Asheville – Leadership Asheville Forum held Part II on Housing in Western North Carolina: Engaging to Make a Difference. It was held on Wednesday, April 6 at UNCA’s Reuter Center in the Manheimer Room. This followed an introductory program on March 23 with four speakers on the same subject. The topics covered in the second of this two-part series were comprehensive. After listening to the speakers, Matt Allen, Professional Development Leader for the Land of the Sky Association of Realtors; Jim Lowder, Strategic Gifts Officer at Homeward Bound; and Todd Okolichany, Planning Director for the City of Asheville, the audience broke up into groups with facilitators to discuss the subject. Approximately 60 people attended the forum, allowing for approximately seven break-out groups.
The facilitators then turned in a report on what was said in the group, which will be brought together in a comprehensive published White Pages Report for all to see. The added experts to facilitate the small group discussions are Scott Adams of Land of Sky Regional Council; Barry Bialik, Founder and CEO of Compact Cottages, Inc., and Thirsty Monk Brewery; and Robert Hoke, Real Estate Agent with BlueBlaze Real Estate Group, Sarah Grymes, VP at Dogwood Health Trust and Derek Allen, Partner at Allen, Stahl & Kilbourne.
In this two-part series, LAF intended to inform the audience on the interconnected issues of housing; to listen, learn and distill from collective knowledge; to identify bold actions to address the challenges, and to become individually and collectively engaged on “getting housing right.” The two-part series covered a number of topics: housing cost, supply, mix (rental vs. owned, single-family vs. dense), zoning for housing, the challenges developers face, redlining and its continuing impact and affordable housing.
The need for more knowledge concerning the future of housing in the area brought many civic leaders to this gathering. In evidence were Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, City Manager Debra Campbell, as well as NC Rep Caleb Rudow. A number of candidates for office joined the Forum, as well as representatives from Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, Pisgah Legal Services, Homeward Bound, Thrive Asheville and the Asheville Buncombe Community Land Trust.
As Leadership Asheville President Nancy Waldrop said, “Fixing systemic problems with housing that have arisen over many decades will not be easy, and we’re not alone in facing these challenges. LAF is excited to host this Forum series, delighted with the expert speakers and facilitators we have identified, and looking forward to learning from each other and identifying ways to address the complex and interconnected issues we face.”
“Upon the conclusion of this two-part series, LAF will work with our housing experts to write and share a white paper that summarizes what we learned. It will include an executive summary of the series, recommendations on how to address the challenges of Housing in WNC authored by our experts, participant takeaways, and ways individuals and speakers plan to engage and make a difference.
They will share the finished paper on our website, Facebook page, on their @LeadersAVLForum Twitter feed, and also invite media and organizations to share it so our recommendations and learnings can be made available and amplified in the community.”
The program started with Tim Collins, LAF Board Member, putting forth Mentimeter slides after asking the audience pertinent questions. This innovative technological method of gathering information provides a wonderful visual to see how the audiences is reacting to the questions asked. Word Clouds or pie charts are created on the video screen after questions were asked, with the audience giving their answers on their smart phone. These are then reflected onto the screen, which change as the answers come in. Examples of two questions asked can be seen in the photographs on this pages.
The first speaker was Matt Allen, Professional Development Leader for the Land of the Sky Association of Realtors. He presented a number of statistics relating to the price of real estate in Asheville as compared to other parts of North Carolina and the USA. There is no doubt the increase in housing prices has grown significantly higher in this area than elsewhere: 60% higher in Asheville, 51% higher than the average in the USA and 38% higher for overall North Carolina. Then there is less availability in inventory than a year ago, perhaps only a little more than a month’s worth of inventory for real estate. Supply is very low. Rentals for a two bedroom are almost double the average. He quoted that the average cost of rent in North Carolina is $931 per month and in Asheville, $1771. In addition, material costs and labor are increasing daily. A question he asked was, “Can we fix this?—How?”
Todd Okolichany, Planning Director for the City of Asheville, then spoke. He too added more statistics and information needed to understanding the growth trends. He quoted the number of employees in the Asheville area as 77,500, with 58,600 commuting and 18,900 living and working in Asheville, while 15,600 leave Asheville to work elsewhere. In addition, as a city, we have an extraordinarily high number of tourists who visit annually, probably close to 11 million. He spoke about how the Asheville City Council adopted a new comprehensive plan in June 2018. The new plan, called Living Asheville: A Comprehensive Plan for Our Future, includes goals and strategies to help the city achieve its long term aspirations and will be used. He spoke about the need to rezone areas of the urban centers, add growth strategies and the need to reduce open space, yet preserve tree canopies. The City must encourage, i.e. give incentives, so that more people do not need to commute, but can either walk or bike to work.
Jim Lowder, Strategic Gifts Officer at Homeward Bound, addressed the homeless issues in Asheville. He said that more than 500 people are homeless on any given night in Buncombe County—living in their cars, on the streets or some, in shelters. During the pandemic, the situation has worsened considerably. So many are contributing such a high percentage of their income just to housing, some 50%-some 33% of their income. Lowder absolutely feels that the homeless problem is a solvable problem in Buncombe County, but the cost of housing is the critical issue. It must be affordable. A home is a safe place, nurturing, healing and allows for self expressing, where someone has time to themselves. He disputed that so many people chose to be homeless, as it is a traumatic experience and everyone needs a home. He spoke of the Homeward Bound’s in-progress planned Days Inn project on Tunnel Road, which will have a medical clinic, daily staff, 24 hours a day, a computer room and will have permanent housing.
After the speakers, the audience then broke up into small groups to discuss their thoughts with a facilitator keeping track of the answers and watching the clock. Three tasks were assigned to the groups: recommendations to address the challenges of #Housing in WNC; takeways (learnings) shared by each participant; and ways you will or could “engage to make a difference” on the critical issue of Housing in WNC. The overall views will be finalized in the White Papers to be shared on Leadership Asheville Forum’s website, in the media, as well as other social media outlets.