Asheville's oldest public housing community slowly losing its tenants

Robert McNaughton and Tara Irby, Lee Walker Heights' site manager, at his flower and vegetable garden in front of the Lee Walker Heights apartment he recently vacated. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

Robert McNaughton came to Asheville on a Greyhound bus.

"Nineteen hours," the 50-year-old McNaughton said.

McNaughton, who said he's struggled his entire adult life, decided it was time to leave the East Coast.

"Friends of mine had heard about Asheville, and I decided to come," he said.

Homeless, McNaughton found help in a city known to embrace the outcast, indigent and less fortunate. After living at the Western Carolina Rescue Mission, McNaughton qualified to move to a modest one-bedroom apartment in Lee Walker Heights.

But, last month, with staff help, he was able to complete the required application and move to a new subsidized apartment building on Eagle Street downtown. The project was years in the making and developed by Mountain Housing Opportunities, which helps low-income residents.

"I love it. I couldn't ask for better," McNaughton said.

McNaughton said his next step is to try and enroll in culinary school to work toward landing a job.

He's one of 27 Lee Walker residents who have moved out voluntarily in recent months. Lee Walker is slated for demolition in early 2019 so the complex can be completely rebuilt. Public housing assistance administrators hope to transition the residents in all 96 units by the end of the year.

The expectation is to have the mortgage on the project approved by summer's end. Local and federal grant dollars will go toward demolition and creation of a new subsidized housing community. The goal is to have rentals for mixed-income residents, including families who qualify for subsidized housing, when the community re-opens in several years.

As for residents still in Lee Walker, each is aware letters could come by the end of this summer stipulating a 90-day mandatory move-out window.

"They're all qualified under Section 8," said Tara Irby, Lee Walker Heights' site manager. "They can actually take their Section 8 status and make it mobile."

Irby helped McNaughton and more than 20 other residents use their vouchers to move. Some have found apartments in private homes using vouchers. Other residents have found apartments in subsidized apartment complexes.

McNaughton said he's grateful to Asheville and caring community members like Irby, who've helped him get back on his feet.

He planted a garden filled with sunflowers, tomatoes, cucumbers and string beans outside the apartment he lived in a year. Although he's moved out, the garden is flourishing.

McNaughton still loves caring for the garden. Since he has no car, McNaughton walks from downtown to Lee Walker Heights nearly every day to keep it watered and pruned. He proudly showed off produce he pulled from vines.

"There you go, there's a monster for ya," he said, showing off a cucumber the size of a bottle. "There are cherry tomatoes on this side. It gives me a beautiful feeling inside, because I didn't necessarily grow it for me. I grew it for whatever tenants are still remaining here. They can help themselves. The only thing I ask is at least let it ripen and let the cucumbers grow."

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