Free the Homes! Legalize Affordable Housing

By Leslee Kulba- During a brief meeting of Asheville City Council, it appeared the city was on the same trajectory as Detroit was 10-20 years ago.

While it is imperative that people look after those in need and those who cannot look after themselves, and healthy individuals will happily give to the poor, even when it means giving the poor a lifestyle better than theirs; humanitarians will typically draw a line when they see goodwill for one group inflicting hazards on another in the form of deferred medical attention, unmitigated home health hazards, or other avoidable insufficiencies.

Government, on the other hand, can promise infinite goodwill because it’s good for re-election and because government has the power to tax families beyond what they consider their personal breaking points. In Detroit, an era of good feelings that ignored supply-side economics collapsed the city into bankruptcy with $18 billion in debt.

While economists are resigned to their lot of preaching to deaf ears about the need to think globally and close all loops in resource cycles, warning in vain about severing lifelines; the wisdom of government, flying in the face of sophrosyne, elects instead paths that lead to sprees of wanton excess followed by rock-bottom crashes.

Detroit is now recovering, thanks to what was described as a “state takeover,” with Republican Governor Rick Snyder installing an emergency manager to restructure operations and assume control of the books. Were the same to be required here, members of city council would likely explain it as an “unintended consequence” of providing only the finest in everything for everybody. Underlying the notion, however, is a projection that poor people are materialistic and greedy.

Driving local government’s perceived need to spend hundreds of millions on housing are the usual suspects, like building codes and zoning ordinances that either go overboard in protecting against health and safety hazards or are purely aesthetic in purpose.

These range from strictures like the fixing of the minimum distance a lightbulb must be from the walls in a closet; to prohibitions against mobile home parks because they look tacky; to requirements that homeowners throw out a refrigerator to rent short-term homestays, or developers move construction to the curb to create an urban feel, provide excessive setbacks and buffering elsewhere, install elevators nobody would use, and add fenestration for pedestrian interaction. Meanwhile, good taxpayers live with leaking sinks, black mold, rotted floorboards, and deferred medical attention to subsidize the tomfoolery.

The city also supports paying living wages, which by staff’s own admission, is driving construction costs up, both directly and as an addend in procurement charges. The city further likes to build affordable housing on expensive real estate because bus lines run in centralized commercial and service districts. And, while Timothy Sadler wants developers of affordable housing to avoid building with fiberglass and pay for public art, the logic is only an extension of that which views developers as possessing deep pockets for picking and in the past has extorted money for greenways, sidewalks in other parts of town, and other “community benefits.”

And so, Drew Crawford saved the day during public comment with a presentation on THOWs (tiny houses on wheels). These are stick-built homes 8.5 feet wide with under 400 square feet of floor space. Because they’re so small, they can provide infill development or serve as accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Unlike mobile homes, they remain on wheels for ease in relocation, and they’re durable and can be upgraded to accrue equity.

THOWs can be built to third-party inspection standards with $25,000 in materials, mortgaged at $400 a month, and placed on a lot with included utilities for another $400 a month. The wheels allow them to be safely located in otherwise unbuildable floodplains because they can be quickly evacuated; and they also introduce an element of competition among those who would rent space because little effort is required for moving to greener pastures.

The problem, of course, is finding space. THOWs are currently regulated as recreation vehicles (RVs), which means they may park for 180 days before they become subject to life safety and zoning regulations, which were designed without them in mind. Because of their newness, Crawford said the buck keeps getting passed when he tries to have a conversation about legalization. He therefore wanted to have a sit-down with representatives from all city departments to which he’s been referred: Planning and Urban Design, Development Services, Community and Economic Development, and even city council.

Following his remarks, Councilor Julie Mayfield said council would host a worksession in coming weeks to discuss developing a regulatory framework for tiny houses. She has realized reducing construction costs will be part of addressing the city’s affordable housing crisis. She is also interested in seeing what kinds of incentives government can provide for more compact residential construction.

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