 37% statewide and 52% nationally. That aging stock limits options and accessibility for residents with disabilities and is often of lower quality, comprising single-pane windows, lower quality insulation, greater susceptibility to termites, radon, weakening substructure, etc.

Current residents of Asheville are the primary stakeholders in what new, better-quality, affordable housing stock is created in the future. The goal, therefore, should be to preserve the affordable housing that exists today, improve its quality where possible, and, in order to make that possible, align the city’s processes and resources with its needs.

Plans for the Ferry Road development include at least 650 residences, with more than half of the apartments and single-family homes reserved for affordable housing. Photo: Buncombe County, engage.buncombecounty.org

Other issues to address

Beyond the expected aspects of planning for population growth, and the needs of both current and future residents, new issues have emerged that promise to be of ever-growing importance. The city’s and county’s location in the mountains, with easy access to major metropolitan regions but little or no susceptibility to major weather events—tornados, hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes, for example—will make the region a “climate refuge destination,” not just for the immediate future but for decades to come, as climate change raises sea levels and increases catastrophic events such as coastal flooding, massive winter storms in Texas, droughts throughout the Southwest, and other changes in weather patterns.

With the influx of seniors to the area, amenities to support older citizens, as mentioned above, will need to grow, as will improved medical care (viz., the plans by HCA/Mission, Novant, and Advent to build new hospital services here). Additionally, as witnessed by recent controversies over illegal short-term-rentals (including a lawsuit filed against STR property owners on N. Market Street), rule- and law-breaking can further diminish the available housing stock.

Outcomes preferred by residents

During the listening session at the Civic Center, the contractors used a feedback program that allowed attendees to register, in real time, their views of the importance of various factors and their preferred solutions to problems addressed.

Among the preliminary recommendations and priorities were supporting long-term affordability that includes neighborhood choice and affordable housing for Very Low Income families and individuals; and, especially, incorporating racial equity as part of any policy addressing the ownership gap between Black and white residents. Also, the respondents strongly supported protections against neighborhood destruction and gentrifying that would result in displacement of current residents—physical, cultural, economic, and environmental displacement.

Community leader and advocate Norma Baynes.
Community leader and advocate Norma Baynes.

Priority goals desired

First, most attendees said, the city must broaden and strengthen its own affordable housing tools and entire “ecosystem.” In doing so, the city as a whole, through policy, must help current residents both stay and thrive here, in their existing communities. To do so, the city’s policies must be redesigned to preserve existing housing and improve its quality, and broadly increase the overall housing supply to enable and encourage diversity—racial, income-related, educational levels—among residents. These goals should strengthen the types of work opportunities available, so that those who work here can afford to live here, and those who live here can find work that can improve their and the entire region’s lives.

While numerous individuals addressed many of the issues raised, long-time community leader and advocate Norma Baynes was most outspoken about preserving the Black “legacy neighborhoods” that long provided stability and opportunity for African American residents. After generations of preservation and community strength that grow from multi-generational families in cohesive neighborhoods, nearly all of the historically Black communities—Shiloh, Burton Street, the East End, Hilliard-Haywood, Southside, Emma, South French Broad, and Stumptown—have been changed and challenged by more and more white newcomers arriving.

While the motives of these new residents may well be pure—simply to find affordable housing for their own families, homes that they can improve and/or restore and enjoy—the result has been to push out long-term residents and families who can no longer pay the higher tax rates that result when reappraisals raise the paper value of all properties in an area.

One attendee, your reporter for The Urban News, noted that an “ecosystem” value that the city does not seem to address is requiring ecologically sound development. He pointed out that—despite starting from scratch to build an apartment complex in the heart of town—the newly rebuilt apartments that displaced the 60-year-old Lee Walker Heights projects do not use solar or other passive energy, though it would have been easy, affordable, and sensible to install solar panels on the roofs of the new apartment buildings.

Asheville native Dee Williams.
Asheville native Dee Williams.

Results

The majority of those attending the forum made clear their priorities, goals, and strategies for implementing them, and one particular issue was raised by business owner and Asheville native Dee Williams. She has fought for decades for Black businesses to have equal access to job opportunities, especially in such fields as contracting, construction, providing services to the city, and similar entrepreneurial opportunities. She noted that many older Black homeowners simply don’t trust traditional institutions, whether city departments, private utilities, or semi-public nonprofits.

Watching year after year as white developers arrive from out of town to build luxurious, high-end condominiums and townhouses in formerly affordable Black neighborhoods, she asked specifically that the city “bring down the barriers to BIPOC developers” so that they, too, can benefit from continued and anticipated growth in the city.

Given that much of the affordable housing crisis in Asheville and throughout Buncombe County benefits white newcomers and displaces long-time Black residents, that issue—the elephant in the room—deserves a very high priority in all discussions of “what to do” about housing in Asheville.

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