Asheville – Representatives from organizations requesting that TDA LIFT funds be appropriated for the construction of affordable housing dominated public comment at the Buncombe County Commissioners’ last regular meeting. Since 1983, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority has been authorized by the General Assembly to collect occupancy taxes for investment in means intended to draw more tourism dollars to the area. Taxing travelers who weren’t going to be voting in local elections wasn’t considered taxation without representation because the funds were being collected from a class of people, tourists, for the benefit of tourists. In actuality, and obviously, the funds benefited the local economy more than the average passer-through.
Beginning as a 2% tax strictly for advertising, the fund grew through the years to 6%, with 25% of proceeds going toward capital projects like arenas and convention centers. Reporting a “cooling” in tourism, the TDA based its budget for the current fiscal year on projected revenues of $39.9 million. Legislation spearheaded by Senator Chuck Edwards that went into effect at the beginning of this fiscal year changed the distribution of the tax, so 67% will still go toward promoting tourism, but 33% will support “community amenities” that would be shared by tourists and locals. To disburse these funds, the Legacy Investment from Tourism (LIFT) fund was created.
One community amenity prioritized by the TDA was the construction of affordable housing on county-owned land. Suggested locations were on Coxe Avenue, Valley Street, and Ferry Road. The housing projects could be enjoyed by tourists, provided the design was mixed-use and the uses were tourist trappy. It was a stretch, but this was further rationalized as supporting tourism because service workers downtown aren’t paid enough to live in the city or commute there. Since the tourism industry depends on low-wage earners to “turn down sheets,” collecting tourists’ dollars to pay for their housing wouldn’t exactly be taxation without representation. It was suggested that the fund could allocate a fixed sum of $2 million each year toward this end.
A second priority was the creation of recreation destinations. One project would spend $6–7 million on turf and lights for three more fields at the Buncombe County Sports Park. Another would spend $5 million on trails and greenways connecting the new development at Ferry Park to the trails at Bent Creek, as well as a river launch site. Other projects up for consideration were improvements to McCormick Field ($30 million); work on the Farm Heritage Trail ($500,000); aesthetics for I-26 ($10 million) on top of local contributions; and site plans for Black Mountain, Weaverville, Swannanoa, and Montreat. A third priority was a catch-all that included things like public safety and cleanliness, but this did not make it to a list of proposed projects published in March.
Speaking as cochair of Asheville Food and Beverage United and housing and wages organizer for Just Economics, Jen Hampton said the local region had the highest cost of living and the lowest wages of any in the state. Like others who would address the commissioners, she wanted funding to support affordable housing projects. Hampton said she realized the commissioners had no authority over LIFT distributions, but things county officials could do included lobbying, changing zoning laws to reduce construction costs, and educating the public about the importance of affordable housing.
Ben Williamson, regional manager for the community organizing nonprofit Down Home North Carolina, said he “had been asked” to build a coalition to advocate for the appropriation of TDA LIFT funds for affordable housing. That effort included the launch of buncombedecides.org, a speaking tour, and a canvassing campaign that collected over 2,000 signatures. He was campaigning not only for affordable housing funding but also for requiring one of the nine seats on the LIFT Fund Committee to be filled by a member of the service community.
Andrew Paul, Ph.D., a cultural historian who has taught at UNC Asheville and AB Tech, founded Asheville for All. He began by saying he is not a service worker, yet he still struggles. He said he works two jobs and is a full-time dad with toddlers because he can’t afford daycare. He would prefer to live in a walkable neighborhood where his two children wouldn’t have to share a bedroom. He said he read an article last month about how Minneapolis had beaten inflation. He said Buncombe County and Asheville could do the same by reducing costs of compliance and providing more housing subsidies. He closed by saying if Asheville could beat inflation, their craft beer would be cheaper, and that would be a selling point for the TDA.