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New report sounds alarm on affordable housing - again

Asheville Watchdog
This story was originally published by Asheville Watchdog, an independent nonprofit news team serving Asheville and surrounding communities.

The need for affordable housing in western North Carolina is getting more severe, a new study commissioned by the Dogwood Health Trust found.

By 2025 the region will need 20,000 more units for lower-income households, the study found, with 70 percent, or 14,000, of those new units needed in just three counties: Buncombe, Henderson, and Haywood.

The study, by Bowen National Research, conducted in the first six months of 2021 and presented to the Dogwood Trust last month, also found that:

  • Nearly half of all households in Buncombe County (48.5 percent) were already “cost-burdened,” meaning that they pay more than 30 percent of income toward housing; nearly two in five households in Buncombe are “severely” cost-burdened, paying half of more of all income to meet housing costs.
  • Ninety-two percent of regional employers say the shortage of affordable housing is causing problems in attracting new workers, and 70 percent say the cost of housing is making it hard to keep the employees they already have.
  • Nearly 60 percent of regional rental households don’t have the minimum of $40,000 annual income needed to afford the average $1,069 monthly rent of a one-bedroom apartment in western North Carolina, plus utilities and related expenses, without being financially overburdened.
  • The median selling price of a home in the 18-county region rose 17.8% between 2019 and 2020, and prices have continued to soar in 2021. The average listing price for a home in Buncombe in 2021 is now a jaw-dropping $887,504.
  • Buncombe County alone represented 80 percent of the region’s housing that was over-crowded or lacked a kitchen or indoor plumbing.

“We had no idea that the problem was as big as it was,” said Sarah Grymes, Dogwood’s vice president of impact for housing.

Credit Dogwood Health Trust
Sarah Grymes

Same Old Story

But while the latest study by Bowen National Research reveals the breadth and depth of the problem in the 18-county region, the messages could not have come as a surprise. Bowen also conducted a housing needs assessment for Buncombe, Henderson, Transylvania, and Madison counties in 2019, with similarly dire conclusions.

The 2019 Bowen report was used to create the city’s “Consolidated Strategic Housing & Community Development Plan 2020-2024,” which stated: “The City of Asheville and the Asheville Regional Housing Consortium have, for the past fifteen years, prioritized meeting affordable housing needs in the region, ending chronic homelessness, improving employment opportunities for low-wealth households and businesses, and providing public facilities in support of access to affordable housing and employment.”

In fact, Bowen has been doing housing assessments for years in the area, with much the same message. After a 2015 study commissioned by the Asheville Community and Economic Development Department, Patrick Bowen, the consultancy’s principal officer, was asked: In his decades of experience as a housing consultant, spanning hundreds of reviews for other cities, could he recall any comparable examples to Asheville’s predicament of extremely low apartment availability and high population growth?

“I have not seen this before,” Bowen said.

In 2015, Jeff Staudinger, then the assistant director of the Community and Economic Development Department, told Mountain Xpress that the bleak Bowen study delivered to the city that year would help “predict the affordable housing needs of the next five years so our leaders are informed, and to establish measurable goals so our performance over the next five years can be evaluated.”

More than six years later, the newest Bowen report once again defines the four major challenges facing Asheville and Western North Carolina: insufficient affordable rental housing causing pent up demand; “greatly diminished’ supply of for-sale affordable housing; the rapidly expanding need for senior housing options; and the need to address substandard housing.

1BR, 1BA Apartment: $1,436

The new Bowen-Dogwood study found that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in western North Carolina is $1,069 a month, meaning a household would need an income of at least $40,000 a year to afford rent, utilities, and related expenses without being overburdened — a threshold almost 60 percent of the regional renter households cannot afford. (The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Asheville is significantly more expensive, $1,436 a month, according to apartments.com, pushing income requirements higher still.)

And that assumes a would-be renter could find an available apartment. The Bowen study found that the vacancy rate for rentals in western North Carolina is “extremely low,” at just 0.2 percent.

Would-be home buyers are also squeezed for availability — just 0.9 percent for the region, compared to 2 percent to 3 percent in what is considered a healthy market — and costs are skyrocketing as demand grows and supply shrinks. Buncombe’s median listing price for a home earlier this year was $544,508 — meaning half of all homes were listed for more, half for less — and the average list price was $887,504.

Credit Bowen National Research

Even as housing costs continue their upward trajectory, the expected growth in median household income in Buncombe County will be “well below” the average for the region by 2025, the study found.

“Housing [cost] is outpacing income growth,” said Patrick Bowen of Bowen Research. “The working poor would have to work excessive hours to afford housing.” 

Same Older Story

Meanwhile, households in western North Carolina are getting older, which “will impact the type of housing needed in the future,” Patrick Bowen told the Dogwood Trust, citing a greater need for smaller units and supportive housing.

More than half (54.4 percent) of the households in the 18-county region in 2020 were headed by persons aged 55 and older, the Bowen-Dogwood study found.

By 2025, the fastest-growing segment of the housing market in western North Carolina will be in households headed by people 75 years of age or older, and the second fastest-growing segment will be in households headed by people 65 to 74 years old, according to the study.

Credit Bowen National Research

But the age group 25 to 34 is expected to decline 6.8 percent by 2025, possibly because of the difficulty of finding affordable housing, the study found. Statewide, the 25-to-34 age group is expected to grow 2 percent in the next three years.

More than 9 of 10 (92.3 percent) regional employers told the Bowen researchers that high housing prices and low availability have hurt their ability to attract new employees. Nearly 70 percent of the employers said housing problems in the region are making it more difficult to keep existing employees.

Vouchers Go Unused

In an interview with Asheville Watchdog, Patrick Bowen underlined the unwillingness of landlords to accept Housing Choice Vouchers as a significant area of concern. Vouchers, issued by local housing authorities as part of government assistance to very low-income residents, enable households to rent private-sector housing and pay only 30 percent of their adjusted gross income toward rent. Yet, more than a third of the vouchers issued in the region go unused either because of a lack of available housing or because of landlords’ unwillingness to accept vouchers.

In Madison County, 65 percent of vouchers go unused, followed by 59 percent in Transylvania County, and 50 percent in McDowell, Polk and Rutherford counties. In Buncombe, 33 percent go unused, the study found.

Bowen suggested that Dogwood explore how state and local officials might enact legislation to require landlords to accept vouchers.

The Dogwood Health Trust, created with assets from the sale of the nonprofit Mission Health System to for-profit HCA Healthcare in 2019, projects that it will spend $30 million to support affordable housing in western North Carolina in 2021. Dogwood’s assets have now grown to about $2 billion, the trust reported.

What Asheville Is Doing

In response to Asheville Watchdog questions, Beth Bechel, an Asheville City spokeswoman, sent the following statement this week saying that while the Asheville city budget does not have a line item for affordable housing, it is a priority for the city, which invests in it several ways.

Bechel said, “The most direct contributions are an annual $500,000 allocation to the City’s Housing Trust Fund and $225,000 budgeted to support Land Use Incentive Grant (LUIG) and development fee rebate programs for affordable housing projects. Work on the 2016 General Obligation (GO) Bond program that included $25 million for affordable housing is ongoing.

“The city also has federally funded programs including $1.2 million Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and $1.3 million HOME Investment Partnerships Program (HOME) that support some affordable housing projects and goals, among other priorities.

“The city has eight staff members that work in the Community Development Division that is primarily responsible for managing these programs (and others). Staff from other departments (e.g., Finance and City Attorney’s Office) also provide support for the City’s affordable housing efforts.

“In some instances, the programs mentioned above overlap with homelessness support services. Other city and federal funding has been used to provide sheltering and other housing support for people experiencing homelessness in Asheville. 

“Substantial additional funding has also been provided through recent federal legislation to support affordable housing, including an additional $4.7 million in HOME funds for Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties.”

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Barbara Durr is a former correspondent for The Financial Times of London. Contact her at bdurr@avlwatchdog.org.

AVL Watchdog publisher Bob Gremillion is a member of the search committee that will choose Blue Ridge Public Radio's next General Manager and CEO.

Dogwood Health Trust is a business sponsor of Blue Ridge Public Radio.