Asheville Pushing Volunteers of America to Limits - TribPapers

Asheville Pushing Volunteers of America to Limits

Councilwoman Kim Roney, who is running for mayor, would like to change the city's policies for subsidizing affordable housing so new developments would have to include active solar features, provide bike lanes, and accept more housing vouchers. Screenshot.

Asheville – Buncombe County Chair Brownie Newman was asked to speak before the Asheville City Council about the bond referenda that are on the current election’s ballot. Newman said they address “two of the big challenges that face the community.” One was preserving environmental health, natural beauty, and working family farms. The other was determining whether “regular” people would be able to continue to live in the county.

If passed, the $30 million requested for conservation easement bonds would help the commissioners reach their goal of conserving another 6,000 acres by 2030. Already, 18% of the land in the county is conserved. The county intends to prioritize working family farms in selecting which lands will benefit from the extinguishing of property rights purchased with the bond proceeds.

If the $40 million bond requested for affordable housing bonds passed, it would help the commissioners reach targets of 1,850 new rental units affordable to households earning less than 80% of area mean income (AMI), 400 mortgages for households earning less than 80% of AMI, and 500 repair projects benefiting mostly senior citizens and people with disabilities.

Councilwoman Kim Roney reminded the commissioners about Urban3’s claims that the county’s revaluations were spiking values in “historically black and legacy neighborhoods” and cutting outrageous deals for McMansions. She also asked for elaboration on whether or not the county was going to tax short-term rentals as commercial properties.

Newman said these issues were not directly related to the bond referendum, but he spoke to them anyway, out of shared concern. He told Roney of the findings and recommendations of the ad-hoc committee the county had formed, as well as ideas contributed to the process by other community members along the way. He also thanked the city for collaborating with the county on a tax abatement program to undo some of the inequities. “We think there’s a lot of opportunity,” he said.

Councilwoman Gwen Wisler asked if the county might follow the city’s lead in disallowing whole-house short-term rentals. Putting things in context, Councilwoman Sage Turner shared that there were an estimated 4,000 short-term rentals in the county. She compared this to the 2,750 units the county was trying to create or preserve with bond revenues.

Newman was again sympathetic. “The proliferation [of short-term rentals] has been incredible in the last couple of years,” he said. This was not going to be addressed through the bond referendum, though. He said recent court rulings were tying the county’s hands. On the bright side, however, he had attended a School of Government webinar last week, which left him encouraged about the wealth of strategies for working around those rulings with land use policies. An example of how the county was subsidizing housing appeared later on the agenda. Volunteers of America (VOA) was going to expand and refurbish the Laurel Wood apartment complex on Caribou Road. The county was going to provide an $800,000 loan at 2% with payments deferred for 20 years. Being voted on that evening, of course, was the City of Asheville’s contribution, which was a $1,500,000 loan at 2% with payments deferred for 30 years. Other sources of funding included an $8,370,000 mortgage that hadn’t quite been solidified, Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) proceeds valued at $8,857,282, a seller note of $2,610,000, and a deferral of 40% of developer fees, or $563,159. What was described as “good leverage of city dollars” would also repay the city $2,717,042 if and when the loan matured.

In return, the developer would construct 54 new units and refurbish 51 existing units. All would be affordable to people earning no more than 80% of AMI, and the existing units have a contract with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that allows them to charge tenants only 30% of their reported income. What’s more, the apartments would rent only to people over 55 years old, the LIHTC program having a lower limit for age discrimination than HUD’s 62. Rents would be controlled “for the useful life of the building.”

The “issue” with the project was that it was requesting more from the city’s Housing Trust Fund (HTF) than the cap. Turner said all solicitations for HTF funds exceeded the limit, suggesting a need for policy review. The developer, however, argued they first intended to ask for only half as much, but since they met with the neighbors, and the neighbors said they wanted the building moved away from the road, they’re having to build retaining walls. VOA further committed to renting at least 12 units to people holding vouchers, but this wasn’t good enough for Roney. “There are so many people in our community that need access to these,” she protested. Not providing vouchers for more units was “exclusive.” City staff explained that accepting vouchers for the other units was not prohibited, but Roney wanted a commitment for a higher minimum.At that, Turner asked if anybody had even found out if there were that many senior citizens holding vouchers.

Councilwoman Antanette Mosley added she had a hard time asking somebody that was going to construct 100 units of affordable housing to provide vouchers as well. Such requirements, she noted, were not even imposed on for-profit developers, even though she would welcome a policy shift to change that. Asked for more vouchers point-blank by Roney, VOA’s representative explained that doing so would not “make the financing work.” This was an expensive project as-is. From that, Roney concluded the city’s policy was in need of review.

Roney also observed that there were no bike lanes for ingress and egress. She said that not only were electric vehicles a trend, but they were being used more and more by people with disabilities. Also, true to her commitment to do so, she asked if VOA would be using photovoltaics on the property. Roney said they needed to think more about the long term. “What if there’s a storm?” she asked. She said doing so would also reduce energy costs, and “preserve the depth of affordability for the long haul.”

VOA would not install solar panels, but they were using passive solar architectural strategies to a degree and were working with Duke Energy on more feasible measures for reducing their consumption of electricity. To this, Roney replied, “I appreciate that. So, we have a stated climate emergency here in Asheville and Buncombe County, and there’s no way we can meet those goals by ourselves, and so I think about — not just for the neighbors who live here, but for our whole community to have a hopeful future, we all have to do what we can. So, that’s why I’m asking every housing developer, in addition to the points around neighborhood resiliency. The council’s support, of course, was unanimous.