Is This How We Build a Free Society? - TribPapers

Is This How We Build a Free Society?

This chart shows utilization rates for various categories of disaster relief for Tropical Storm Fred. Slide from agenda presentation.

Asheville – The theme of the September 20 meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners could have been that traditional meanings of property rights are flying out the window. Quotes about the inseparability of property rights and liberty have been around since liberty was in vogue in the Age of Enlightenment. In the old days, liberty was good for the spirit because it required the kind of effort that builds character. Secondary was the observation that economic prosperity has, year after year, been determined to be higher in countries where everybody was expected to strive, rather than in those wherein the bulk of humanity “switched off” and let the few in power be the planners and providers. Borrowing terms from doomsday extremists, the nation of rugged individuals is now a nanny welfare state.

In former days, it was the custom for somebody in their early twenties to have had enough promotions and pay raises to afford to get married and move into an apartment or starter home. As time progressed and their income rose, the couple would move into larger houses in better neighborhoods to accommodate their growing family. The housing ladder was part of the American Dream, but more recently, in the days of instant gratification, the ladder has been replaced by an elevator, with the government playing no small part in persuading lower-income people to get involved with mortgages for which, in former days, they would still have been considered unqualified.

In one presentation, the commissioners heard from “folks” from the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management. Director of Disaster Recovery Rich Trumper began saying last November, $44 million was allocated to 11 counties in Western North Carolina for disaster relief for the damages caused by Tropical Storm Fred. Funds were made available to individuals submitting qualified applications for repairs to homes, roads, and bridges. The funds could also support temporary housing arrangements.

Even though private efforts tend to mobilize faster, the government has long been viewed as an acceptable, humane, natural monopoly for disaster relief.At issue here was that, over a year after Fred hit, the state has only been able to find takers for 49% of the funds it set aside. Now that the ravages of the storm appear cleaned up, healed over, and out of sight and out of mind to the point where their professional efforts are failing to find willing recipients, Trumper and Senior Project Manager Dana Phillips were campaigning, asking members of the public to spread the word that funds were still available. “Winter’s coming,” they said, even though it would be the second winter since.

Phillips reported that, since commencing in January, the operation has received 710 applications, of which 619 were deemed eligible. Buncombe County accounted for 35 road, bridge, and 11 housing projects, most of which are now completed, directly benefiting 201 households. Applications declared ineligible included duplicated requests for bridge repair; requests for bank restoration or river cleanup; and requests for fixing non-residential structures like farm buildings. The presenters encouraged anybody who did not feel safe in their house, knew of somebody who might not feel safe in their house, didn’t realize the funds were for more than water damage, or previously declined assistance because they did not think there would be enough to help needier people, to visit, email, or call 844-935-1744.

Following the presentation, Chair Brownie Newman took a moment to reflect on the eventful night when the commissioners’ meeting was canceled. The storm didn’t have much impact downtown, but Buncombe County suffered enough damage to merit both state and federal relief dollars.

Elsewhere on the agenda, Nancy Williams, who works for the county’s Community Development Division, asked the commissioners’ permission to proceed with pursuing Community Development Block Grant – Neighborhood Revitalization (CDBG-NR) funding in the amount of $400,000, which includes the standard 10% for overhead. The grants come by way of the federal government, through the state. Their purpose is to benefit low- or moderate-income people and fight blight. Allowable expenditures include “community revitalization, housing rehabilitation or replacement, public facilities, infrastructure for housing development, and water and sewer connections to existing housing.” Applications may be submitted for grants of up to $950,000.

Expenditures will be guided by a Citizen Action Plan, which has already been completed and approved. Disbursements may go toward repairs big or small, but no more than $30,000 may be applied to a single home. Selection criteria were also controlled by guidelines from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). For example, funds were only available to non-entitlement areas, with the City of Asheville being an Entitlement Area and thus eligible for other HUD programs. Also, long a sticking point in Western North Carolina, the funds cannot help some of the poorest of the poor because they may not be applied to mobile homes unless they’re on permanent foundations.

After the matter was raised during public comment, Community Development Division Manager Matt Cable was invited to the dais to speak about the county’s Affordable Housing Services Program, which does support repairs valued at up to $15,000 for mobile homes as well as other dwellings. Asked by Commissioner Terri Wells how people can access this program, Cable said the county’s allocation was decided as part of the budget process each year, and this year the funds went toward Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity and Mountain Housing Opportunities. People seeking funding should contact either agency, but, Cable cautioned, those agencies are also supported by “other funds that have other kinds of restrictions.”

Lastly, the commissioners celebrated more surrenders of development rights. Ariel Zijp, the county’s farmland preservation manager, announced the county received $1.1 million from the state’s Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund and $224,000 from the federal Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. As Zijp explained, “Grant funding makes it possible to compensate farmers and landowners who can’t afford to fully donate their development rights.” The forfeitures would, of course, be transacted via instruments known as conservation easements, also known as conservation servitudes. By means of these contracts, landowners essentially deed-restrict their property, protecting it from manmade construction in perpetuity. The grants will allow Buncombe to prevent development on five Century working farms with a combined 314 acres and move the county toward its goal of having 20% of the land within its jurisdiction conserved within the next seven years.