We can overcome WNC’s affordable housing crisis
I am old enough that my first 1,800-square-foot house cost just $31,000 and its purchase was easily financed on my middle class salary of $14,000. Now I live a comfortable retired life in Asheville, having made an inflation-profit each time I sold a house.
Lately, I have seen a steady drip, drip, drip of articles and heard the stories about how times have changed. The middle class is being priced out of the housing market in Western North Carolina and decent apartments are out of reach for those with low incomes. Even those who can make a down payment are losing out to cash buyers whose bank accounts have grown fat from housing inflation and stock market gains. It seems the American dream of owning a home is fading like a mountain sunset.
With each new story, I kept thinking, “That’s sad. Hope someone does something about it.” Then I saw Scott McLeod’s editorial (Smoky Mountain News, May 10, “Living in WNC is getting harder for workers”). For the first time, the size of the problem hit me. I decided I had something to say.
The column quoted a 2021 study sponsored by the Dogwood Health Trust that estimated our region will need 20,000 more units for low-income households by 2025. That’s 5,000 per year! The column also said a family would need a down payment of $75,000 to buy a middle-of-the-road house in our region. How many middle-class families can scrape that much together?
It is becoming clear that Western North Carolina will need a massive effort to provide decent apartments for people with low incomes, and a burgeoning supply of affordable homes so our kids and grandkids can live the American dream of home ownership.
My message to our region is that you cannot win a fight like this by every town and county doing a little bit here and a little bit there. The fight for decent rental housing and home ownership won’t be won unless we have an “all hands on deck” effort, and that requires a coordinated regional approach. All means all. We need a way to enlist bankers, builders, developers, governments — local, state and federal — chambers of commerce, churches, service clubs, Republicans, Democrats and community colleges behind a housing-friendly regional vision.
Who can rally all of these groups to the cause of decent housing for all income levels and a path to home ownership? Luckily, WNC is blessed with hundreds of great leaders in our local governments, businesses, professions and nonprofits. The problem, in my view, is a lack of coordination and regional vision. We need to bring these leaders together and figure out what we can do — as a region — to win this fight.
Let me suggest a practical way to do that. We have three councils of governments that cover our region — the Southwestern Commission includes the seven westernmost counties, the Land of Sky Regional Council covers four counties in the middle of WNC, and the Foothills Regional Commission includes four counties on the eastern end. These councils already work on transportation and community development. They also channel state and federal funds into infrastructure projects throughout their areas.
My proposal is that the three councils work together to create a regional housing vision and implementation plan. This work could include holding an annual housing summit, lots of staff work, public input, discussions between elected officials — and, probably, lots and lots of arguing. The point is these councils could bring the existing leadership of our area together and keep them focused on housing until we get on top of the problem.
The advantages of the councils hosting a process to reach a common housing vision are many. It could force us to face reality about the number and kinds of housing needed. Community leaders could exchange best practices of how to maintain a range of housing in their areas. We could identify the best places for new housing without the constraints of political boundaries. We could keep the growth of housing coordinated with needed transportation corridors. We could identify the obstacles to housing development and knock them down one by one. And finally, a common vision would strengthen our voice when dealing with the state and federal governments.
Getting our housing stock in balance with our needs and resources is probably the work of decades, not years. The best time to start on a regional housing vision and plan for Western North Carolina was 20 years ago. The second-best time is today. So, I say, let’s get going to create an adequate supply of rental housing for people at every income level and a path to home ownership for the middle class. Our children and grandchildren will thank us — even if it takes until 2030 or 2040.