Thousands expected for affordable housing discussions at UNCA

Affordable housing is what several thousand are talking about Thursday and Friday at UNC Asheville. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

Affordable housing remains a critical issue in Asheville and Western North Carolina.

It's what several thousand are talking about Thursday and Friday at UNC Asheville.

The discussion centered on how evictions cause poverty and homelessness.

At the center of the discussion was Princeton sociologist and author Dr. Matthew Desmond, who recently wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Evicted.” Desmond said the circumstances surrounding an eviction are often anything but simple and the effect of an eviction can send a person or family spiraling into poverty.

The housing cases attorney Robin Merrell deals with aren’t easy.

“They can be gut wrenching,” said Merrell.

Merrell understands her clients better than most.

“I've lived in a home without indoor plumbing, I've lived in a home where the chimney caught on fire, I've lived in a home where we didn't have adequate heat in the winter time and that was through no fault of my parents,” said Merrell.

She explained why many continue to live in homes or apartments with substandard conditions.

“They are scared of the court process, they may be intimidated or scared of their landlord,” said Merrell.

In 2016, of the 3,126 Buncombe County Small Claims Court cases, 70 percent were evictions.

“Ten days’ notice, or 20 days through this court process, is not an adequate amount of time for a family to move in a healthy way,” said Merrell.

Where Pisgah Legal Services can help, it has a 93 percent success rate in buying people time to find better living situations.

“Given the tightness in our housing market, the problem is simply exacerbated,” said Merrell.

Asheville's lack of affordable housing is why over the next two days, city and county leaders will be talking about solutions not yet explored,

“We need more units that are affordable, and where are they going to go? And sometimes there's neighborhood resistance, and sometimes there's zoning barriers,” said Jim Barrett, Pisgah Legal Services executive director.

Solutions Desmond raises in his book include greater access to legal help.

“I'm a big fan of that solution, knowing firsthand how well it can work, but he also talks about a universal voucher program and that would be providing every family of a certain income with a housing voucher so they get assistance in paying their rent,” said Merrell.

“The government needs to take steps at all levels to help fund affordable housing, then we can make a difference in the supply of it,” said Barrett.

Discussions won’t end Thursday night. On Friday, city and county leaders from multiple Western North Carolina counties will gather at UNCA to look at other financial perspectives, bringing new players and designs to the table, and how to expand the area inventory.

Still, today, the availability for affordability housing remains less than 1 percent of what's on the market in Western North Carolina.

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