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City: Asheville is ‘National Leader’ In affordable housing programs



Assistant Director, Jeff Staudinger. Photo by Tracy Rose for Mountain Xpress

Development officer cites trust fund, partnerships

By Roger McCredie- Nearly a third of all homeowners in the Asheville area spend more than 30 per cent of household income on their mortgage payments, making them officially “cost burdened.”

More than half of Asheville’s renters fall into the same category.

But the City of Asheville, according to its point man on the issue of affordable housing, is not only working hard to help fix that situation, but “is a national leader” in the municipal affordable housing field.

Jeff Staudinger, Asheville’s Assistant Director of Community and Economic Development, says the city has both a plan for dealing with its affordable housing shortage and a firm commitment to see the plan through, even if the results may not become apparent for awhile yet.

In an interview with the Tribune last week, Staudinger called attention to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which was set up in 2000 to provide low-interest-rate loans as an incentive for developers to take on affordable housing projects.

“The [city’s] 2015 budget includes half a million dollars to be added to the trust fund itself,” Staudinger said, “as well as another half million for capital improvements related to existing low income housing.” Presently, though, he said there is “about $1.1 million” in the trust fund kitty – not a great deal in terms of municipal building and repair costs – and “of that, about $850,000 has been allocated.”

Besides being largely spoken for at the moment, the trust fund, though sound in concept, is not in itself a compelling inducement for developers to go out and begin building affordable housing units, Staudinger said.  Builders logically prioritize more profitable, less restrictive projects.  And the city’s direct involvement in the process only extends so far.

“The city has not historically been a housing developer,” Staudinger said.

Staudinger was quick to move the discussion from what was to what could be.  As to the creation of more affordable rental units he posited the repurposing of existing city property for low income housing development, coupled with the increased use of density – building up instead of out – in apartment building design.

Multimodal transportation, Staudinger said, is another important ingredient in the optimum affordable housing mix.  The use of buses, bicycles and footpaths goes hand in hand with the density concept.  In other words, affordable housing users would be riders and walkers instead of drivers. “Multimodal transportation is all about safe access to jobs and schools and services,” he said.

Staudinger also repeated a sentiment he voiced in a report he presented to the city last summer:  that urban density should be supported by “quality-of-life improvements that embrace inclusivity and diversity.”  And how, he was asked, can those intangible concepts be translated into concrete features of an affordable housing program?

“One of the lessons learned in the development of affordable housing,” Staudinger said, “is that creating concentrations of the lowest income households limits the economic mobility of those households. This is recognized as one of the biggest issues with how we have historically addressed ‘public’ housing.

“Inclusivity therefore refers to building housing for households with a broad range ‘which is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in housing. [Federal law] also specifically requires that housing built with federal funds not be concentrated in areas of low income,” he added.

Diversity, Staudinger said, can be viewed similarly. “It speaks towards building housing that does not create other concentrations, whether of age, race, physical and mental ability or family makeup.”

“With an affordable housing supply deficit in the thousands of units, inclusivity and diversity, in practice, could mean that every market rate development would include housing for households with low income and would include a variety of housing types.”

City Council has adopted a goal of assisting in the production of 2,800 new affordable housing units over the next seven years, Staudinger noted, but he added,  “that is only about half of the city’s projected need over the next five years.”

In an August guest essay in Asheville’s Mountain Xpress, Staudinger said, “Current financing and regulatory tools alone cannot produce enough new affordable housing to meet the need. To achieve that, we’ll need to support our existing housing partners, find new partners in both the public and private sectors, implement new policies and embrace new tools.”

Staudinger has said he believes that in general, increasing the housing supply at any point across the board will ultimately help ease the affordable housing shortage, because such an increase gives suppliers an incentive to price their units more attractively than other units on the market, thus increasing overall affordability.  But as far as Asheville itself is concerned, “It’s a seller’s market, not a buyer’s market.”

Asheville continues to add to its inventory of properties that could possibly be reused as affordable housing sites, Staudinger told the Tribune, using as an example the acquisition of two parcels of land in the Deaverview area that had been foreclosed on.  These and other properties, he said, would be ideal for the construction of the urban density-type units he favors so highly. Still, he said, the city must find ways of attacking the most fundamental problem of all.

“We’ve got to get the cost of housing down,” he said simply.  “If we can’t manage to do that, well, we’ve got to consider what we’re doing wrong.”

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