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Special Report: Cheap apartments still hard to come by in Asheville

A News 13 investigation finds its just as hard to find an affordable place to rent in Asheville today as it was three years ago.

A new report says while Asheville has added apartments, they're not in the most needed category -- cheap!

News 13 has been investigating the housing crisis for months. The complaints News 13 heard in November from developers seem to be in line with what's echoed in the latest report. Rising land and infrastructure costs were preventing developers from creating affordable house or rentals.

While new inventory has created some vacancies, when it comes to affordable apartments little's changed.

The back of Brenda Yokes SUV doubles as her independent insurance office.

“Laptop plugs into the power cord if I need it. I'm off and running," Yokes said. "Even when I'm at the house and I need to do work that the family can't see because of confidentially laws, I'm out on the street where the car's parked."

An oasis from the tight living quarters, of three people in one room, after losing their rental unit in a fire two years ago.

“It can be very, very stressful and that comes out physically in how you feel. It comes out emotionally. You squabble with each other,” Yokes said.

She's hard pressed to find somewhere to sit and talk about the problem, opting for a coffee shop, after moving into her boyfriend's parents’ home.

“I'm grateful, don't get me wrong, I am. But there's just no privacy. Even now, two years later, it's proving impossible to find anything that's under $1,200 for a three bedroom, which is what we need,” Yokes said.

RELATED | Asheville's housing crisis applies to the rental market

Over the last five years, developers have hammered out over 1,000 additional affordable apartment units, but it hasn't chipped away at lower rent needs like Brenda's, according to Asheville City Councilman Gordon Smith.

“As soon as something comes open, it's gobbled up by someone who needs it,” Smith said.

An update to the Bowen Report, a rent study, released in late December reaffirmed, occupancy rates for affordable rent units remain at 100 percent, with waiting lists for government subsidized housing.

“The idea has been, well, let's just get units on the ground," Smith said. "We want to make sure that some of them are affordable. But if you're coming forward with just about anything, that's going to be important because that's going to increase that supply and stabilize those rent rates so they just don't keep being astronomical."

In the last two years, there were increasing vacancies in market rate apartments -- those without income restrictions. Vacancies are up 2 percent, but the additional inventory hasn't helped bring prices down as promised.

“There's a lag between those units coming online and those rent rates, that rental market, those numbers responding to that supply,” Smith said.

Rent rates are up 4.4 percent from three years ago and show signs of increasing, according to Asheville's assistant director of Community and Economic development Jeff Staudinger.

“Until there is a supply that actually leads to competition for those units, and particularly the market rate units, we won't see a lowering of market rate units, and we'll probably see some level of rent increase,” Staudinger said.

City leaders compare the city's housing market to swimming.

“We just got our head above water, we've been drowning, and we just got our head above water,” Smith said.

A potential lifeline was approved by voters in November, the housing bond. With it, the city commission could start land banking, which is just like it sounds.

“Developers have told us the number one obstacle to developing affordable housing in the City of Asheville is land costs,” Smith said.

RELATED | Asheville's loan program for affordable housing projects could change

So, the city would buy costlier land, not snapped up by developers, with the bond and offer it, along with other currently owned city properties, to developers at low prices in exchange they build affordable units.

It's going to cost the community to get it.

“Absolutely, that's happening with the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. It's happening when we repurpose city-owned land. It happens when we do land use incentive grants that are already in place where people get property tax rebates,” Smith said.

Buying land with the hope of a prospective developer can be a gamble. Buncombe County is still holding onto 137 acres on Ferry Road, known as the Deschutes property after the brewery passed on moving into Buncombe County. The city has higher hopes for the Parks and Rec. Maintenance site on Hilliard Avenue.

RELATED | Barriers to building: Why Asheville struggles with affordable housing

“The Deschutes land, it's not in the city. The value wasn't as great. What we saw when we released the Hilliard site, we had a lot of proposals come in,” Smith said.

Next week, the plan to create 60 affordable units on Hilliard will come before the housing and community development meeting for approval.

“I anticipate coming to council in February to have council review and make a determination whether to enter into a partnership with that developer for the development of that property,” Staudinger said.

Brenda Yokes hopes, for her family's sake, the city will persuade more developers to build affordable housing over market rate apartments.

“There has to be somebody out there that's willing to do that,” Yokes said.

The city will reassess property values soon, which will determine how much of a tax increase is needed. Estimates were around $110 a household.

News 13 also looked into a list of 30 plus future projects, some in the pipeline and some just proposed. As much as 85 percent of what's proposed or currently in development are market rate apartments.

You can find the full list here.

If you have something you'd like investigated, email Iteam@wlos.com.

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