Williams calls Lee Walker deal “land grab,” “plantation mentality”
By Roger McCredie- A prominent Black businesswoman and neighborhood organizer this week lambasted city government, saying the city-sanctioned plan to demolish and redevelop Asheville’s oldest housing project is “paternalistic” and amounts to “warehousing people.”
Two-time city council candidate and Asheville native Dee Williams said the plan to evacuate, demolish, and then create a mixed-income development at Lee Walker Heights is a product of “white groupthink” and that it runs roughshod over the wishes and well-being of a vulnerable part of the Black community.
“It’s 1970’s urban renewal all over again,” Williams said.
Lee Walker Heights, a 96-unit subsidized housing project, was built in 1950. It is located at the edge of the neighborhood that is now referred to as “South Slope,” to the south and spreading slightly east of the downtown core. That neighborhood has recently become Asheville’s hottest new commercial development area, home to several craft breweries as well as trendy new bars and clubs.
The old project itself has become shabby and crime-prone, the developers say, and it is accessible by only one street, which makes for congestion and is a potential hazard in case of emergency. The new plan calls for eventually replacing the original 96 apartments with a total of 204 new ones – 120 of which would are to be constructed right away – which will be mixed-income units rather than strictly low income housing.
Current residents are to be dispersed and given the opportunity to relocate in “deeply affordable” quarters throughout the city. As the new units are completed, those displaced will be given the opportunity to return, city officials say, though they would be in a limbo situation for at least two years while the first stage of the construction is completed.
Actual developers of the new project are the nonprofit agency Mountain Housing Opportunities and the Asheville Housing Authority. Project coordinators were expected to appear before city council this week to request a 50% waiver of water service tap fees for those first 120 units. If granted, the waiver is expected to save about $300,000 in project costs, which will sweeten the pot for a low-income housing tax credit the Housing Authority is seeking from the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency.
Meanwhile petitions are being circulated seeking a delay in the overall funding of the project “so that City Council can properly assess: the transparency, accountability, economic plausibility, management and developer capabilities, potential for gentrification and removal of a vulnerable African-American community, and to assess alternate plans which have community input and which create economic equity and inclusion.”
“They’re just warehousing people,” Williams said. “They’re saying, ‘We’re gonna run y’all off and tear down your home, so you go stay someplace else for a couple of years and then maybe you can come back.’ “
Records show that a total of 177 persons currently live in the Lee Walker complex.
In addition to creating that scenario, which she called “absurd,” Williams said the redevelopment plan deals yet another bureaucratic blow to Black culture and community in Asheville. And this, she said, is what makes her angriest.
“All this – all of it – is the result of being slaves to a tourist-based economy,” Williams said. “That mindset doesn’t have any room for minority communities. Black folks, especially, are supposed to be invisible as they go about their business. We’re only supposed to be visible in certain situations, to show how diverse Asheville is.
“And nobody’s picking up on it. The [Housing Authority] board is asleep at the wheel, speaking groupspeak along with the rest of them, while this cultural genocide – and that’s what it is – goes right along.
“This started nearly fifty years ago and it hasn’t let up since,” Williams said.
Williams was referring to the urban renewal projects of the 1970’s and 1980’s, which critics say ripped the cultural and commercial heart out of Asheville’s once cohesive Black community. She ticked off what she said were the casualties of that undertaking:
“It removed 1,100 homes, six beauty parlors, five barber shops, five filling stations, fourteen grocery stores, three laundromats, eight apartment houses, seven churches, three shoe shops, two cabinet shops, two auto body shops, a hotel, five funeral homes, a hospital, three doctors’ offices, and hundreds of supporting businesses,” she said.
Urban renewal dealt a body blow to “The Block,” the neighborhood centered on Eagle and South Market streets which had been the hub of the Black community’s business and cultural life. Stripped of most of its businesses and population, The Block became a haven for drug trafficking, prostitution, and crime in general. “And now there’s going to be a Hilton hotel where The Block used to be,” Williams said.
“I am amazed that the Mayor of the City of Asheville, Esther Manheimer, states that from ‘her reading on subject matter’ that black folks in public housing would be better off if they were dispersed and moved to mixed income neighborhoods,” Williams posted recently in social media. “[That] is paternalistic, disrespectful and an arrogance that is born in ‘white privilege,’ “ she said.
But although the Lee Walker project calls attention to the lack of a unified black political voice within the city, another factor is at work, Williams told the Tribune.
“Class plays a huge part in this inequality, right along with race,” she said. “There’s a new group of poor in town and it’s getting bigger, and there are plenty of whites in it. “This offers a clear-cut chance for the Black community to come together and lead the way out of this situation for all these people.”