Hotel Room – $250, Airbnb – $25, On the Street – Priceless

By Leslee Kulba- After working out of an out-of-town, affordable Airbnb for a week, it was not surprising to return to Asheville to see the city still in turmoil over whether and how to allow people to rent their own residential space.

As has been stated previously, society is moving toward a gig economy, with uprooted millennials searching short-term contracts on their phones, setting up in WeWork spaces, and retiring to Airbnbs at night. Bricks-and-mortar are so regressive.

The main takeaway from city council’s public hearing on the matter was the city’s fickle-mindedness is expensive for people trying to comply. Jackson Tierney, representing the Homestay Network in Asheville, told one story of a lady who wanted to rent out a portion of her house short-term.

To do it legally, she had to rip the stove out of the kitchen, hire an electrician to disconnect the 240V supply, replace the full-size refrigerator with a tiny one and build cabinetry over the tiny one to ensure no big refrigerator would be moved back, buy a standalone microwave and “gut her cabinetry” to replace the built-in one, turn off the gas, cover the sink, and cut off the water supply. Now, the lady is aging and wishing she had that mother-in-law apartment, and the city is considering changing its ordinances to render all the above changes, except removing the stove, unnecessary.

Members of council were concerned the change would make it easier for citizens to lease living space short-term instead of long-term. As if advocating for the horse and buggy, council wanted to force long-term residential leases even if progressive demand was moving in another direction.

Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler thought the laxity should not apply to standalone structures, and Councilor Vijay Kapoor thought the city had enough of a problem enforcing the current ordinance.

Mayor Esther Manheimer said she was alarmed at how the city keeps taking first or second place in lists of per-capita Airbnb counts. In addition, she said the Airbnb industry was lobbying the state legislature to preempt local governments from regulating them. For that purpose, she said, there were, “a lot of committee substitute bills … floating around the legislature, [which is] never going to adjourn” for lack of agreement on the budget. Council decided to postpone any decision on the proposal.

In Other Matters –
Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball gave council an overview of what staff is doing to respond to a rash of crime and appurtenant citizen concerns. However, being in government, she spoke in terms of damage control while avoiding any description of the problem.

So, turning to the headlines, to find out what was happening in Asheville whilst safely tucked-in at the Airbnb, one read about a man beating up girls in the mall, a stabbing, three break-ins in one night in West Asheville, a man being burnt alive, a body found, a violent assault related to a crime wave in Kenilworth, a 70% increase in business burglary and 92% increase in car break-ins in West Asheville, and gun violence on the rise.

During general public comment, Diane Allen, representing the local bus drivers’ union, asked for help enforcing existing rules. A knife had been pulled to threaten a rider and driver, and service animals without rabies shots were boarding the buses. She may have had more, but she ran out of time.

Ball reported the new, central police district, for which council approved funding, should be fully operational in January. It will allow officers to better build relationships and bond with the people downtown. An example of their responsibilities might include educating aggressive panhandlers on less disruptive places to hang out.

A lot of citizen complaints pertained to the homeless population, so the city is spending $150,000 on an outreach program wherein public safety officers will report noncriminal homeless people to Homeward Bound, so agents can sign them up for wraparound government services. Homeward Bound is hiring a dedicated staff member to handle this program, and the county has funded another Homeward Bound employee to manage the same services out of the downtown library.

Growing out of West Asheville’s crime wave was the creation of a City/County Harm Reduction Task Force. Harm reduction is a new euphemism encompassing programmatic responses to public health concerns stemming from substance abuse. It often takes the form of pushing free, safe-sin tools, a practice adherents swear does not increase use/abuse by addictive personalities. The city and county are now working on strategically locating grant-funded syringe depositories to reduce the number of contaminated needles on the ground.

In addition, the city’s downtown fire station is open 24-7. All EMTs carry Narcan as well as pass-along cards instructing people how to connect with services. Downtown businesses are invited to help with distributing the cards, Ball noting government needs partners in fighting crime.

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