So, back to affordable housing. Part 1, if you missed it, is here. This part, Part 2, is my personal Affordable Housing in Asheville story – my own Asheville odyssey. I think there is gonna be a Part 3 in the near future as well, because it just keeps on coming.
In 2000, my father died and I left my job and boyfriend and life in Baltimore and moved here to be closer to my mother. I got a job at the art museum right away. I was making slightly less money than I was making in Baltimore, but people told me to expect that. “It’s worth it!” they said, “to live in Asheville! You have to make sacrifices to live here!”
That’s a fucking pernicious lie, by the way, and I think that statement is responsible for a whole lot of what is wrong with this town. But more on that later.
After an unhappy year in South Asheville, I found a house in West Asheville, a beautiful 20s bungalow in the neighborhood where I still live, that was $650 a month, not quite half my income but almost – and I moved in and sent my son to Isaac Dickson. I could not have afforded even that on my own without help from my mother, so that’s where I would be lying if I said that qualified as affordable housing although in retrospect, I guess it did. I was making 28K a year at that point. I lived there for the next six years. My rent went up, but not all that much. At the end of six years, I was paying $800 a month – half my income. My income did not go up at all. Let’s repeat that sentence: my income did not go up at all. I changed jobs – a lateral move to another museum after a break in the middle to work for a local entrepreneur and then a year of unemployment – and it stayed the same.
Those were good years, but just by moving into the neighborhood that I loved, I was changing it. I was one of those artists who move into a poor neighborhood because they can afford it and they can see its beauty. I loved East West Asheville. I loved the funky streets and the funky little houses and I liked the people and I liked having my own house with space for the dogs and a garden and a big yard for raucous parties. Then lo, more middle class white people followed me and then more and then more and I’m sorry, neighborhood: I never meant for this to happen to you.
My landlords finally took note of what was happening in the neighborhood and in the spring of 2007, the inevitable eviction notice arrived n the mail. At that point I had lived there long enough so that I had no formal lease – it hadn’t seemed necessary and we were all friends, right? Well, no. However, you can’t just toss people out on their asses when you want to raise the rent, so they swore up and down that they were going to sell the house. “I want to buy it!” I said, “Felicity,” they said, “You could never afford this house.” And so we had to move. Please note that they never did sell the house – in fact, they still rent it out, for $1200 a month last I heard but it may be more by now. I moved to another rental house on the other side of West Asheville that cost $900 a month: now more than half my income. But remember, I had backup in the form of my mother so I could do that and I didn’t have to give up and move to Woodfin or further away.
I then started trying to buy a house in my neighborhood so that I could never be evicted again. That was 2008, I was still making 28K a year and there was not much on the market for under 150K, my absolute upper limit, which, you will notice, is not really affordable.
I went to Mountain Housing, who are the arbiters of affordable housing in this city and who do, I am sure, great work, six years ago to try to get some help buying my first house. Instead, I got really disheartened by the way they were pushing only their own projects. Like, they said the house I wanted to buy had too many code violations, but instead of offering to help me fix those things, they wanted me to buy a . . .. wait for it. . .apartment! It would be more affordable, they said, and just coincidentally, they built it. They only seemed to want to subsidize people who are buying housing that they built. What about this house? I said, or this one? No, they said, no old houses, no problems. Here! What about moving into one of our apartments? We’ll give you $10,000! Which you have to pay back if you ever move just to make sure that you can’t possibly profit. I understand why they do that, but I’m not crazy about their model. So I backed out of the whole deal. I tried to work with Habitat as well, but they also have given up on rehabbing older housing and instead, they build new, high density housing. Apartments. For which there is a waiting list.
Then, a lot of stuff happened, including the real estate bubble crash – and my mother died. She left me enough money to buy a house flat out. I bought the house that I had been trying so hard to leverage a mortgage for and settled in. It needed repairs; I had the money then to repair it and so in went new windows and a new boiler and a new porch roof and new paint and plumbing fixes and so on. My money began to run out and then I got laid off in 2010. At this point I had 20 years experience in museums – first in museum education and then in communications and marketing, as well as office management (nonprofits demand a lot of multitasking.) I was still making 28K a year. I started looking for work. A friend offered me a retail job at $10 an hour and I said, “Oh thanks but, uh, no! I couldn’t possibly live on that! I’ll find an office job soon, I’m sure!”
A year later in desperation I took a retail job for $9 an hour.
Now it is 2014; I’m at the same job and I make a little more than that. Living wage in Asheville is supposed to be $11.65 an hour. I don’t make quite that, yet, but I think I might in another year. Here’s the thing though: I have the most affordable housing possible: I own my house flat out. I have 100% equity. All I have to pay is taxes and homeowners insurance and regular bills, so I should be fine, right?
I’m not. Not at all. My taxes went up $300 this year, to $2000 a year and it very nearly broke me. My children, now grown, can’t find housing that they can afford and so they moved back in with me. Neither of them is currently employed at all – and when they were, my son was making $10 an hour, good money for Asheville, right? – and my daughter anywhere from $8 to $14, depending. That’s not enough to rent anything here. So they moved back in and we’re all going under together. Last year, when my daughter was again between jobs, we went and got food stamps. They gave us $200 a month, which was a huge, huge help but not, of course, enough. This year, I make more money and I’m full time now so my income, after taxes and insurance, is about $275 – $300 a week, depending. Good money for Asheville! No. No it is not good money for anywhere – and it is definitely not good enough to pay all the household bills, feed three adults, three large dogs and the elegant and demanding 10 pound cat who actually runs the place. But it is, I think, too much for food stamps when you cannot count the jobless adults who used to be your children as dependents anymore and yet you cannot, somehow, kick them out on their asses. Maybe it’s because I’m not a Republican.
Yeah, they should go out and get jobs and pay their bills. That is so simple and wow, we hadn’t thought of that. I also should change jobs and find something that pays more. I never thought of that either. I like my job and my coworkers and I’m good at what I do, but I know that’s a luxury – because apparently, expecting livable pay for hard work is risible now.
So that’s where we’re at with affordable housing in Asheville: we have it. We still can’t afford it, because none of us are making a real living wage. Without more money coming in, because costs of everything else are constantly rising, affordable housing is just a mirage. You cannot just say, well, we’re controlling housing by moving everyone into affordable housing and lo, magic wand waved! It doesn’t work that way. Nothing is affordable if people aren’t making a real living wage. If incomes don’t rise here, all the affordable housing in the world won’t help, because it doesn’t stay affordable unless incomes are also going up.
I know this problem isn’t limited to Asheville. It’s part of a much much larger problem in this country: the growing divide between the haves and the have nots, the disintegration of the middle class and so on. You have heard about it if you have halfway noticed anything in the news this last year or so, unless, I guess, you only look at Fox or, actually, most of the other mainstream media. The disintegration of the press has coincided with the disintegration of the middle class. But all of this is the terrible child of Reagonomics’ war on the poor that started thirty years ago – a slouching beast that’s constantly gathering steam nowadays. It’s exacerbated in Asheville, among other reasons partly because we have primarily always been a resort town catering to the wealthy (who do not like paying their servants much; that’s not how they got and stay rich) and partly because wealthy retirees have moved here in droves. They mostly do not bring much to the community table – they do not, by and large, start businesses that employ others at a living wage, contribute hugely financially to community charities (most, if they are wealthy enough to do that anyway, do it in what they consider their home town) and skew the population demographics tremendously. They also are content to work part time jobs for low wages because it’s supplemental income for them – or they will work as volunteers, which is extremely nice of them but which, let’s face it, means sustainable paying jobs for those positions are not being created. And so the gulf between rich and poor, older and younger, gets wider and wider.