The project still called for the creation of 62 apartments. 32-38 would still be “deeply affordable,” but the other half would be Workforce Housing, which, by definition, would be affordable to households earning 100-120 percent of AMI. In today’s economy, that would translate to rents between $1120 and $1400 a month. Stevens referenced the recent Bowen report to justify moving the apartments more toward market rates. He said although 1700 apartment seekers in Buncombe County can’t afford market rates, another 1600 who can afford Workforce rates remain displaced due to the city’s housing crisis.
Determining the exact amount of government subsidy set aside now for the project is not a straightforward calculation. What began with a frivolous lawsuit that introduced delays sufficient to force the forfeit of initial grant prospects has had a history of fits and starts and associated renegotiations. Back in 2014, the project was on record for receiving $7 million from the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency; $2.3 million in two loans from Buncombe County; and $5.9 million from the City of Asheville, $2 million of which was federal pass-through funds.
But then the concrete cracked. Stevens explained a new engineering team had been hired to assess the damage, and they recommended a total redo. Pulling two slabs out from the 90,000 square-foot building and replacing them put the project two years, and $4.5 million behind. Eagle Market Place, and its partner since 2014, Mountain Housing Opportunities, were able to recover $1.5 million of the losses, but they now seek a private loan to make up the difference. But instead of asking money, again, they approached the county with a request to change the terms of the agreement to let up on the affordable housing requirements. Being able to rent half the units at market rates would make the project appear more feasible to private lenders.
The request before the commissioners was not the only concession asked since the concrete crack. Last year, Asheville City Council agreed to advance the dates for releasing a couple of its loans and stop charging interest on its Housing Trust Fund loan. The general contractor reduced his fees; and MHO has offered to cover soft costs (legal, redesign, insurance, interest, engineering investigation) incurred because of the concrete issue.
Commissioner Tim Moffitt asked how much Stevens expected the project to cost overall. MHO’s Executive Director Scott Dedman estimated the total to be $12.3 million, provided all insurance settlements are paid. Moffitt then asked what the county’s lienholder position was. Stevens said it was fifth, but as the loans were paid down, lenders would peel off serially from the top.
Commissioner Mike Fryar said he had received complaints from constituents about the sky crane that sat immobilized for 2.5 years. Presumably taxpayers were paying thousands for it to just chill there. Stevens replied that it would have been more expensive to tear it down, haul it out, haul it back, and set it back up.
Fryar had to admit, giving the county only thirty units of affordable housing amounted to delivering on only half the deal to the taxpayers. To this, Stevens said there had been no discussion of rents when the county approved its first loan for the project. The affordable housing component came later at county staff’s instigation. He added that Eagle Market Place will rent-control more units at Affordable rates if it becomes possible to do so.
Fryar was hesitating until Commissioner Ellen Frost admitted she had requested that Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton and General Services Manager Greg Israel have oversight of the project moving forward. While serving on the Board of Directors of AB Tech, Fryar had had a front-row seat to a miraculous turnaround when the duo took charge of a disastrously-managed, financially-infeasible expansion project at AB Tech. With a winning team like that in charge, Fryar was convinced the project could be workable.
Chair David Gantt asked what would happen if the commissioners did not approve the change-order. Stevens said, “This is our last shot.” There were too many moving pieces, and this was presumably the final slit of opportunity to open. Citizen Jerry Rice asked during public comment what the contingency plan was should another disaster befall the project. He asked if the insurance policies were now tapped out. Since he was speaking during public comment, he wasn’t entitled to any answer.
The commissioners then unanimously approved the change-order with the provision that Creighton and Israel would oversee the construction. The crane is now expected to swing back into motion in a couple weeks. Gantt thanked the developers for being upfront about the mistake and doing their best to recover their losses. He said the project would benefit a “chronically underserved and overlooked community” that wanted and deserved the development. Fryar lastly apologized for sounding rough. Echoing Gantt, he said he wanted the project to be done, but he wanted it done right.
In Other Matters –
Commissioner Joe Belcher had the honors of presenting a proclamation of appreciation to Sheriff Van Duncan. In light of recent events on the national scene, the commissioners wanted to take the time to thank the county’s people in blue, in short, for safeguarding rights and freedoms, fighting crime, safeguarding property, protecting citizens from violence and disorder, protecting the weak and innocent, taking hazardous risks, and serving bravely.