Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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Asheville City Council on Tuesday voted 6-1 to approve a 64-unit apartment complex project aimed at alleviating the city’s severe lack of affordable housing.

Several council members touted project at 338 Hilliard Ave. as an “unprecedented” partnership with a private developer. But Councilman Keith Young, and several members of the public, said the deal didn’t go far enough in making the apartments accessible to low income residents. That led a miffed Mayor Esther Manheimer to quip that the project was “incredibly innovate and terribly disappointing at the same time.”

The city’s affordable housing woes have been well-documented over the past couple of years, and City Council has struggled with how to address it. But about a year ago, the board agreed to take a hard look at city-owned property to see what parcels could be developed as sites for affordable housing units. (Also, city voters last year approved a $74 million bond package with money specifically earmarked for affordable housing projects.)

That review led City Council to a park maintenance facility at 338 Hillard Ave., a key corner location on a main route leading into the city’s booming River Arts District. The city advertised for a development partner and received two proposals. One eventually backed away.

On Tuesday night, Jeff Staudinger, assistant director of the city’s community and economic development department, detailed the remaining proposal from Kassinger Development Group. The $7.9 million project would include a 50-year lease of the city-owned property, a $1.28 million city Housing Trust Fund loan and a land-use incentive grant (estimated at $291,430). Construction is scheduled to start in July 2018, Staudinger said.

The project would include one- and two-bedroom apartments, Staudinger said, with 20 units priced to be affordable to people making 80 percent of area median income and another 13 units affordable to people making 60 percent of median income. The units would remain at “affordable” levels for a period of 50 years, he said. (Federal housing voucher-holders would be eligible to be considered as tenants, he added.)

When asked for specifics on those numbers, Staudinger responded: in general, a household with an income at 80 percent of median income is making between $30,000 and $40,000; a household at 60 percent is making between $22,000 and$30,000.

In terms of actual rent, a household at 80 percent of median household income would be paying in the $650-a-month range for a one-bedroom apartment, and in the $900-a-month range for a two bedroom, Staudinger said. A household at the 60 percent level would be paying about $500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, and about $700-a-month for a two-bedroom apartment. Staudinger also said the developer has pledged to not have an automatic annual “rent escalator” built into those costs. Rents will be directly tied to actual incomes, he said.

Mayor Manheimer opened the floor to public comment, and resident Melissa Clark said: “So, zero for the homeless. Zero for people at 30 percent (of median income). This looks like it does almost nothing for actually low income people. It’s pretty much market rate. I don’t see this as much of a stop.”

That struck Manheimer, who called Staudiner back to the podium to offer a further explanation of how the rent rates are structured. “You’re totally raining on our parade,” said Manheimer, stressing that the project was “innovative” and the first time the city was using city-owned property for an affordable housing project.

Councilman Keith Young chimed in, asking if City Council had the power to make a project “more affordable.” Council members said that indeed, they are the ones who decide the parameters of a project. Staudinger reminded listeners that Council had agreed in an earlier meeting to the parameters of the project brought forward on Tuesday.

Councilman Gordon Smith spoke up next, noting that City Council was prepared to accept the development offer put forward by the second developer before the company walked away from the project. He vented from there.

“The couldn’t afford to do it. This is not the city building affordable housing. This is the city partnering” with a private developer to do so, Smith said, adding that the 50-year affordability parameters was “unprecedented.” The Hilliard Avenue location is walkable and bikable to downtown, he said, and sits along a bus line and is close to major employment centers. Smith continued, noting that the Housing Trust Fund loan gets paid back, and the land-use incentive grant is paid out and then rebated.

“I don’t want to make perfect the enemy of good,” Smith said. “This is a win.”

That prompted Young. “This is the first one. I get that. I also don’t want to under-value what we bring to the table.” Young added that “we can always work moving forward to make it better.”

Manheimer responded, reminding Young that one developer walked away. Young responded: “We don’t have to be scared of that,” and continued.

“I understand that and I’m appreciative of the effort everyone has put forward. I just don’t want us to undervalue ourselves,” Young said. The city could sell the property and use that money for something else.

City Council returned to inviting public comment, and Dewanna Little spoke up.

“What does affordable really look like when it is unaffordable for the people who live here, for people who work good jobs and making minimum wage or living wage. This is not a test run for us when we can’t apply for this,” Little said.

Councilmen Smith and Cecil Bothwell noted that the term “affordable housing” is a term defined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and that federal dollars are tied to that definition. Bothwell added that “this is best affordable housing deal we’ve gotten in the seven years I’ve been here. We’re ahead of the pack in the state. This is a sea change.”

Manheimer noted that the project may not be affordable for everyone. “I wish is could be everything to all people,” she said, adding that “I don’t see how you can it with new construction costs” standing at the highest levels in years. The project is both “incredibly innovate and terribly disappointing at the same time,” she said.

Councilman Brian Haynes piped up, saying that he would vote in favor of he project, but that he was still concerned about what the city is doing to created “deeply affordable” housing units for residents. “I agree with Keith. We have this land that is extremely valuable. We don’t have to sell ourselves short.”

City Council finally put the issue to vote, with Young standing in opposition.

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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