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Asheville makes yet another list…

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Larchmont Apts  RS

Larchmont Apartments

Asheville makes yet another list- As mayor cites ‘tidal wave of need’

“Best Place to Retire” listing could put additional strain on housing, services

Roger McCredie-    Two occurrences in recent days point up what some Ashevillians say is the paradox of perception versus reality where their city is concerned.

On November 9, MarketWatch, the online business and financial information service, announced that in a nationwide survey Asheville had been named the number one place to retire in the United States.

And on November 17, Mayor Esther Manheimer was quoted as saying, “it is impossible to handle this tidal wave of need,” speaking of what is now commonly referred to as Asheville’s affordable housing crisis.

It was the second time in recent years that Asheville has made MarketWatch’s top-ten retirement destination list.  The first was in August of 2007, a time when, according to statistics, the inverse ratio of housing costs to both housing availability and area wages was beginning to be noticeable but was not yet acute.

This past spring a Yahoo! Financial article awarded the city a less desirable distinction.  It included Asheville in a list of “10 cities where ordinary people can no longer afford homes,” based on the gap between home prices (or rental amounts) and a profile of average wages.  This bit of adverse publicity apparently had no impact on the MarketWatch survey, analysts say, because retirees come to town “with money on the hip” in the form of substantial savings and other liquid assets.  Their ability to pay top dollar drives home prices completely out of reach for young and working class families.

The mayor’s remark came during a joint city-county “affordable housing summit,’ composed of Asheville and Buncombe County officials, developers, private citizens, and  representatives from several nonprofits.   It was the latest in a series of such meetings to be convened in recent months – the last was in August — to discuss ways in which government and the private sector could work hand in hand to move solving the cost/availability problem from discussion to action.

During that meeting Biltmore Farms chief financial officer Paul Szurek identified three root causes of the housing end of the problem:  a well-entrenched NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitude on the part of private property owners, constantly “evolving” building codes, and a befuddling approach to regulatory interpretations.  He urged streamlining and simplifying the permitting process, though it was not clear how this might be accomplished.

The reworking of existing development rules was identified as a need that should be met in order to facilitate new growth. In particular, some participants said, the rules should be adjusted to facilitate the increased use of density – an ugly word in some quarters – to leverage more housing.

Density, characterized by building up instead of out, has been enthusiastically endorsed by such city officials as councilor Gordon Hunt and Vice Mayor Marc Hunt as a means of  creating housing space.  Opponents of the density solution say multi-story dwellings built streetside would ruin Asheville’s inherent beauty and play havoc with a traffic situation that is already tangled and congested.

During the session outside consultant Patrick Bowen said he had not encountered a housing market situation like Asheville’s in his entire career as a researcher.  Bowen observed that the constricted housing market could retard future business growth.

At the end of the day the consensus was that the matter needed further discussion.

Meanwhile, Asheville’s growth continues apace.  Observers say the next demographic wave poised to break over Asheville will indeed be retirees, who, although they can afford to shop in the Asheville housing market, will be needing and demanding other services and amenities at a rate that may very well strain both public and private sectors’ ability to keep up with them.  The Asheville Citizen-Times referred to the influx as a “silver tsunami.”

(Apparently Manheimer originally used the phrase “tsunami of need” to refer to the city’s predicament, as reported by the Citizen-Times,  but the wording in updated versions of the quote was changed to the synonym “tidal wave” about the time the “silver tsunami” description was published.  In a column addressing the housing issue later, Citizen-Times writer John Boyle called the predicament an “avalanche of need.”)

And all the while a whole other demographic, Asheville workers, including those who staff the services the incomers require and who generally make the engine of Asheville go, find themselves out in the cold when it comes to affording their own adequate housing.  For them the problem is not merely the fact that places to live are scarce, but that they couldn’t afford a place if one became available.

Yet  Jeff Staudinger, Assistant Director of Community & Economic Development for the City of Asheville, maintains that Asheville is equal to the challenge and is in fact “a national leader” in the municipal affordable housing field   Last August, Staudinger authored a guest column in Asheville’s Mountain Xpress weekly, in which he said:

“Relative to the city’s size and budget, Asheville’s Housing Trust Fund represents a significant ongoing commitment to creating affordable housing. The city’s 2015-16 budget allocates $1 million for affordable housing: $500,000 for the Housing Trust Fund and $500,000 for related capital improvements. Amending the Unified Development Ordinance to increase allowable densities in our urban commercial corridors is another example of City Council’s commitment to supporting affordable housing production.”

The Tribune reached out to Staudinger for an update on his assessment.  Staudinger accepted an invitation to be interviewed but his reply came too late for this week’s issue.  A sequel to this article will feature that interview, together with a street-level examination of how some of those affected by the housing crisis are coping with it.

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