Why is it so expensive to live in Asheville? Because Cindy Weeks hasn’t built enough buildings yet.
by Jess McCuan
Cindy Weeks knows her clients well. Probably because she was once one of them. Today, Weeks, 56, is the picture of the polished white-collar professional—well dressed, well educated, pulling up to her North Asheville home in a Subaru. But her life didn’t always look like this. In her mid-20s, Weeks was a single mother with two toddlers, waitressing at an upscale club near a racetrack in urban Pittsburgh. Her four-year marriage had fallen apart, and she was nearly evicted from her home. It was sometime during this rocky period that she realized waitressing simply wouldn’t cut it. She couldn’t survive, much less support her children well. “There is this other world out there,” she recalls thinking. “I need to set my life up so that it works better than this.”
So she did. She went back to school, wrote her master’s thesis in public affairs about affordable housing for single moms and joined then-Pittsburgh mayor Richard Caliguiri’s Task Force on Women. Now, after more than 20 years in community and economic development positions, she couldn’t be a better pitchwoman for her organization, Mountain Housing Opportunities, which helps low-income families in the Asheville area find affordable housing. Weeks, a co-founder, is now MHO’s manager of community investments, which means she orchestrates incredibly complex financial deals that result in multi-story apartment buildings going up around town. “Sometimes when I go out into the community, people say, ‘Who are these people that you rent to?’ I say, ‘Me. I’m one of them.’”
Convincing as her spiel may be, affordable housing is one of Asheville’s biggest problems. In January, CNNMoney reported that Asheville was the sixth-most overpriced housing market in the country, based on real estate data from IHS Global Insight and PNC Financial Services. Even after one of the most dramatic housing market slumps in recent history, homes in the Asheville area were still overvalued by about 22 percent in 2010, according to the report. Mike Butrum, director of governmental affairs at the Asheville Board of Realtors, says that’s in part because Asheville always scores high on “best places to live” lists and is known as a great place to retire. WNC attracts a steady stream of retirees and second-home buyers, and in the boom that started around 2003, that led to a flurry of building activity—especially on the high end. “The Cliffs, The Ramble, Reynolds Mountain and even Biltmore Park were really hot during 2006, 2007 and 2008,” he says. “Those prices were high, and it certainly skewed the value of homes in Asheville. It was a bubble, and the bubble burst. Now we have this inventory issue to deal with.”
Boom or bust, wealthy out-of-town buyers and the area’s general desirability have always kept housing prices high. LeNoir Medlock, who’s been selling homes for downtown Asheville’s Preferred Properties for 14 years, says the low end of the market is finally stabilizing. But that still doesn’t mean a raft of new homes are within reach for working locals. “Do I think the Asheville housing market is expensive? Absolutely,” she says. “Particularly for those in the middle-class workforce.”
WNC’s working class gets squeezed in so many ways. Asheville-area data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics in the last decade shows that higher-paying manufacturing and construction jobs are being slowly replaced by lower-paying service industry and seasonal ones. Not to mention the fact that there were few high-paying white-collar jobs here to begin with. The Asheville nonprofit Just Economics recently found that 26 percent of Buncombe County’s workforce earned less than a living wage in 2009, according to census data and the Employment Security Commission.
When young professionals move in from other cities looking for jobs, they often get a rude awakening. “The common thing we heard was, ‘The view is part of the paycheck,’” says Jill Hawkins, who moved to Asheville from Austin with her husband John in 2003. “That got really frustrating to hear. The view doesn’t pay my bills.” Even with four college degrees between them, it took the couple several months to find work. Before she landed her current gig, as an archivist at the Biltmore Estate, Jill took a string of jobs that included managing a Books-A-Million. The couple felt lucky to find a three-bedroom house in Haw Creek for $140,000 in 2003. Just after they moved in, housing prices there soared, with neighboring houses at one point listing at more than double what they were seven years ago. “There’s no way we could afford to buy our house now,” Jill says.
The gap between depressed incomes and inflated housing prices in Asheville means organizations like Mountain Housing Opportunities have unusually high demand for their services. Through MHO, you can buy a house or a condo, or build a house yourself—provided you make less than 80 percent of the area’s median income. For a single person in 2010, that’s anything less than $31,050. Which includes a lot of folks. MHO finished the Crowell Park apartment complex in West Asheville in fall 2008, and the building’s well-designed, light-filled one-bedroom apartments started at $319 a month. MHO had 600 applicants in line for Crowell’s 63 units, and Weeks says they leased out the entire building in 60 days.
For as desperate as Asheville seems for cheaper housing, people often disagree about where to put it. Which means MHO can run into major roadblocks in its building process. In March, North Ashevilleans were up in arms about Larchmont, a 60-unit apartment complex that MHO intended to build off Merrimon Avenue. The nonprofit needed the Larchmont property re-zoned, but hundreds of people showed up at Planning & Zoning meetings to protest. Some argued that the project was too dense and would add more traffic to an already-congested area. Many simply didn’t want a low-income housing complex near their homes. Weeks says the traffic argument is absurd, since turning the property into another type of business—a pizza parlor, say, or a nail salon—would attract much more traffic than a residential building, where people drive in and out only a few times a day. (City traffic engineers agreed, saying the impact of the Larchmont development would be minimal.) A handful of Weeks’ own neighbors signed a petition against the project. “Everybody loves it when it’s in someone else’s neighborhood,” Weeks said in an interview in February. “I understand being scared—change is scary. But if they would take the time to look at what our plans actually are, I think they would have a different opinion.”
P&Z approved the re-zoning for Larchmont (Weeks, the planning commission chair, did not vote), and the project was approved by Asheville City Council in late March. MHO will start construction in January next year. In the meantime, MHO’s latest venture, a $17 million mixed-used development called the Glen Rock Depot, is set to open in Asheville’s River Arts District in September. The glittering, green-built complex, situated between once-abandoned buildings on Depot Street, will have 60 apartment units, 3,000 square feet of community space and 9,000 square feet of retail space. The Glen Rock is awaiting LEED certification and has been a mammoth undertaking—Weeks says there were nine attorneys present at the closing deal. It’s also generated a good deal of buzz. Chall Gray and Jonathan Frappier plan to open a hip coffee shop and performance space, The Magnetic Field, in the Glen Rock, and bellydancer Lisa Zahiya will open a dance studio. MHO hopes to attract “creative class” entrepreneurs to the space, like architects, green builders and nonprofits.
Not all MHO projects will be as ambitious as the Glen Rock, and the organization plans to build at least one new housing complex each year. Still, Weeks and her colleagues know it’s not nearly enough. In a recent study by the UNC-Chapel Hill Center for Urban and Regional Studies, researchers found that the number of Buncombe County homeowners who make under $35,000 but spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent has skyrocketed in recent years, from 11,000 in 2000 to 16,600 in 2007. To truly keep pace with Western North Carolina’s affordability gap, Weeks estimates that MHO would need to add thousands of new affordable units per year to the area—not just 60 or 70. “We know we can never do that, but every little bit is filling that gap,” she says.