Cost of Growth: Why local organizations cannot fix Asheville’s affordable housing gap

Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity has built more than 300 new houses and completed more than 200 home repairs since 1983. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)
2,100 volunteers helped with Habitat for Humanity locally last year alone.{&nbsp;}(Photo credit: WLOS Staff)<p></p>
Habitat for Humanity says 12,000 local families pay more than half their income on housing costs.{&nbsp;}(Photo credit: WLOS Staff)<p></p>


Every year, thousands of people in Western North Carolina find a safe and affordable place to live thanks to volunteers and donations.

Local organizations and non-profits say they’re doing everything they can to help fill the affordable housing need.


The sounds of new construction fill a once quiet corner of Arden. John Meadows is a construction supervisor with Habitat for Humanity who says the noise is a welcome sound.

"I’m used to it. I guess I don’t even hear it, I guess it means work is happening," he said.

Twenty-one homes will soon be constructed in the neighborhood, saving 21 families from the affordable housing gap.

"That’s our mission, to bring people out of substandard housing," Meadows said.

Habitat for Humanity says they have built or repaired more than 500 homes over the years in Western North Carolina, but say that is far from enough.

Andy Barnett is the executive director for the Asheville area. He says it is a huge problem that does not seem to be getting any better.

"We need to add 300 more units by, like, next year, and there are just very few people involved in that work," he said.

Barnett says non-profits simply do not have the funding needed to build homes for the 12,000 families that are still struggling.

"We can’t just solve this problem on philanthropy alone. It’s just a tremendously capitol intensive process," Barnett said. "We really see that human impact of this vicious cycle of making more and more compromises on housing just to stay ahead of the rising costs."

Habitat for Humanity says the homes being built are no longer just for low income families, but middle income, as well.

They are part of a growing population of hardworking professionals who still cannot get by.

"The people who take care of us, we as a community ought to take care of them," Barnett said.


Robin Merrell works for Pisgah Legal and sees families suffering every day. She says some families they meet are living in homes where they fall through floors, sleep beside mold, or even share rooms with wild animals.

"When they can’t get housing they can afford, they end up putting up with conditions they shouldn’t have to," Merrell said.

She says Pisgah Legal is doing everything it can to help those in need, but simply cannot keep up.

The problem is large and it’s ever growing.

Last year alone, Pisgah Legal says they helped 2,610 people find a safe place to live. She believes the blame for the problem reaches beyond the local level.

She says North Carolina should pass policies, like mandatory inclusionary zoning and rent control, to help ease the gap.

"I wish that the state would allow local governments to make their own decisions about affordable housing policies, because there are many that could be done locally that are not allowed under state law," Merrell said.


Public Interest Projects tries to provide housing another way — by renovating historic buildings to create less expensive apartment options.

They have helped to provide more than 200 homes at a workforce or affordable rate, like the Vanderbilt Apartments for low-income elderly residents.

"We are really wrestling now with whether we are realistically able to produce workforce and affordable housing in Asheville right now," Pat Whalen said.

Whalen has been involved in Asheville’s growth for decades and has seen the changes firsthand. He admits it is nearly impossible, even for organizations like his willing to make a lower profit.

"I think we have too much protection for single family housing, especially near the center of the city. There ought to be more support for gradual expansion of more housing choices for people," Whalen said.

He believes all city departments should to take a more global view and allow more units in the downtown area.

"Density, in particular, in the area between the hospital and downtown is an opportunity for us. I think it could be handled a lot more powerfully than it’s being planned to handle now," Whalen said.

But he is also quick not to place blame on local government.

"People tend to talk like they want affordable, but they just don’t want it in their neighborhood. They talk like they want other people to have a chance to have a decently priced apartment, they just don’t want that in their neighborhood. I think, individually, we each have to take some responsibility for what’s happening in Asheville," Whalen said.

Coming up next week, hear from the City of Asheville. Find out how they are tackling the issue and how they plan to spend the $25 million bond passed in 2016.

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