City Council Discusses Affordable Housing

By Leslee Kulba- “You can’t buy yourself out of an affordable housing crisis, and I think you can see why with these numbers,” said Mayor Esther Manheimer. In an earlier conversation that night, Bob Begle of Lord Aeck Sargent had noted the city had intended to subsidize affordable housing construction at a rate of $20,000-$30,000 per unit, but $60,000-$80,000 would be more realistic.

Begle was presenting results of a study of the appropriateness of developing three city-owned properties with $15 million of the $25 million in general obligation bonds voters approved for mixed-use, affordable housing projects. The locations were the former Matthews Ford site on Biltmore Avenue, the city’s public works building on South Charlotte Street, and the former Ice House on Riverside Drive. The study is ongoing, and the city will hear more in January.

The most progress is being made on the Ice House site, thanks to a different, three-year study conducted by Artspace. The study cost $119,243, or the price of four cottages in the county, of which the city paid $25,000.
A few months back, Artspace made headlines with its finding that 40% of 1,435 Asheville artists responding to their survey wanted more affordable housing. Most of these respondents earned below the Area Median Income, and most had day jobs. The River Arts District was the preferred location of 80%, with West Asheville being the second favorite.

Artspace considered several sites, but the Ice House stood out because the city was actively trying to develop it into affordable housing. Land acquisition would not be difficult, and the city had already planned to take responsibility for site preparation. The site was also accessible via greenways and bike lanes, so residents could opt to live more affordably without car expenses.

While architectural design is yet to be done, Artspace envisioned an 80-unit mixed-use project. It was not yet decided to what extent the project would be co-housing or self-sufficient units. Studios, as well as performing art space were likely to be included, and a first-floor parking garage could lift the residences out of the floodplain.

In a report published last year, Artspace remarked, “In order to develop space that can be rented at rates described as affordable …, substantial subsidy is required.” Researchers calculated the project could receive a Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a Tax-Exempt Bond Award from the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, and a $1 million maximum loan from the city’s Housing Trust Fund, and still fall $4.9-$8.6 million short on financing. Bond revenues, serendipitously, seemed the surest bet to close the gap.

“Philanthropic resources are not robust,” the researchers found. The project would not qualify for historic tax credits because all that remained of the original building was a smokestack. The property was, however, in the city’s “highest poverty Census tract,” which could help it qualify for other grants. Other possibilities included developing a concept that could vie for Tourism Product Development Funds, or making a larger project that generated subsidies from inflated rents on the additional units. “Buncombe County should be approached as the project continues to take shape,” advised the report.

When Councilor Julie Mayfield asked how council was going to lawfully market apartments only to artists, Manheimer said that was what Artspace did, and staff and council would have to invest a lot of time to get up-to-speed with pertinent legalities. Next steps included drafting a memorandum of understanding with Artspace allowing them to submit a proposal within the next 18 months.

Heedless of multiple studies blaming regulation for unnecessarily escalating housing prices, Manheimer concluded the current initiatives were, “an important way for the city to be able to preserve land located in the heart of our city, in perpetuity, for people to be able to use at affordable rates. Otherwise, we know what will happen. It will just be redeveloped all at market rate, and it will gentrify, and that will be the end of the story.”

As for the hardest to house, at a worksession earlier that day, Mayfield asked how the city’s Code Purple had worked during the snowstorm. Sam Powers, who admitted the question went beyond his areas of expertise, said some homeless people refuse to use shelters, and staff would be convening meetings to discuss, “additional options [for what] continues to be a challenge.”

Mayfield said last year two shelters announced they would no longer take men. Assuming there would not be a lot of crime on freezing nights, she asked if it would be possible to assign officers to work in the shelters. Powers replied one of the problems was the county would be a good partner for manning the shelters, since it is properly charged with handling social services; but if somebody had to be arrested, the Asheville Police Department would have to be called in, anyway.

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