Asheville Mayoral Candidate Q&A: Esther Manheimer
Editor's note: BPR's candidate questionnaire was created after asking community members to share their questions and what issues matter most to them and their communities. The candidates' responses have not been edited or fact checked by BPR.
Esther Manheimer Bio:
I am running for mayor of Asheville because I love Asheville and want to serve my community. I bring experience, partnerships, and diplomacy, as such, I am endorsed by every member of the current city council but my opponent. I have served as mayor since 2013, being re-elected in 2017. I’ve learned something new each day and applied it to better serving our community. From the internal workings of the city, walking the halls of the legislature fighting for Asheville, working with county leadership, to knowing our community’s neighborhood, non-profit, and business leadership, it takes time, an open mind, listening skills, and a collaborative mindset to develop critical relationships and, together, create more opportunities for our residents. I also served as an Asheville city council member from 2009-2013.
I am an Asheville High graduate, with a BA from CU-Boulder, and an MPA and JD from UNC-Chapel Hill. I am a partner with the Van Winkle Law Firm. I have and do serve on many boards and commissions and am the former chair of the North Carolina Metro Mayors Coalition. My husband, Mark Harris, a teacher and coach at Enka High School (his alma mater), and I have three sons and a rescue dog.
Contact and campaign info:
If elected, what is your top priority as Asheville Mayor and what steps would you take to achieve that goal?
My top issues are aligned with what I hear our community telling us to prioritize. I am running for re-election as Asheville’s mayor to use my experience to bring people together so we can effectively, meaningfully address our challenges including: delivering core services including expanding public safety and rebuilding APD to enable residents to feel and be safer; redoubling affordable housing efforts to increase availability, reduce houselessness, and increase quality of life and stability for all residents; and planning and implementing equitable climate policy and action to reduce climate change and increase resilience.
The 2036 strategic plan calls for Asheville to be “a city with abundant housing choices for people at all economic levels and stages of life. Chronic homelessness is a thing of the past and rapid rehousing strategies abound thanks to an effective network of service providers.” What action is needed today to reach these outcomes?
Affordable housing for our residents is key to maintaining our identity and expanding equity. I advocate for using the tools I've helped put in place, being innovative, being flexible, and wisely stewarding our funds.
Use the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to make grants to build affordable housing (e.g. Haywood Street Congregation, Mountain Housing Opportunities and Habitat for Humanity) and incentivize affordable housing in housing developments.
Continue partnering with the Housing Authority to rebuild public housing. We began with Lee Walker, our oldest public housing neighborhood.
Leverage city-owned property into affordable housing. The first development on city property at Clingman and Hillier. The next is located on the old Matthews Ford site on Biltmore Ave, and several additional sites identified.
Respond to emergencies by using funds wisely: I advocated for the city to use congressional relief funding to construct nearly 200 new units of permanent supportive housing designed specifically for people experiencing homelessness. This housing is under construction. I supported emergency rent relief during COVID, grants to support people staying in their homes by funding home repairs, and financial relief for income-qualified homeowners seeking property tax relief.
If re-elected, I will continue this work.
As Mayor, what is your role in building an equitable and diverse community in Asheville?
Listening and building consensus are primary roles for anyone serving as Mayor. During my tenure, I've worked hard to invest in equity and build consensus and take action on equity and diversity. I've led the city to make significant, impactful capital investments in historically Black neighborhoods decimated by urban renewal and neglect (e.g. redevelopment of Lee Walker, Phase 2 of the Wesley Grant Center, Memorial Stadium); establish the Equity and Inclusion office as the city's internal auditor to ensure that our practices and policies are viewed and drafted through an equity lens; create a community benefits table requiring hotel developers to pay into either a reparations fund or affordable housing fund if that developer wants to build a hotel as a matter of right, thus creating a sustaining fund for reparations; and working to reimagine public safety, in partnership with the county, to create non-policing responses to emergencies that do not require a police response. I led negotiations for the most equitable budget in Asheville's history. I supported the groundbreaking initiative on reparations and the establishment of a Reparations Commission. I was recognized for my work with a 2022 Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County. I've consistently supported LGBTQ protections. I'm proud to have the support of diverse networks and individuals based on my ability to create and nurture relationships. As one example, I am endorsed by all members of the current city council (other than my opponent).
The FY23 budget includes a $500,000 allocation for the reparations fund. What other steps would you take to support the Community Reparation Commission?
Under my leadership as Mayor, the city of Asheville has stepped up as a leader in advancing racial justice most recently with a groundbreaking initiative on reparations and the establishment of a Reparations Commission. In addition to the city’s funding, the county, in partnership with the city, is providing resources, and the city council recently created a community benefits table that hotel developers pay into either a reparations fund or affordable housing fund, thus creating a sustaining fund for reparations. The city and county are working together to support the work of the commission by providing professional staff services, providing a stipend for members of the commission, and other support such as childcare while the commission works to draft its findings and recommendations. Once the commission's work is complete, the city, county, and the community must work together to bring those recommendations to reality.
What role should the City play in helping residents respond to extreme weather and climate change?
Under my leadership the city has been at the forefront of planning how to help residents respond to extreme weather and climate change. There is more to do. I led and supported climate action including declaring a climate emergency in January 2020 and calling for a mobilization effort to restore a safe climate. This resolution includes elements of the Green New Deal. As Mayor, I signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement. As Mayor and as a city council member I adopted resolutions committing to the reduction of municipal carbon emissions, most recently in 2018 when we resolved to transition all municipal operations to 100% renewable energy by December 31, 2030. As stated in the climate emergency declaration, justice requires that front line and marginalized communities actively participate in the planning and implementation of climate mobilization efforts and benefit equally from the transition to a climate safe economy. This is why the city worked directly with those most affected by climate change in preparing the city’s Climate Resilience Assessment and formulating the Climate Justice Initiative. This planning document is essential in preparing for the increasing threats of climate change on our community, whether flooding, fire, extreme heat, drought, or landslides. These disasters impact peoples’ lives, sometimes tragically, as we saw in western North Carolina with Hurricane Fred. These tragedies also come at real costs to the city, often costing millions of dollars to repair infrastructure such as roads, and funding is limited as FEMA does not often reimburse the city for these costs.
What development priorities would best serve Asheville moving forward?
We need to prioritize quality of life for our residents and future generations. This requires a focus on meeting our current and future needs for affordable housing, safe multimodal transportation options for people of all ages and all abilities, recreation facilities, and protection of our water quality and natural resources. I am committed to working with the community to shape the future of our city through planning, policy and regulations that grow density in appropriate locations while preserving the beauty of our city and region in perpetuity. I have supported passing laws and community-lead planning efforts that seek to guide growth, without creating greater inequality. I have supported aggressive transportation planning and funding, championing the 2016 transportation bond, allowing for roads to be repaired, sidewalks to be added, and multimodal infrastructure such as greenways and bike lanes to “retrofit” our city for future growth.
How do you respond to voters who feel the City is prioritizing tourism over investments in public services?
I hear you. If it were up to me, the TDA would spend the majority of the taxes it collects from tourists on residents' needs. Instead, the TDA is independent, with their own board, mission, etc. They decide how to spend 100% of what they collect. As Mayor I can and do seek policies that support the individuals and businesses that depend upon tourism to earn a living and to make world-class food, beer, experiences, art, and entertainment available to our residents. I simultaneously work to use policy to mitigate the impacts of tourism on our residents’ quality of life. (1) I worked with the county commissioners and our legislative delegation to change the state law governing how the TDA spends the room tax. The recently enacted revised legislation increases spending on local needs. Next I’ll advocate for further revision to increase spending on residents vs. advertising. The room tax laws should also be changed to allow spending on affordable housing, transit and other immediate needs. (2) I voted to ban corporations from turning affordable housing into short-term rentals. I will remain vigilant on that front. I strongly support the county enacting similar zoning requirements to ensure that housing is available for long-term renters. (3) I supported the passage of a hotel moratorium which allowed the city to work with the community to craft an ordinance that better addresses our needs in the context of the pressure of Asheville’s popularity. This new ordinance creates a revenue stream for affordable housing and reparations.
What have you learned from the Reimagining Public Safety strategic process and what are your public safety priorities moving forward?
What I have learned about Reimagining Public Safety is that it takes trusted leadership that brings people together from across our community. Becoming a trusted leader takes time, listening skills, and a collaborative mindset. That’s what I bring each day as Mayor. I listen, learn, and apply it to better serving our community. I supported and the city council has made it a priority to continue to work to reimagine public safety. This includes initiatives such as reassigning duties traditionally housed in the police department (such as noise enforcement, animal control) and moving them to non-policing departments allowing APD to focus on law enforcement that requires a policing response, supporting the rewriting of policies of the police department such a requiring written consent for searches, implementing a program to provide drivers with vouchers to replace a broken tail light, rather than ticket drivers, partner with the county to open a high-access shelter for those unhoused needing emergency shelter and without the ability to go to a traditional shelter, partner with the county to consolidate the 911 call center, partner with the county to support the new community paramedic program designed to provide emergency response to overdose and mental health crisis in a non-policing manner, and create almost 200 additional units of permanent supportive housing designed specifically to transition those experiencing homelessness to housing. I support and have advanced these efforts and seek even more transformative ideas.
Asheville was one of the last cities in North Carolina with an appointed school board. This year, voters will begin electing school board members. How will you work with this new elected body of local leaders?
I have the perspective of being a parent of three children who have all attended our public schools, spouse of a teacher, graduate of Asheville High, and elected official who made appointments under the old system and also lobbied for an elected school board. My husband is a 25-year veteran teacher, teaching and coaching at Enka High School. Our daily conversations often include consideration of the challenges schools, teachers and students face. I value the life-changing impact public education had on me, my children, and all students in our public school system.
I've strongly supported the City’s partnerships with Asheville City Schools, its parents, teachers, coaches and students. As mayor, I have had the opportunity to understand the positive outcomes for students if they receive quality early childhood education and the negative impacts to each individual and society as a whole if they do not. I've advocated for our schools in myriad ways and will continue doing so, in partnership with the soon-to-be elected board.
I led the effort to request legislation enabling an elected school board. This long-discussed idea was finally made possible through community support, leadership at city council, and advocacy and relationships with legislators who ultimately passed the legislation.
I led the city through tri-part negotiations with Duke Energy and the students, teachers and staff of Isaac Dickson Elementary, resulting in the relocation of a planned electric substation.
I advocated for partnering to rebuild the playground at Jones Elementary.
I support our city-funded internship, summer, and after school programs.
What steps could the Mayor's office take to improve transparency?
I support the City’s ongoing work to increase transparency, including new online options launched in recent years such as the Open Data Portal, the various searchable databases (from City Projects to Building Permits), and the daily efforts of our Communication and Public Engagement Department to share information and seek input. I have an open-door policy, generally, and welcome hearing from individuals and groups in our community who have ideas for improving transparency.