Asheville – Citizens speaking during public comment at the last Asheville City Council meeting complained about a bait-and-switch. They said council ignored its commitments to transparency. They had sold members of the public a low-barrier shelter as an adaptive reuse for the Ramada Inn, and now they were telling them the building was going to be converted into supportive housing.
This came on the heels of the clearing of a large encampment adjacent to Haywood Street Congregation and highly visible from I-240. The bulldozing of tents and trashing of belongings of the residents did not go over well with activists positioned as the voice of the voiceless. The campers had been receiving support from Haywood Street Congregation, and the city was tolerating their existence until a body was found in one of the tents, escalating complaints about trash heaps, open fires, and violence.
On the other side of town, a non-congregate shelter had been set up at the Ramada Inn for persons who had lost their residences during the COVID shutdown, many of whom came from encampments the city had cleared. The city had contracted with Sunrise Community for Recovery & Wellness to connect persons housed at the Ramada with government services and help them get jobs.
Neighbors, however, complained to both city council and the Buncombe County Commissioners that the shelter was attracting unsavory elements that were vandalizing property, stealing, littering needles and foils from drug abuse in residential and commercial spaces, badgering employees and customers of local businesses, and engaging in X-rated behaviors in plain sight. They attributed the current crime wave, including headline-grabbers like murder and drug busts, if not to the Ramada’s residents, to people who were coming to visit them. So, when the city announced their intentions to convert the Ramada to a low-barrier shelter, neighbors had more than enough.
Project funders, also, were not happy about projected costs, which were estimated at $24.75 million for property acquisition and rehabilitation and operation in the first year. Recurring annual operational costs were estimated to be about $2.3-$3.0 million.
Meanwhile, the city had been under contract to purchase the Ramada, and the contract to purchase was set to expire the very next day. Fortuitously, however, other staff members had been researching best practices in other communities, and they thought the Ramada would be a nice place for permanent supportive housing.
So, staff recommended launching a consultant-led planning process to locate a low-barrier shelter elsewhere. The city would then give Sunrise until March 31 to wind down operations at the Ramada and place all 80 residents in alternative housing. This would cost $556,000. Lastly, the city would hand off the contract to Shangri-La Industries, a Los Angeles for-profit that would serve as designer, developer, and general contractor using no public subsidies. Shangri-La further agreed with the city to rent-control the units for 50 years, make sure an adjacent vacant lot is used for residential purposes, and pick up the tab for $104,500 in closing costs.
Rents would be paid by federal housing vouchers, and Step Up on Second Street, also from the Los Angeles area, would provide the supportive services at an annual cost to the city of about $500,000. Step Up was requesting $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds up front, to give it three years to diversify its funding sources. Economic and Community Developer Nikki Reid said Shangri-La and Step Up both had proven track records.
Tod Lipka of Step Up responded to suggestions from members of city council, showing he’d thought more deeply about the issues long ago. On equity and access, he said typically providers wait for individuals to come to them, so selection is biased toward those able to navigate bureaucratic boundaries; his people go into the forests and alleys to find the homeless to reach the hard-to-serve. For deciding who gets into the shelter, the city can set its own criteria, but it must also comply with existing laws like the federal Fair Housing Act.
Also, creating supportive housing typically takes about five years, so some of the neediest die before the buildings are complete. Shangri-La and Step Up’s disruptive business model, which involves the repurposing of motels, saves time because motels come with residential quarters, meeting space, and offices. The converted Ramada should be operating by late 2022.
Some members of council did not want to spend ARPA funds on the project. Suggestions included waiting for opioid settlement funds, which are expected sometime in the near future and likely to be sufficient; fund balance, which bond raters would frown upon; federal Community Development Block Grants, which could not be earmarked due to a rigorous process; bond funds, which could only be used for capital projects; Affordable Housing Trust Fund dollars; or dollars wrung from the general fund.
To that, Lipka said he requested a solid, three-year commitment because most of the people his organization serves are disabled and have been on the streets a long time. They won’t suddenly do better once they get into supportive housing. The last thing his organization wants to do is abandon clientele because funding runs out.
Lipka also said Step Up will not operate an emergency shelter unless it is what is known as a bridge shelter, which prepares people for entry into permanent supportive housing. To shelter anybody not “on their way to housing” would be very expensive. “It is not a solution,” said Lipka, but “a recipe for disaster.”