Sunday, December 4, 2016

Vice Mayor hedges on how Housing bond money will be spent

Calls South Charlotte Street development “just a possibility”
By Roger McCredie
Asheville’s vice mayor told local business leaders on Friday that the city has not made any definite plans to spend $15 million in recently-approved bond money to repurpose and redevelop South Charlotte Street.
In fact, City Councilor Gwen Wisler told members of the Council of Independent Business Owners, “we have no formalized plan” in place for exactly how or where that three-fifths of the $25 million “affordable housing bond” approved by Asheville voters last month will be spent.
That revelation came in response to an attendee’s question as to when taxpayers could expect to see “a brick and mortar startup” on affordable housing.
Wisler, who had been summarizing the approach the city intends to take in using proceeds from the other two bonds approved -- $32 million for transportation and $17 million for parks and recreation – seemed momentarily taken aback by the affordable housing question.  

She pointed out that $10 million of the $25 million housing bond money is earmarked for the city’s affordable housing trust fund, which can be tapped as loans by private developers who promise to make a portion of their construction projects “affordable.”  

But as for the remaining $15 million, she said, “Hopefully it will be associated with some development of city-owned property for affordable housing.
“Specific projects we have not defined as yet, but we are looking at expanding what we may be doing around affordable housing,” she said.  “Right now, as you know, we have focused primarily on rental property and there’s talk in the future of home ownership and we’re figuring out what that model might be and, you know, we want to coordinate with the county, but I don’t know if we have a formalized plan set up yet.”
At that point, Asheville Unreported pointed out that development of the “South Charlotte Street Corridor” had been the city’s sole stated purpose for that $15 million all during the run-up to the bond vote. Printed material, the city’s own website and city officials discussing the matter all stated flatly that South Charlotte Street “repurposing” was a key element of the housing bond allocation.
Moreover, all city sources agreed that a central feature of the redevelopment would be the demolition of the Wolcott city garage and public works building – the “Taj-ma-Garage” – to make room for up to 400 affordable housing units, provided a developer could be found to make that happen.  The city, it said, would then construct a new garage facility, most likely further down South Charlotte Street, at a cost of about $5 million.   
The City of Asheville website said:
“The proposed $25 million in housing affordability bonds would provide additional support for the Housing Trust Fund, a program that assists in creating diverse and affordable housing choices. It would also enable the City to re-purpose city-owned land for development that supports housing affordability with the South Charlotte Street Corridor as a primary project.”
And an accompanying table showed:
PROJECT
AREA 
 INVESTMENT

Funding to re-purpose city-owned land for affordable housing
Primary Project: South Charlotte Street Corridor

$15,000,000

Housing Trust Fund
 Citywide    
$10,000,000



 But, Wisler told her audience on Friday that “South Charlotte Street was really just the first area that city staff identified that we could look at, but that is just very preliminary.
“The work just really hasn’t been done to conclude that the $15 million would be spent there.  Again what we are hoping is that the $1`5 million would go towards some aspect of affordable housing,” she said.
Apparently Councilor Cecil Bothwell considered the South Charlotte Street development a given because, during the early voting period, he announced that it had been a major factor in his decision not to vote for the affordable housing bond.
“I know the housing bond is well intentioned, but deeply question both the success of Asheville in boosting affordability, and a proposal that accounts for a big chunk of the housing bond,” Bothwell said in a Facebook post.
“An estimated $14-15 million to relocate seems like an enormous cost, both financially and environmentally. I think this idea was cooked up too quickly and with too little analysis. So I voted no,” Bothwell said.
Among those who followed the city’s pro-bond campaign, Wisler’s vagueness served as a reminder that, despite its name the bond offers no clear pathway to relief of Asheville’s affordable housing crisis, in terms of either homes or rental units.
It also underscored a principal objection of anti-bond forces: namely, that the city is in no way bound to spend the bond moneys on any of the specific projects it  mentioned it might use the money for.  So long as a given project can be made to “fit” into one of the three bond categories, money from that category may be used to fund it.

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