Asheville City Council approved awarding Haywood Street Community Development (HSCD) $225,000 for a second phase of due diligence. This was on top of the $71,000 previously approved. The second phase would support, “surveying, environmental site assessments, Geotech analysis, title examination, and civil and architectural site planning, and any other investigations of the site as may be necessary or desirable.”
HSCD had been trying for eight years to find a site to construct new housing affordable to persons earning no more than 30% of Area Median Income (AMI). Due diligence for the last attempt supported HSCD’s proposal for construction of multifamily housing on Asheland Avenue, but objections from neighbors nixed the project.
The latest proposal would construct 42 units at 343 and 357 West Haywood Street. The apartments would be deed-restricted to, in perpetuity, offer rents affordable to households earning no more than 80% of AMI, “with a goal to have up to half” of the units rented to persons earning no more than 30%. HSCD was partnering with Ward Griffin of Grace Construction and Austin Tyler of Dewey Property Advisors.
No mention of project costs beyond due diligence was made in the staff report, but Councilwoman Gwen Wisler had asked around before the meeting and gotten an estimate of $8.3 million. She also found out there was an expectation that the city, Buncombe County government, and the Dogwood Health Trust would contribute $2 million each.
Wisler inferred if the city were to approve paying for the due diligence, it would implicitly be consenting to pay its share. The other parties, however, had provided nothing in writing to back their alleged commitment, something Wisler thought should be provided before the city commited. HSCD had only applied to the county for federal COVID relief, and it presumably had a verbal agreement with Dogwood. Furthermore, despite Pastor Brian Combs’ assurances, and his insistence that the other parties were waiting for the city to act first; Wisler remained skeptical that the Haywood Street Congregation, the ministry affiliated with the development group, would make up the difference.
The city’s contribution would be made from its affordable housing bond revenues, and Wisler asked if the city would reimburse the bond fund from its general fund “if the project falls through.” City Attorney Brad Branham replied that no reimbursement would be required; due diligence, which “does not always result in construction, was part of the process of increasing the city’s supply of affordable housing and thus an allowable expenditure.
Community Development Director Paul D’Angelo added that the city had heard on its “regional tour,” which it conducted to find out how it could help developers build affordable housing, that they wanted the city to have completed the due-diligence process and have the sites pad-ready. This, D’Angelo said, had been incorporated into municipal policies.
After Wisler asked what kind of due diligence the city had done as a steward of taxpayer dollars and if there were any precedents supporting the expenditure of so much against such great odds, Interim Director of Community and Economic Development Nikki Reid replied, “I do think it’s a valid point that these are at-risk because we realize as we look at development projects, there are some developments that do come to fruition and some that don’t. There’s still quite a ways to go, but this is certainly the landscape that we find ourselves with funding affordable housing.
“I think with Haywood Street, the fact that we are seeing this group want to pursue a permanent and deeply affordable housing project there really brings this proposal to a new opportunity for funding. So, basically, we look at extending risk to groups that are willing to stretch to meet council’s goals. In this case, Haywood Street has aligned itself with council goals on how to produce those. It’s getting harder – right? – to really find the opportunity to make these deals work for deeply affordable, permanent housing, which is why you’re seeing that reflected in the level of risk that staff is proposing here.”
During public comment, a handful of neighbors described as representing a small, white contingency objected to having too many new, large, multifamily affordable housing projects built in their neighborhood. They complained about traffic, even though the new neighbors were expected to walk and use transit; but more importantly, they had an issue with increasing crime and drug use. And, they faulted Combs’ existing no-barrier ministry for attracting and enabling unhealthy, unsafe, and illicit behaviors around their homes.
Given a chance to answer some questions, Combs explained this was not going to be another ministry or another hotel conversion. It was not an expansion of the eight-bed facility the church has run, for seven years without incident, for homeless persons discharged from the hospital. Rather, it would be housing for working people, abused women, or persons with disabilities. The premises would be secure, with bounds to be set by a neighborhood council, with guidance from the people that run Givens Gerber Park. The congregation and the corporation are separate legal entities, even though they share a lot of constituents.
Wisler was the only member of council to vote against the measure. Councilwoman Sheneika Smith acknowledged asking the city to go first was, “the same, sad love song.” Even so, council was going to be criticized no matter what they did, so she encouraged her peers, “Let’s go on and do it, whether we sink or swim.”