Asheville – The City of Asheville continues to wrestle with defining “reparations” and considering what form they will take. In recent conversations, council members have made it clear there will never be enough money to make BIPOC (“Black, Indigenous, and People of Color”) whole for evils perpetrated in US history. Secondly, actions described as compensating BIPOC – beyond redoing the city’s statuary, hiring in the spirit of affirmative action and making extra efforts to include low-income communities in government decisions – include assigning government tasks for which families traditionally held responsibility, such as providing food, shelter, healthcare, childcare, emotional support, etc.
The latest example of the council, “advancing racial and socioeconomic equity within our community through expanding housing and transit options,” is the decision to purchase a $2.5 million parcel of land. Located next to the transit station downtown, behind Bella’s Jewelry, the Talbert Lot has been used for surface parking for about half a century. Asheville Interim Community & Economic Development Director Nikki Reid reported the city had almost completed its due diligence, which is expected to cost $75,000. Geotechnically, preparing the land to support a multistory structure will require soil enrichment, but the cost is not expected to exceed $500,000; the historic resource assessment is still underway.
A large part of reparations involves real estate policies developed by the city and complicated by federal regulations. For example, last year, the city sold the old, brick maintenance building on South Charlotte Street to the San Diego yeast and brewing company White Labs. Because part of the land, which sold for about $3.7 million, was “associated with” urban renewal, the federal government required $1.6 million from the proceeds to go toward capital investments for which the city would otherwise seek Community Development Block Grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and be spent by May 1.
So, the fastest place the city could find to spend the cash during the pandemic shutdown was land next to Deaverview Apartments. Now, the city, in partnership with the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, is designing a Purpose Built Community for Deaverview. Purpose Built Communities is a nonprofit founded by philanthropists Tom Cousins, Warren Buffett and Julian Robertson in Atlanta. The concept is based on Hillary Clinton’s “it takes a village,” and Barrack Obama’s “Life of Julia,” nurturing children holistically from cradle to college. Led by a nonprofit described as a “community quarterback,” Purpose Built Communities provide “safe, high-quality,” mixed-income housing in a defined neighborhood with “high-quality, neighborhood-serving” educational support beginning at birth; and a rich supply of “facilities, programs, and services.”
As early as 2009, the property next to the transit station has been considered an “opportunity” for purchase, but only more recently has the owner become amenable. Staff had intended to use 2016 general-obligation, affordable-housing bond revenues for the Deaverview project, but the CDBG dedication from the White Labs sale, with its immediate deadline, funded the purchase instead. That left the bond revenues the city had intended to spend on Deaverview available for this purchase. Reid spoke of funds coming from a land banking pot of $3 million, but Councilwoman Gwen Wisler’s recollection was more in line with documents available online. Of $25 million in affordable housing bond revenues, $15 million was, at least at some stage, to be dedicated to land banking, and $3 million to the formation, in partnership with Buncombe County, of a community land trust for affordable housing.
Rationales for the purchase include the fact that it would provide the least expensive option currently available for expanding the city’s transit station. Secondly, the land was formerly part of a redlined district or an area in which the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation refused to lend on the basis of race. So, the city intends to, at least metaphorically, give these lands back to the black community. Most significantly, though, the Dogwood Health Trust has offered to pay half the purchase price. Dogwood found the project aligned with its mission because it reclaimed lands once redlined; it would be used to create quality affordable housing; and, thus, it would provide, “equitable access to social services, medical centers, grocery stores, and job centers through improved public transit service.” The development is also expected to provide “black-owned business space.”
Because the matter was advertised as “Unfinished Business” and not a “Public Hearing,” the council was able to take an immediate vote, which was unanimous. Councilwoman Sage Turner liked the project because, she said, “We have to get people out of cars. We have to build more housing.” Councilwoman Kim Roney hoped to create some form of intentional development in the space through regional partnerships that might, for example, make the location attractive as a station for Greyhound or Megabus. Mayor Esther Manheimer was recused.
In Other Matters –
By way of the consent agenda, the council agreed to accept $1.1 million back into its Affordable Housing Trust Fund (ATF). Last September, Juna Group was awarded the funds to assist with the construction of 11 affordable, for-sale housing units in Oakley. Now, citing escalating lumber and labor costs, the developers said they would be unable to complete the project and sell the units below market rates. The developer was experiencing so much difficulty meeting the HTF terms, the deal, in fact, was never finalized. So, the developer requested the rescission.