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Affordable Housing Crisis in Asheville

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- It's the top complaint about living in Asheville, and for some, it's reaching the crisis stage.

Asheville is seeing a surge in revitalized neighborhoods, but at the same time, is struggling to provide enough affordable housing.

Walk down Haywood Road in West Asheville and it's easy to see where commerce is buzzing, especially where the clippers are buzzing in Tom and Lori's Model Barbershop. Owner Tom Boza doesn't take the atmosphere for granted, because he remembers a time when it wasn't this way.

"You know, Haywood Road used to be called Worst Asheville in the old days," Boza explained while finishing up with a client.

He and his sister, Lori Harvest, have paid a price to keep working in what is now a revitalized part of town, where rents are rising.

"I know the changes have been tremendous in the last 20 years," Lori said. "And if it keeps going like that, the bubble will burst,"

They snatched up the historic barbershop they're now working in, loving the fact that it's known as the oldest continuously operating barbershop in the state. But it came at the perfect time in their history as small business owners.

"It just was probably one of the luckiest things that's ever happened to me," Harvest said with a sigh of relief.

Just over a year ago, they were forced out of their old shop down the street when their landlord put it up for sale at an asking price beyond their reach.

"Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot of us left, you know. Because of that reason. That's too bad," Lori said. "That's a shame."

According to a local realty company, West Asheville property values are about $187 dollars a square foot. That's higher than the average price in the city, and even the county.

"I mean, if I buy my own home, I'm going to have to have roommates to help me pay my mortgage. And if I don't, I'm going to have to buy a house 20 minutes outside of the city," Israel Hill, who rents a home in West Asheville, explained.

Hill works as a graphic designer from home. His company is based in another state.

"You should be able to find a job making enough to live in the city you live in. And I have a job from out of town, working from home, just because it pays me what I can afford to live on here," he said.

The overwhelming majority of tenants in Asheville's most popular neighborhoods can't afford rent on a local salary, which often comes from a paid-hourly job in the service industry.

According to a Charlotte apartment research firm, the average rent in Asheville is more than $1000 a month.

"We've been concerned about these issues for years," Sasha Vrtunski, an urban planner with the city of Asheville, said.

A year and a half ago, the city of Asheville commissioned Vrtunski and her team to find ways to stop gentrification in the neighborhoods east of the river.

"You can see that the racial makeup of the neighborhood has changed over time," Vrtunski explained about how the effects of gentrification can be seen all over town.

Experts recommended implementing housing ordinances, like requiring landlords to help tenants find new affordable housing, or giving them more notice before converting their homes to new condos, and offering tax incentives for developers. But, so far, nothing has been done.

The city applied for another grant to workshop more ideas with community leaders.

They were able to expand on the first study, but still, no formal policies or ordinances have been adopted because of it.

Now they're looking to the community to make the difference.

"It's really a community issue. The city is a partner, and we're concerned. But it also requires working with our community partners and non-profits, anchor institutions. They're also part of that solution," Vrtunski said.

The city is searching for solutions for the hardworking people who have fought for a spot in this economy, and are now fighting for a chance to leave their mark on the neighborhood's story.

"I love to see businesses thrive. But, I hate it if the little ones can't make it," Lori said.

City council made some progress last month when members voted to approve the sale of a parcel of land to Mountain Housing Opportunities. It will be used to build a dozen new affordable units for families.

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