Asheville – Asheville City Council settled on six strategic priorities for FY 2022-2023. Making the final cut were: Improve/Expand Core Services, Houselessness Strategies, Equitable and Affordable Housing and Stability, Neighborhood Resilience, Reimagining Public Safety, and Reparations. While members of the general public may struggle with what council wants done with these verbless “priority areas,” council struggled with what the definition of “strategic priorities” should be.
Council started with last year’s list, which read: Reparations, Employee Compensation Study, Reimagining Public Safety, and Utilization of ARPA Funding. Councilwoman Sage Turner suggested that once items were operationalized or launched, they should be taken off the list, and Councilwoman Sheneika Smith added that items with measurable outcomes should be removed. Turner argued that a public-facing document should accompany the list of priorities, explaining that council had not abandoned initiatives that didn’t make the cut,.
As a warmup exercise, moderator Rebekah Lowe asked the councilwomen to participate in the routine visioneering exercise of “dreaming big,” as if one had, “all the money in the world.” In that context, councilmembers were asked to anonymously share three municipal goals. The plurality of goals dealt with affordable housing. Some wanted it for all persons earning 60% of AMI; others, 40% AMI. One person wanted to provide free housing for a year, one only asked for a year without property taxes, and another wished for everyone to be safely housed as a human right.
One wanted climate-resilient neighborhoods without food insecurity because of strong community gardens; another, free food for everyone for a year. There were also requests for fully-funded transit and carbon-neutrality with zero waste. Anonymity was lost when the facilitator asked for explanations. This happened when, to applause, Councilwoman Antanette Mosley explained the baby bonds she wanted were annual $1,000 contributions from government to an interest-bearing account for each black child, from birth to age 18. Mayor Esther Manheimer was unmasked when she had to explain that making North Carolina a home-rule state was not a housing program. At least one person wanted council to “stay in its lane,” filling staff vacancies and fully funding core services and capital needs.
After that exercise, having previously whittled last year’s list down to Reimagining and Reparations, Lowe said the dream was over and divided council into groups to come up with suggestions for additional priority areas. Since the city can’t afford to build new homes for everybody that needs one, Mosley and Sandra Kilgore wanted to address the housing crisis through a fund for emergency home repairs. They recommended helping the most vulnerable under a category of Equitable Affordable Housing, and Smith offered that the city could determine who’s eligible by creating a vulnerability index that considers race, class, and other concerns. Their second recommendation, since the city was already essentially taking care of their first recommendation by funding groups like Habitat for Humanity and Mountain Housing Opportunities, was to just leave the list as-is, with two priorities.
The group of Turner, Smith, and Kim Roney, rather than presenting staff with a broad category for fleshing out, made their first priority Affordable Housing, to include increasing homeownership; targeting appropriate income groups; reviewing existing policies; promoting purpose-built communities; supporting condominium, townhome, and apartment development; building apartments as reparations on the former site of Matthews Ford; addressing the missing middle; allowing more accessory dwelling units; establishing a community benefits table for developers of apartments; conducting more corridor studies; and measuring equitable outcomes of existing programs. Their second priority was Neighborhood Resilience Development, which subsumed capacity, a city community/faith community resource mapping and facilities study, emergency response, neighborhood grants, participatory budgeting, resilience hubs, climate justice, an urban forest master plan, and food security and systems. When Turner finished rattling off the list, Roney said waste management should have been included.
The third group, Manheimer and Gwen Wisler, stuck to the rules and recommended adding as priorities Reducing Homelessness and Improving and Expanding Core Services. Turner asked if cleaning litter would fall under the second category and was told it would. Roney asked if her peers would consider folding Core Services under the umbrella of Reimagining Public Safety, and she was told no. Manheimer further rejected a request to merge Affordable Housing with Reducing Homelessness. She said the latter is a multifaceted problem, and what she’s been finding as she explores how other cities are managing it is, “We have a lot of room for improvement.” She thought, “Too much would get lost in the wash,” with a categorical merger.
Manheimer wanted to unpack Neighborhood Resilience and the list of neo-progressive terms under it with questions like, “What does that mean?” Roney answered with a litany of catchwords, saying her group had been intentionally vague to give staff latitude. Smith, however, explained churches had been left out of community resource mappings in the past. She wanted government to position them for emergency response. Resilience hubs, she continued, prepared community organizations for disaster response. Roney said this tied in with climate justice, and she and Kilgore saw another opportunity for dissolving or subordinating the Core Services category. Turner asked if filling municipal vacancies could go under Core Services and was told yes.
[COMMENT: Traditionally, churches have been allowed to peacefully coexist with government, independently, as vehicles for connecting believers with a higher, spiritual realm. Parishioners serve through love, not compulsion; and they’re guided by revelation, not government. Government traditionally tended to core services like public safety, sanitation, and infrastructure. This discussion led one to believe elected officials wanted churches to cover core city services while they, the councilwomen, become the, albeit secular, healers.]