This night, however, Esselstyn was flippant; polished, as usual, but dryly silly. When Mayor Esther Manheimer said it would be his last presentation before council, he said he might be back. This led to feigned gasps at the thought of litigation. “With a sock puppet,” he added, taking a shot at the street theater that has become part and parcel of council’s public comment periods. Esselstyn’s slick presentation was replete with flourishes of humor, including responding to council inquiries as if he were the house servant.
Esselstyn was presenting council with proposed changes to the UDO. This time, following months of study, the planning department was recommending easing up on certain standards as a means of incentivizing construction of affordable housing.
He explained that, as zoned, only a small portion of the city does not allow residential uses. Yet, only about half of the city’s lots are currently built up with housing in one form or another. The city’s last planning director, Judy Daniel, had noted Asheville was not utilizing its capacity for residential construction to the same extent as other cities where she had worked.
He displayed some charts to illustrate the city’s housing problem, including a table of various local occupations and the kinds of housing each could not afford. According to 2012 data, 38.2 percent of homeowners and 47.0 percent of renters in Asheville were paying more than 30 percent of their income on mortgages or rent.
As one step toward making housing more affordable, staff looked at what they might do to bring construction costs down. Esselstyn said staff analyzed, “parking requirements, setback requirements, buffer requirements, building heights, size limits, and multiple other standards.” They looked at lots that were undeveloped or underdeveloped, and asked what could be done to encourage housing in those locations.
The city could certainly allow greater densities. Esselstyn called attention to the Jefferson Apartments at the corner of Chestnut and Merrimon, the RADLofts, and Lexington Station. All are successful, unobtrusive developments offering 40, 64, and 70 units per acre, respectively. Staff began with an amendment that would simply increase allowable densities; but the council’s Housing and Community Development Committee, consisting of Councilmen Gordon Smith, Cecil Bothwell, and Chris Pelly, sent the proposal back for more work, requesting the incorporation of allowances for Affordable Housing.
The result was an increase in allowed densities for eleven of the city’s twelve zonings. If, however, developers would consent to offer at least 20 percent of their units at Affordable rates, that is, less than 30 percent of the wages of a person earning 80 percent of Area Median Income; then they would be able to build twice as many units. But then, 40 percent of the bonus units would have to be offered at Affordable rents.
The Commercial Industrial districts were the only zonings denied an increase in residential allotments. Esselstyn explained the intent was to honor council’s conflicting strategic goal of preserving industrial land for manufacturing.
Smith, parsing in Obama-esque tones, remarked “Ultimately, this is about thoughtful growth in the City of Asheville. And knowing that the affordable housing need is so great, how are we going to accommodate the density necessary to solve the problem?” He then quoted stats on local wages and housing prices highlighted in research by Mai Thi Nguyen released earlier this year.
Smith argued if the city did not make housing more affordable within its limits, low-income earners would live out-county in increasing numbers. “And what this policy seeks to do is to recognize that Asheville values diversity, and that socioeconomic diversity is a big piece of that. And so we want to include it in our land use strategy, in our zoning rules. This is a statement of diversity.”
He continued, “This is a big piece of council leadership to move forward with this. And it’s also about effective partnerships with people in the private sector, who want to build stuff, and who want to help the city achieve its goals; but we’ve gotta make those bottom lines work. There are some great nonprofit entities building affordable housing in town, and we wouldn’t be having any of it without them. This invites all those private developers to the table.”
Smith said the current amendment was but the “leading edge” of council’s greater strategy. In the future, citizens may look forward to other strategies, like affordable housing and land banking. For the latter, the city might supplant real estate agents in aggregating an inventory of land to override market pricing and place properties as council deems best.
Public comments focused not so much on the amendment itself as on the absurd gap between wages and costs of living, which it was supposed to narrow somewhat. The measure passed unanimously.