And so, council was asked to approve a 290-unit apartment complex behind TC Roberson High School, off Long Shoals Road. For the affordable housing requirement, the developers, Hathaway Development, LLC, agreed to rent-control, for fifteen years, ten percent of their units as affordable to persons earning 80 percent of Area Median Income. Staff wanted them to keep twenty percent as affordable, but the developers declined to cooperate.
The language in the staff report was somewhat ambiguous. It read, “The project shall contain at least ten percent affordable units at rent standards not to exceed 80 percent AMI as published in the 2016 Affordable Housing Standards.” That sounds like the dollar-amount, and not that which defines affordable year over year, was being fixed; and that would be a recipe for potential disaster.
Muddying the waters was a vibrant, low-income, minority mobile home community, thriving on the property. According to Maria Escobedo, president of the newly-formed neighborhood association, kids walked to school, neighbors watched each other’s kids, they would borrow sugar from each other, and the community had for decades enjoyed neighborliness largely lost today. What’s more, the fifty-five families enjoyed what city staff referred to as “deeply affordable” rents. Staff reports said they were paying $225 a month, but only during the meeting did Mayor Esther Manheimer note that was only the lot rent. They had to pay for the mobile homes, too, and the public was only told that amount varied. By way of contrast, affordable rents for the apartments coming online would run from $762-$895 for a one-bedroom unit and $833-$1006 for a two-bedroom.
Finding no recourse through local housing authorities and other agencies that provide homes to low-income families, the developer concluded he would have to help with relocation costs. He first offered $1000 per household. Then, more people entered the scene to give voice to the voiceless. It may have started when residents took their eviction notices to their church, St. Barnabas, where Father Adrian Porras assigned Deacon Rudy Triana to the case. City staff and the developer reached out to Homeward Bound to administer disbursements, and Pisgah Legal Services entered the scene. A neighborhood association was formed and met eight times. At their last meeting, all present asked Triana to try to negotiate more.
Councilman Gordon Smith wanted to impose a condition on the project that payouts be disbursed as agreed upon. City Attorney Robin Currin advised instead leaving the matter as a contract among the developer, Homeward Bound, and the neighborhood association. That way, the city would have walked away scot-free before anything could go bad. It turned out no agreement had been signed, so Currin suggested council might be in a better position to postpone a decision until such time.
Manheimer insisted a recess be called to complete the paperwork. Before the proverbial ink had dried upon the line, the developer’s attorney, Lou Bissette, read the terms into the record. The developer was going to put $290,000 into a residents’ fund to be administered by Homeward Bound. The money would be split evenly among the 55 households. Residents would receive their first check for $2272 within forty-five days of city council’s approval of the project. They would then receive a $3000 check when Hathaway closed with the existing owner, Miami Made. A notice to quit within 60 days would be served on July 1. For its services, Homeward Bound would receive a “reasonable administrative fee.” December 31 would be the last day to pick up a check, and any unclaimed checks would go to Homeward Bound to first be applied to the administrative fee.
In North Carolina, tenants may be evicted without cause and given sixty days to relocate. It’s one of many reasons homeownership was such the golden American dream. The founders and philosophers before them claimed there was nothing so sacred as property rights because ownership of matter gives people power of expression and convenience of routine. It also enables productivity and trade, the building blocks of any economy. Asheville City Council has scarcely ever voted on the side of personal property rights. In this instance, they sided with a community that had grown together through decades – but they were renting.
In Obama-esque cadence, Councilman Gordon Smith spoke strongly. “I’m troubled by the precedent that it sets. That tonight we are being asked to sanction the annihilation of a neighborhood. To sanction the destruction of a community that will never come back. And the history of this community will end on the day they’re all evicted. Forced out.” Smith said $8000-$11,000 would be more in-line with the actual costs of relocating, without adding costs for “loss of family.” Council, he said, was in a bind. If they voted against the measure, the developer would be able to proceed without giving the existing tenants a penny. If council approved it, they supported the annihilation of a neighborhood. Smith then recalled how Asheville has a history of bulldozing “voiceless” communities. He referred to this move as “instant gentrification.”
Council tried to get the developer to give more. Perhaps he could extend the rent controls to twenty percent of his units for twenty years or offer the first month in the apartments rent-free. Bissette said the developer was maxed out on contributions for this project. Regular public commentator Chris Chiaromonte asked how much Homeward Bound’s administrative fees would be, noting they are not coming out of the developer’s heart but out of increased rents on the non-affordable units.
In the end, council unanimously approved the development with the terms for relocation specified in the contract. As people shuffled out of the chambers, Smith suggested building relocation reimbursement as a requirement in future hearings. “Do we know if this is legal?” asked Manheimer.