Local Activists Weigh in on "Buncombe Decides" - TribPapers

Local Activists Weigh in on “Buncombe Decides”

Asheville's downtown sees a glut of tourism on New Year's Eve weekend. Staff photo.

Asheville – Ben Williamson doesn’t need to be ‘the guy’ who spearheads change in the way tourism revenues are used in Buncombe County—he doesn’t have a big ego.

But with his new organization, Buncombe Decides, he’s leading the way for now.

He told the Tribune Papers that the point of the organization was to enact change to shift money from tourism more toward the people—their goal right now is specifically to get Buncombe’s tourist money to help fund more affordable housing.

“I don’t care about being the guy,” he said, “but there’s got to be someone getting the ball rolling. The reliance on tourism is not working for the locals. Poverty and homelessness are increasing. We have the lowest wages in the state and the highest cost of living.” The organization’s website cites several reports of locals having trouble finding housing and of the difficulties the county has in providing affordable options.

The goal of Buncombe Decides right now stems from the recent changes to the occupancy tax and is to allocate more money for broader purposes than simply increasing tourism.

Previously, the occupancy tax delegated 75% of tourism revenue for marketing work on tourism projects, with the other 25% going toward funds for other projects. A change by the legislature last year cut the former number to 66% of the revenue, increasing the amount that can be used for other things to 33% of the revenue.

There are two funds that the 33 percent will be split between: the Tourism Product Development Fund (TPDF) and the Legacy Investment From Tourism Fund (LITF). The TPDF is used for projects that would increase tourism, but the LITF can be used for broader projects for the local community.

Williamson says Buncombe Decides wants to rally support around using the tourism funds for the LITF to fund more affordable housing. Their plan is to show up at the January 25th Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (TDA) meeting to discuss the ideas they have. Williamson hopes various workers in the area will show up to make their case for why they think things are skewed against them.

Williamson is polite but direct, speaking quickly and clearly. He’s good at delivering facts in a concise manner, which is in line with his day job as a teacher. He has lived in the area for 21 years with his family and says he devotes his free time to activism, which as of late has been Buncombe Decides.

“The work I do involves supporting working-class folks,” he said.

One of the solutions he’d love to see is one he has read about in Colorado, a similarly high-tourism state. According to an article in the Colorado Sun, voters there were able to pass a measure, House Bill 1117, that makes it so citizens can decide where 90% of the tourism revenue goes, including dividing it between tourism promotion, housing, childcare, and other things.

The bill contends that “robust support for our residents’ needs is essential to the long-term health of both our communities and our economy,” with visitors’ experiences being “influenced by the host community’s ability to support their residents and local workforce with housing and other essential services, as well as a strong quality of life that comes with our amazing natural and cultural assets.”

“Pie in the sky, we’d love that here in Bumcombe,” Williamson told the Tribune.

Williamson contends that the county has been overdoing the promotion of tourism for the area. He acknowledges that the lobbying for people to come and enjoy the mountains, breweries, and other amenities has done good things for Buncombe County, but it’s had a double-edged-sword effect as it has led to more people buying up homes and also more Airbnbs popping up.
“It’s reduced the inventory for the locals,” Williamson said, saying that this has spiraled into multiple other problems and harmed the quality of life for people in the area.A point-in-time count from May 2022 shows that homelessness in the area increased by 21% from the same time the previous year. The number of unsheltered individuals at the time of the survey had doubled from the previous count.

A graph in the survey also notes that, when respondents were asked where the last place was that they had housing, 57% said it had been in Asheville.

Jessie Figueroa, Housing Placement Director with Homeward Bound, which provides resources for the homeless and those at risk of losing their homes, had an analysis similar to what Williamson had told the Tribune. She said the amount of tourists had had ripple effects negatively affecting housing for locals.

“It’s a hotspot for tourists,” she said. “There are people who work remotely, who are coming from New York and Los Angeles, and they have higher salaries.”She said she has seen more of an increase in rent in the area in the past few years than at any other time in her career.

“The cost of rent has increased significantly,” she said. “Locals who work at restaurants and hotels aren’t making enough money to afford it. They end up in precarious housing situations or becoming homeless. Airbnb hasn’t helped—there are more homeowners repurposing their properties as short-term rentals. It shrinks the inventory for those looking for long-term housing.”

Figueroa said she’d like to see Buncombe County work more on affordable housing solutions and “focus more on folks who live here and who contribute to the economy.”
In response to the criticisms of Airbnb, Matt McNama, a representative with the vacation rental company, said there were benefits for the company’s existence in the Western North Carolina area.

“Home sharing has been an important part of the fabric of North Carolina, enabling the region to welcome visitors whose spending supports local businesses and creates economic opportunity for local residents,” he said in an email. “Experts agree that the need to prioritize building new housing is an issue in communities large and small across the country, and Airbnb is committed to being a good partner and working with local officials on efforts to help support housing solutions.”

He also quoted statistics from a study the company did recently, which found that decent portions of Airbnb hosts need the extra income—around 35% said they want to “help cover the rising cost of living” and around 40% said they need to “make ends meet.”

Meanwhile, the Buncombe County TDA had no comment when asked about the issue by the Tribune.

Williamson is plowing ahead with Buncombe Decides for now. He said aside from their appearances at meetings, much of the work with Buncombe Decides is just talking to various sectors and cohorts of society here in the area. They’ve spoken with “various leaders,” both in the city and the county, and groups of realtors, among others, with the goal being a simple missive: “Raise awareness and take action,” he said.

One of the chief facts he comes back to often is that the tourism industry in Buncombe rakes in around $4.6 million per year, all while the problems of homelessness and inequality have only increased in recent years.

“We’re not anti-tourism,” he said. “But there’s no accountability. There are no workers, no bus drivers, and no dishwashers helping to make these decisions. We want some level of transparency and democracy. We’re not anti-tourism; we’re pro-workers; we’re pro-democracy.”