Last night at Council: Is Asheville doing enough for 'deeply affordable' housing?
Last night’s Asheville City Council meeting had several juicy discussions about affordable housing policy, including whether the city should continue one of its longstanding grant programs.
At the same time, council voted forward three housing developments in Asheville, for a total of more than 630 units. Of those units, 162 will be designated affordable.
More on those three new housing developments…
- Butler Road: After delaying a vote on this 279-unit complex in November, Asheville City Council voted 5-1 to approve zoning changes for a housing development off Long Shoals Road in South Asheville. Since the project was first proposed, developers increased the number of three-bedroom units to 14, in order to accommodate more families who may want to live by the project’s nearby schools. The project also added more bike-friendly infrastructure and solar panels. A total of 10% of the units will be affordable for people who make 80% of the Area Median Income.
- Catalyst Fairview Village: This 281-unit apartment complex just outside Biltmore Village (115 Fairview Rd.) was supported in a 5-2 vote, with Kim Roney and Sheneika Smith voting no. 20% of the units (57 apartments) are designated affordable for households that make 80% of the Average Median Income or below, with half of those units (29) set aside for voucher holders.
- Fairhaven Summit: This “deeply affordable” 77-unit complex, situated off Sweeten Creek Road, is receiving $975,000 in funds from the city’s Housing Trust fund. The complex will include one-, two-, and three-bedroom units available for tenants making between 30% and 80% of the Average Median Income.
An existential crisis for affordable housing grants?
One policy that came under particular scrutiny: the city’s Land Use Incentive Grant program, also known as LUIG. This is part of a larger trend of the city thinking more critically about what type of housing its incentives and grants programs should support.
The LUIG program has been around since 2011, and its incentives have typically gone towards funding the creation of rental units for households that make 80% of the Area Median Income or below. This equates to $47,600 for a one-person household.
The debate around incentives arose from a developer’s request for a $4.5 million tax grant for Catalyst Fairview Village, which would designate some affordable housing for people who make 80% of the Average Median Income or below. About 5% of the overall number of units would be set aside for voucher holders.
Council ultimately voted 4-3 in favor of the $4.5 million incentive – but not without extensive debate on the future of the program.
Councilwoman Antanette Mosley, who voted no on the measure, along with Councilwomen Kim Roney and Sheneika Smith, said the current policy “hinders our ability to build more deeply affordable units.”
“Do we want to get larger numbers of ‘affordable housing’ for families of four making $68,000, or would we rather have fewer affordable units if we ended up getting more deeply affordable units?” Mosley said while explaining her vote.
A recent report from Thrive Asheville affirms a mismatch between the new affordable housing getting built and the needs of marginalized community members: city housing investments that target incomes at higher ends of affordability (e.g. 60-80% AMI) likely exacerbate racial and gender gaps in our community because our most underserved community members, on average, fall below this AMI band.”
The desire to fund more equitable affordable housing is part of why the city’s Housing and Community Development Committee had previously voted against the Catalyst Fairview Village incentives.
“I want to support the Land Use Incentive Grant program as a kind of voluntary rent control, because I believe our community needs that,” Roney said. “But if it’s not getting to racial equity, then it’s not helping me be responsible for meeting our goals… I’m landing at a point where I’m having a hard time supporting the Land Use Incentive Grant in general.”
Councilwoman Maggie Ulmann said she felt “uncomfortable” about keeping the LUIG program open while the council had “fundamental issues” with it and suggested that the city pause the program while it figures out what to do.
“I feel a lot of discomfort having a project go though the whole process to get to us, for us to then say ‘well we don’t like our rules and incentives,” Ullman said.
“We have a lot of the same questions,” affirmed Sasha Vrtunski, the city’s affordable housing officer.
The LUIG program is already going through an equity assessment led by Enterprise. Staff expects to get recommendations back in May 2024.
- In related news, council also made updates to its Housing Trust Fund Policy to prioritize more “deeply affordable” housing — housing for households that make as little as $17,000 a year – as well as a higher number of units and longer terms for affordability. There is approximately $4.1 million available in the fund for the next round. Applications are due Jan. 31, 2024.
- Dwight Mullen and Dewana Little, chairs of the Community Reparations Commission, asked Asheville City Council for an extension on the commission’s work to develop its reparations initiative. No extension was granted at the meeting, but it may show up on a future agenda.
- Council approved changes to the Public Art and Culture Commission’s ordinance, including a name change (switching ‘cultural’ to ‘culture’) and a new board composition that creates seats for a representative of Explore Asheville, ArtsAVL, and a local higher ed institution (Warren Wilson, AB-Tech, or UNC Asheville). Roney was the only dissenting vote. She explains her reasoning on Instagram.
- Council approved more than $860,000 of funding for upgraded police equipment, including new cameras, tasers, and drone software for the Asheville Police Department. Again, Roney was the only dissenting vote. She said she didn’t support it because she does not support the department’s use of drone surveillance technology.
Every second and fourth Tuesday, Asheville City Council meets at the Council Chamber on the 2nd Floor of City Hall, 70 Court Plaza beginning at 5:00 p.m. See the full recording of the December 12 and the action agenda.