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Housing Study Hides Asheville Poverty

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The City of Asheville contracted with Bowen National Research for a study of housing needs for Buncombe, Madison, Henderson, and Transylvania counties. In January, the findings were formally presented to city council. The key finding making headlines was that the area had a housing shortage. Market-rate rentals were running vacancy rates less than 1%, and subsidized housing was fully occupied with waiting lists stretching years into the future. Another recommendation was that the city prepare for the aging Baby Boomers with more housing to accommodate persons aged 62 and over with at least three disabilities.

Underplayed was data showing the idea of a traditional family with two parents and some kids is a thing of the past. Over two-thirds of rentals and mortgages house only one or two persons. Whereas old-fashioned home economics classes cautioned against spending more than one-quarter of one’s income on housing, and in recent years the number was increased to one-third as long as utilities were included – now 53.1 percent of renters and 33.9 percent of homeowners in the region are cost-burdened, or spending at least 30 percent of their income on rent or a mortgage.

The graphs presented to city council suggested more housing would be needed for households earning around $50,000. Looking at the data presented in the 390-page report suggests another story. Housing needs were grouped by household income into the following categories: less than $15,000, $15,000-$24,999, $25,000-$34,999, $50,000-$74,999, $75,000-$99,999, $100,000-$149,999, and $150,000+. Histograms were plotted, and in multiple instances, the consultants concluded the greatest demand would be somewhere in the $35,000-$75,000 range.

The assessment is unfair. The bins for the histograms are not equal. If, instead, the analysts had used $10,000 ranges consistently, the maximum need illustrated would have shifted to the low-income ranges substantially; and enough to cause the authors to change their conclusions about what income-levels are experiencing the worst “housing gap.” It is not unusual for statisticians to consolidate bins when data gets so sparse it doesn’t even approach the other bins’ counts; it looks fishy when bins are consolidated to create a false maximum.

The report explains the income brackets correspond to percentages of Area Median Household Income (AMHI), but it does not say why those percentages are significant. It does not appear that the groupings were selected to represent more or less equal portions of the population, either. The report estimates approximately 43 percent of Asheville households currently have incomes below $35,000. According to the consultants, by 2020, 1901 new houses and 1293 new apartments would be needed to house the $35,000-$75,000 income ranges. That far outpaces the 881 and 524 respective units for the $25,000-$34,999 range, and the 613 and 843 for the $15,000-$25,000 – until the big numbers are divided four ways among fairer $35,000-$44,999, $45,000-$54,999, $55,000-$64,999, and $65,000-$75,000 groupings.

An inquiry into the rationale for the skewing bins was lodged with the city. The Community and Economic Development Department’s Public Participation Coordinator Roberta Greenspan acknowledged receipt of the question, but indicated staff was scurrying to meet federal planning deadlines. It should be noted the document is still just a draft, and the inquiry was in response to invited criticism from Greenspan.

Regardless of who specifically needs housing, the message city council needs to hear is that any increase in the housing supply is, by basic economics, going to help apply downward pressure to pricing. Developers argue they could help if the city did not make them spend so much scrapping plan after expensive plan in the design review process. They build to code, and then they must humor whims of the authorities, greenwash, afford community amenities, and cut back on the number of units to add greenspace and spare viewshed. They’ve even had to dodge UDO amendments slipped in under the wire to stop their projects. By the time council demands they rent-control a number of units in perpetuity, it’s time to cut their losses. City councils, rather than letting developers construct simpler and smaller productions, prefer to add more rules and then make developers subsidize “affordable” units.

The authors of Asheville’s Downtown Master Plan strongly advocated firmer statement and application of the rule of law to prevent developers from being taken on wild rides. Traditional economists have argued from the beginning that planners must differentiate between wants and needs. The Bowen report suggests another strategy it supposes can increase the supply of affordable housing. “Continued and possibly expanded support for various state and federal programs used to develop or maintain affordable housing in the region, particularly programs focused on low income renter households, will be critical to meeting current and future housing needs of the region.” It further shares suggestions from respondents to its survey, which include land banking and building near transit lines so people can repurpose their automobile maintenance budgets for rent. “One respondent suggested that a committee of both public and private housing professionals should be created . . . .”

At least the urban planning is gentrifying the city on schedule. There is no shortage of McMansions. The consultants report that between 2010 and 2013, 436 homes sold for between $400,000 and $500,000, and 602 sold for over $500,000. Although 40 percent of home sales went for between $100,000 and $200,000, the median list price in Asheville was $325,000. When the report was compiled, the asking price for 198 homes exceeded $500,000, and 65 were for sale, asking $400,000-$500,000.

At the other end of the spectrum, the middle only being propped up by statistical tricks, is the homeless population. The Bowen report states, “The current affordable housing developments available in Asheville are not accessible to the homeless population due to stringent credit restrictions and high AMHI income qualifications. It was also noted that the rate of current affordable housing development in the area is not keeping up with the demand as another fifty to 100 units could be developed and still not meet the need. Regardless, with an estimated population of 3801 and over a hundred homeless persons unsheltered, homelessness remains a challenge in Asheville/Buncombe County . . .”

One service provider interviewed for the report indicated Asheville/Buncombe emergency shelters house 500-550 homeless on any given night. Tallied results from a survey indicated, “The most needed type of housing to serve the homeless population is increased voucher assistance, followed by emergency shelters and Single Room Occupancy (SRO) units. The most commonly-cited obstacles to developing homeless housing were public perception/NIMBYism, and the high cost and lack of funding for development.” According to the NC Coalition to End Homelessness, an estimated 4066 persons classified as homeless reside within the region. Included in the total are persons in shelters and other facilities for the homeless. Only 302 of the homeless were counted as unsheltered.

The most interesting part of the Bowen report was its analysis of the hard-to-house in the four-county region. The elderly and persons with disabilities made up the bulk of that population. In 2012, the average disability payment in the Asheville area was $698/month, and that is 94 percent of the cost of a typical one-bedroom city apartment. Persons with disabilities number 59,980, and there are only 105 housing vouchers for the Non-Elderly Disabled in the area. Other hard-to-house groups included adults with mental illness (16,425), persons with co-occurring disorders (6857), ex-offenders (855), victims of domestic violence (731), substance abusers (466), and unaccompanied youth (87).

Citing the NC Council for Women, the report states for FY 2012-2013, 57,345 victims of domestic abuse sought services from 105 domestic violence programs statewide. In the four-county region, 731 victims sought shelter and 182 were considered overflow. It is estimated 60 percent of victims of domestic violence are homeless. On the bright side, the housing authority expedites people fleeing abuse over others on their waiting list.

The unaccompanied youth stat might not be as bad as it sounds. Though it conjures images of toddlers in diapers, it actually refers to “youth” 18 and older who age out of the foster care system, “without a place to call home and lacking many life skills.” North Carolina now has a program, LINKS, to address this discharge to homelessness. Among the services it provides are, “counseling, job training, housing assistance, and a monthly stipend to attend college/vocational school.” The problem is more evident in light of recent news that 30.3 percent of Millennials (Americans aged 18-34) are still living at home.

The Bowen report is somewhat skeptical of the Division of Adult Correction and Rehabilitate Programs’ statistic that discharged prisoners run only a 10 percent risk of being homeless. 600,000 prisoners are released each year in the United States. Many have no home, no savings, no job, and until recently, a scar on their record preventing employment. Services for ex-cons offered in the Asheville area include, “employment, stable housing, income assistance, education, counseling, substance abuse assistance, and transportation services.” Many prisoners relocate to Buncombe County because rural communities often cannot justify supporting the amenities. 855 persons were discharged in the Asheville region last year. Of those, five are known to be homeless, and 116 are diagnosed with a chronic mental illness.

The NC Division of Mental Health reported 306,080 persons were treated for mental illness in 2013. The Western Highlands Local Management Entity, which serves Asheville, treated 24,038; 290 of whom went to state institutions for severe mental illness. The region has 820 beds in 165 facilities for the mentally ill. The NC Alcohol and Drug Abuse Centers reported 4343 persons served for substance abuse, 466 of whom were in the Asheville region. The Bowen report says there are approximately 31 facilities in the Asheville region offering addicts supportive transitional or permanent housing and counseling for free or on a sliding scale. Buncombe County handles 79.6 percent of the caseload for the region.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated 62,619 US veterans were homeless in 2012. Somewhere around 470 of them now live in the Asheville area, and most gravitate toward the city center where they may access social services. Madison and Transylvania counties have only treated about six veterans within the past three years. The Bowen report indicates resources are available to serve vets well, but some are choosing to remain homeless.

On top of the special needs groups are a large portion of the population who are just plain poor. There are many definitions for poverty, and the Bowen report does not say which one it is using in its glossary. However, it reports, “Over 20.4 percent of [Asheville’s] population lives in poverty. Nearly one in three children (under the age of 18) within the city lives in poverty. Approximately 19.4 percent of the city’s population between the ages of 18 and 64 lives in poverty, while only 13.0 percent of seniors age 65 and older live in poverty.” The numbers are slightly better for Buncombe County.

While these populations may be housed, many quarters are considered crowded or not up to health codes. The report notes that mobile homes are one of the more affordable forms of housing, but the City of Asheville does not allow any new mobile home parks, citing NIMBYism and stigma. As in many instances, the Bowen survey did not ask what could be done to solve a problem, but what government could do to help. Answers included providing more vouchers, changing zoning laws, and collaboration. “One respondent suggested that rules and regulations should be put into place for the maintenance and beautification of mobile home parks, similar to a homeowner’s association, while another believes that increased amenities, such s playgrounds, would attract more families to parks.”

The consultants reported multiple housing projects are now in the pipeline for Buncombe County. Will local leaders demand that developers go broke rent-controlling units while investing millions in the latest in footprint-less, stigma-free, New Urbanist architectural stylings to create vibrant energy of identity awareness for the children of tomorrow? or let people be warm, safe, and dry and pay for frills as they climb the housing ladder?

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